Blackhurst's diary - In which our diarist waits out Virgin Rail, asks why computer giants are loath to chip in, frets over privatised arms development and laments the shrinking pizza.
RAILROADED ON TO THE 6:35
I have to travel from London to Cumbria for a family funeral. My secretary rings Virgin Rail. A second-class return on the 5.35pm from Euston costs £135. (First class is £185.) I ask her to ring back to find out if other trains are cheaper. The 6.35pm costs £44. Simply by waiting an hour, I save a not-to-be-sneered at £91. There is no difference in service and both take the same amount of time. No prizes for guessing which train I take. Not surprisingly, the 6.35 is uncomfortably crowded. My experience forces me to ask: is Richard Branson mad?
A CASE OF INSUFFICIENT MEMORY
Shaming news from Manchester where the world's computer giants are snubbing an attempt to erect a bronze statue in memory of Alan Turing, genius inventor of the computer. The Alan Turing Memorial Fund (patron: Sir Derek Jacobi, who played Turing in Breaking the Code, the TV drama about the cracking of coded Nazi messages at Bletchley Park during the war) needs £55,000 for the sculpture to be sited close to Manchester University science buildings.
So far, however, only £500 has been received, mostly in odd fivers from the public. The likes of Microsoft, Apple and IBM, who, it can reasonably be argued, owe their vast fortunes to Turing's genius, have yet to cough up a penny.
TIM BELL BACK IN COMPETITION
Once the Tories' PR darling and widely expected to disappear without trace under Labour, Tim (now Lord) Bell continues to confound the pundits. Even by his standards, his latest brief takes some beating. No sooner does the new Competition Commission set up shop than it decides to examine the way it communicates its activities to the public. Fair enough. What has raised eyebrows, however, is that rather than carry out itself what should be a relatively easy exercise, the Commission puts it out to tender, and it is duly awarded to Lord Bell's PR agency, Bell Pottinger Good Relations. According to one senior lobbyist pal, it is unheard of for a PR agency to get so close to such a sensitive and powerful body. Even in Baroness Thatcher's day, he mutters, Bell did not enjoy that degree of access. The fact that Bell employs Dave Hill, Labour's former communications chief, must be entirely coincidental.
ARMS MAKERS ON THE DEFENSIVE
Senior executives of British Aerospace and GEC were taken aback when they went for what they thought was a routine chat with George Robertson, the defence secretary. They were asked what they thought of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA). Employing 12,000 people at 47 laboratories across Britain, the top secret agency comes up with weapons systems for the armed forces. Imagine the surprise of the corporate top brass when Robertson went on to say the Government wanted to privatise it. The public can console themselves that the agency's chemical and biological laboratories at Porton Down are not for sale, but the defence giants are worrying themselves sick over the thought of a commercial company testing and evaluating their products.
TWO SIDES OF A MYSTERY MAN
To lunch with Michael Ashcroft, the ADT multi-millionaire and the Tories' chief fundraiser. We talk about a lot of things and dwell at great length on the state of the party and his sponsorship of good works, namely the City Technical Colleges (which Labour had said it would shut down - but then didn't) and the Crimestoppers crime-busting hotline (which Jack Straw seems to like). The precise size of his personal donation to the Tories is not something the enigmatic and wary Ashcroft wants to talk about.
Neither do we dwell for long on Ashcroft's colourful business history or his life as a tax exile or his extensive interests in the South American state of Belize - or his desire, I assume, to receive a peerage in this country. Not long after, it is reported he has been proposed for a peerage by the Tories but turned down by the committee which vets such things.
Clearly, the public good works are not enough. Maybe it is time for Ashcroft to be more forthcoming about his private side.
THE DEEPEST CUT
Luke Johnson (son of journalist Paul Johnson) has left the board of PizzaExpress, after six years with the company and plans to spend time building up his other restaurant chain, Belgo. While he has been lavished with praise for expanding PizzaExpress from 65 outlets to more than 200, there is no mention made of another technique of boosting profits: reducing the size of the pizzas.