UK: Blackhurst's diary.

UK: Blackhurst's diary. - Blackhurst's diary - What was it about Peter Mandelson that has them still mourning at the DTI, and what's the secret about Tesco boss Terry Leahy's brother.

by CHRIS BLACKHURST, deputy editor of the Express.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Blackhurst's diary - What was it about Peter Mandelson that has them still mourning at the DTI, and what's the secret about Tesco boss Terry Leahy's brother.

Glamour job

It is four months since Peter Mandelson resigned as trade secretary and senior staff in his old department miss him still.

Such affection for an ex-minister, as expressed over dinner with a senior Department of Trade and Industry mandarin, is quite remarkable. When Mandelson resigned, said the senior official, there was a genuine feeling of loss.

Instead of a round of handshakes for a few close personal staff, his leaving was a much bigger affair, attended by civil servants from across the department.

A clearly emotional Mandelson stood as officials, who normally reserve little more than contempt for politicians, sang his praises.

Mandelson was liked and is missed, said my man, because he raised the profile of the department. Suddenly, the DTI was the place to be in Whitehall.

He made it seem glamorous, said the official wistfully. He was admired because he was energetic, he read his briefs, he listened to officials, he had direct access to Number 10, and he was pro-business. But there is another, deeper, reason behind the praise. No department is more uncertain of its future than the DTI. Over the years, mainly thanks to a series of sell-offs, its power has been whittled away. Increasingly, the departments that carry serious clout have been those with big budgets, with the Treasury reigning supreme. This is especially true under a Labour regime where education and welfare go to the heart of the Blair project. When Tony Blair came to power, all the DTI got was Margaret Beckett, said the official dismissively, and she was perceived as old Labour, anti-business and outside the loop. Mandelson was altogether different. Even his plan to reconfigure the DTI as a 'department for Europe', and the Foreign Office as the department for elsewhere, found favour with DTI officials. That, too, would raise their stature, they thought.

Of course, said the official, Mandelson's passing would be easier to bear if Stephen Byers, his successor, had anything like his appeal. But there was little enthusiasm among the DTI rank and file for Byers, he said. The new trade secretary let it be known he wasn't keen on travel, so overseas trade missions are likely to suffer. In contrast to the send-off for Mandelson, Byers' arrival was low-key, announced in his short memo to all staff embracing the competitiveness white paper.

Where's the relish

Whereas Mandelson was comfy in the company of business executives, Byers seems to view them with suspicion. He may be Blairite and a moderniser but he is also a hair-shirt Labour politician who made his name in opposition, questioning lucrative defence deals and cosy Whitehall consultancy arrangements. Undoubtedly a rising star, he is a curious choice for the DTI, a department it is hard to envisage him relishing.

The feeling from his demoralised staff is likely to be mutual.

It is not just civil servants' foreign travel that is likely to suffer under Byers. The new trade secretary has wasted no time in restricting contact between his officials and lobbying firms, a lobbyist moans to me. If a lobbyist is representing a client involved in a deal - and the chances are he is, or he would not be lobbying - DTI officials should not see them. My lobbyist chum wonders how he can do his job. Ministers will rarely see them. MPs, who have little influence anyway under the Blair administration, are reluctant to take up their causes. That left only officials, and now they have gone. So, the next time a lobbying firm promises you the earth, think twice - they may not be able to deliver anything.

Out of mind, out of sight

Terry Leahy is the self-effacing chief executive of Tesco, just about Britain's best retailer at present. For 20 years, he toiled up the Tesco ladder, capping his rise with the introduction of the ground-breaking loyalty card and the Tesco Metro store for townies too busy to cook. While Leahy is passionate about the superstore's contribution to society and dismissive of those who say they have ruined the high street, he has a weapon up his sleeve. Over lunch, he told me that his brother, wait for it, runs a corner shop in his native Liverpool. When Sainsbury's put a store opposite the shop, everyone thought it was curtains for his brother's business. Not a bit of it: the shop has prospered as people pop in to buy the things they have forgotten to buy at Sainsbury's.

Asked for the secret behind the rise of Tesco and its overhaul of Sainsbury's, Leahy trots out the usual stuff: responding to needs of its customers, providing greater range, raising quality. Yes, but how did Tesco really do it? If you really want to know, he says, smiling, it was when Lord McLaurin, the former Tesco supremo who appointed Leahy, decreed that, from then on, Tesco's management was to stop thinking about Sainsbury's.

Suddenly, a great load was lifted and Tesco started to flourish. Instead of aping someone else and chasing shadows, Tesco did its own thing - and the rest is history.

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