Saturday 6 October 2012

Why do people do silly things?

A few weeks ago there were two announcements which had big implications for the companies involved and in different ways for the UK economy.

One was about the West Coast rail franchise, taking it from Virgin trains and giving it to First Group.

The second was the proposed merger between BAe and EADS.

I heard both when I was listening to he radio. Both instinctively felt wrong; it was obvious they were silly ideas.

For the rail franchise, it was obvious (I speak with experience of the bungles with the East Coast main line franchise) that insufficient weight had been given to the experience of the current operator and too much weight had been given to future promises of a previously unreliable operator. I didn't know just how badly the process had been handled, or how quickly it would unravel, but it was obviously wrong. Why couldn't transport ministers see that? How did they let it happen? It's easy to blame the civil servants who clearly made serious mistakes possibly driven by the fact that Virgin trains had previously negotiated too good a deal. But ultimately the ministers decide. I suppose you get wrapped up in a bubble and there's a limit to how much you can contradict the advice of full time officials. But this was so obviously wrong they shoud not have accepted it. The fact they did means they should not be ministers now.

BAe, given a downturn in defence spending, needs to consider it's strategic direction. But the companyis fundamental to the UK defence structure and its major clients are in the US. Its also a big UK employer. It's surely obvious that a merger with a primarily competitor  over whom the French and German governments have significant influence is going to be very high risk, in the best case, with major implications for UK defence security and for UK jobs. This is one where the Government should simply have said "don't even think about it" when they were sounded out, as they must have been. Yet there's a major lobbying operation which appears to be having some success. If the Government is lucky shareholder pressures may put a stop to the deal. If they don't then the Government belatedly needs to stop it. If not they'll regret it even more than the rail franchise -although by the time the consequences arrive they'll probably be out of office.

But again: why is this not obvious?

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