MINISTERS GUILTY OVER BL SALE, SAY DIRECTORS
By David Simpson and James Naughtie
BL’s two main board executive directors yesterday independently criticised the Government behaviour over the groups future. Mr Ray Horrocks, chief executive of Austin Rover cars, told MP’s that he had been disciplined for opposing the sale of his division to the United States company Ford. The commercial vehicle chief executive, Mr David Andrews, told another group of MP’s that the Prime Minister ignored an offer in January from a management consortium to buy Land Rover.
The accusation will provide fresh ammunition for critics of the plan to sell Land Rover to General Motors of the US, carrying implications that senior ministers have been guilty, as in the Westland affair, of direct intervention despite government claims that it has left the BL board alone to negotiate a commercial soloution to its problems.
Tory MP’s fighting for British control of Land Rover were angry that Mr Andrews, leading a belated management buy out attempt, had recieved no reply to a letter sent out in January to Mrs Thatcher expressing interest in bidding for the company.
They interpreted this as evidence that the Governments assertion of even-handedness with prospective bidders was inaccurate. One opponent of the GM deal, Mr Anthony Beaumont-Dark, Conservative MP for Selly Oak, said on Central Television last night that he believed Mr Andrews letter had been “conveniently misplaced”.
Mr John Smith, Labour’s trade and industry spokesman wrote to Mrs Thatcher demanding an explanation and expressing astonishment at the governments failure to reply to Mr Andrews. Downing Street said last night that Mr Andrews letter was recieved on January 22 and passed to the Department of Trade and Industry for a detailed reply the next day. Officials there were still considering it 11 days later when leaked information about the GM negotiations forced Mr Paul Channon, the Trade and Industry Scretary, to disclose in the Commons that talks were in progress.
Mr Horrocks claimed he had effectively been demoted because of his opposition to the plan to sell Austin Rover to Ford. He said that the decision to appoint a full time chairman of BL, Mr Graham Day, over his head, was a reprimand by the Government.
“I had been given reason to believe that I would be made BL chairman”, said Mr Horrocks.
“But I was the person organising the resistance to Ford’s attempts to take over Austin Rover. This was clearly something the government felt very enthusiastic about.” Earlier he had told the trade and industry select committee examining Leyland Vehicles that he believed he had been disciplined. Mr Horrocks said at the end of the formal hearing: “We face a political, not a commercial problem and the politics of ownership appear to be outweighing the responsibilities of ownership to the detriment of the business and a large part of the United Kingdom motor industry. I have been assured by all quarters that the recent appointment does not reflect on my performance as a manager. I must therefore conclude there were other factors at work.”
He made it clear during the committee hearing that if the GM plan to acquire Leyland trucks and Land Rover is to be blocked it will have to be on political grounds. Recommendation of the GM bid is expected to go to Mr Channon next week to allow the Government to agree the sale before Easter. The special ministerial committee monitoring the sale is expected to meet today before the full Cabinet.