Royal Mail: The rescue is in the post
The full transcript of George Parker's interview with Peter Mandelson begins like this...
"Do you want to start by paying tribute to Michael Jackson, Peter? Everyone else seems to be doing that."
"I'm not absolutely sure who Michael Jackson is. Is he the...he's called Jacko, isn't he?"
No comment required on any of that. So let's move straight to what the first secretary told the FT's political editor about his cherished and controversial plans to sell a stake in Royal Mail to the private sector.
Here's what Mandelson said:
"I'm being jostled by other bids for the remaining legislative days in the Commons before the summer."
What he's saying here is that his plan to legislate before the summer recess for the partial privatisation of Royal Mail is being put in jeopardy by the alleged demands for parliamentary time for other bills.
Hmmm. Many would feel that a minister with Mandelson's conspicuous authority would have been able capture a bit of parliamentary capacity were it urgent to do so.
Which is probably why he elaborates:
"[T]he main issue...is the unfavourable market conditions for an equity sale".
And he puts it more starkly a little further on:
"[W]e have not had the successful bidding process that we envisaged accompanying the passage of the legislation through Parliament".
In other words, the auction of a stake in Royal Mail has been a flop. There's been just one bidder, CVC Capital Partners, whose initial offer is seen by the government as undervaluing Royal Mail's long term prospects.
Now it's something of a mystery why Mandelson - who's savvier about markets than most ministers - was ever persuaded that it was a cracking idea to auction such a substantial asset when the availability of credit has rather dried up (not a great secret this) and when the global economy is suffering its worst recession since the 1930s.
Something of a longshot-kicked-the-bucket wager that one.
So those who oppose bringing the private sector into Royal Mail have acquired a few more months (at least) to persuade Mandelson and Gordon Brown to drop the partial privatisation in a definitive sense (which the first secretary insists he hasn't done).
None of which really matters to Royal Mail's directors, who are agnostic about whether the likes of the private-equity firm CVC should be brought in as a so-called partner.
What will have horrified them was something else uttered by the first minister:
"The government remains of the view that implementing all three main recommendations of the Hooper review is the right way to go for Royal Mail, and these are a package: reform of regulation, bale [sic] out of the pension fund deficit and...introducing the minority strategic partner. We will not do one of these without the others."
In other words, the things that Royal Mail's management really wants - regulation that takes more account of the competitive pressures its faces from e-mails and the internet, and removal from its balance sheet of its crippling pension-fund deficit - will not happen till market and parliamentary conditions allow a partial privatisation.
Grown men will be weeping in Royal Mail's boardroom, because it's now highly likely that two life-or-death uncertainties about its future will not be resolved till after the election.
Which will damage its ability to make basic business decisions.
And, in respect of the pension problem, there may have to be a last-minute scramble to avoid financial disaster.
Having launched a formal revaluation of the fund in April, Royal Mail has till the summer of 2010 to agree a formal repayment plan for a deficit that's expected to emerge at a company-crushing £10bn. The 15-month timetable is apparently a legal requirement.
So the way it looks today, the victor in next year's general election will have just a few weeks to negotiate how to protect the retirement savings of tens of thousands of Royal Mail employees and also lift a pensions liability from the business that would by now have bankrupted any private-sector company.
Call it Mandelson's gift to his successor (which could, in theory, be himself).