Politicians, as we know, are past masters of fudge. All the same, the studied disingenuousness with which the present Government is preparing us all for the reappointment of Camelot to the National Lottery licence has to be admired. In its way, it’s masterly.
Consider the problem. From a technical perspective Camelot has done an excellent job. It would be churlish to mention the scratchcards fiasco in the context of the wider achievement of a highly successful brand. One which has racked up a profit of more than &£250m during the past five years, will have contributed over &£11bn to good causes by the end of its term, and yet has created an almost fault-free operation.
Fault-free, of course, in a technical sense. Camelot’s cack-handedness on the PR front hardly needs rehearsing. It has done well to lie low in the two years since the fat cats scandal and the unsavoury Guy Snowden affair. But lying low is not enough, and the extensive entertainment laid on by Tim Holley and other senior Camelot executives at last week’s Labour Party conference is a small but telling indication that the Lottery licensee knows it.
They should not worry excessively. While the Blair administration will find it awkward to swallow all those nasty things they said about Camelot, they also know there is little realistic alternative. Littlewoods, formerly considered a strong contender, has recently ruled itself out. In effect, that leaves a Branson consortium. The Government will doubtless welcome Branson’s participation in public, if for no other reason than that it promotes the idea of fair-minded competition.
But how fair will it be in reality? True, Branson enjoys a popularity far in excess of anything Camelot can aspire to. Yet he suffers from a number of tacit disadvantages. To begin with, a lack of relevant experience, which is painfully underlined by his unswerving commitment to a ‘without profits’ operating scheme. This, though it may sound attractive to financially unsophisticated Labour backbenchers, has still to prove itself as an efficient generator of funds compared with the nakedly capitalist system so successfully operated by Camelot these past five years.
Then there’s the small print. Last week, the National Lottery Commission published a draft ‘Invitation to Apply’ document, which outlines the conditions that bidders must fulfil to win the licence. In it, there is a stipulation that all suppliers to the bidding consortium must be included in the bid. Which goes completely against the grain of Branson’s known preference for cherry-picking the best available suppliers after the event.
One of these, of course, is Gtech – firmly on board with Camelot. Another, presumably, is the Post Office. But then, as we know, Camelot snapped the Post Office up in August.
We should not, of course, forget another possible piece of fudge. When the Commission decides, it could split the licence – giving Branson the ailing scratchcard operation. But even with his renowned marketing skills, would he really want it?