Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Saturday, 21 February 2009

'War of words' over car claims

By Andy Moore
BBC News


A war of words has broken out between the government and the Unite union over Tony Woodley's claims that a British car plant is in imminent danger of closure.

The bottom line for Business Secretary Lord Mandelson seems to be that careless talk can cost jobs. Behind the public pronouncements of both sides is the shadowy world of briefing.

Whitehall sources say Mr Woodley may be "bluffing" in a bid to squeeze cash out of the government as soon as possible. One report in The Daily Telegraph even said the union had "invented" the story. For its part, union sources are defending their leader, saying he stands by his comments.

Meanwhile, in the bizarre guessing-game sparked by Mr Woodley's comments, nobody is any closer to knowing which company he was referring to. All the big manufacturers have denied they are about to close a plant, but that doesn't stop the speculation.

General Motors' woes

In recent months most British car companies have announced extended shut-downs and reduced working weeks in a bid to ride-out the downturn.

Most attention in the news media has focussed on Vauxhall - the British arm of General Motors - which employs about 5,000 people in the UK.

Even before Mr Woodley made his comments, there was newspaper speculation that Vauxhall's Ellesmere Port plant - home of the Astra - might have to close.

But a spokesman for Vauxhall told me - categorically - that there were no plans to shut the factory.

General Motors is a vast motor empire in deep trouble. It employs about a quarter of a million people around the world. Less than 2% of its workforce is in the UK. Earlier this week it published a 900 page document on how it intended to deal with its current problems. Vauxhall UK wasn't mentioned once.

In Germany, GM's Opel subsidiary is seeking Government help. In Sweden, the government is facing great pressure to bail out the GM subsidiary, Saab. So far, it has resisted the pressure.

GM seems keen to offload the outposts of its empire. National governments may have to step in with large sums of money to pick up the pieces. A united European approach is taking second place to rapid local decisions made in the interests of individual nations.

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