The British government is not only playing hardball with the firefighters. It is sending a clear message to business leaders that they should not fall down on the job and then expect to take away a handsome severance and compensation package. On Friday Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, sacked Robin Jeffrey, the executive chairman of British Energy, and warned him publicly that he would have to fight tooth and nail for a penny in compensation. Last year Mr Jeffrey received a £130'000 bonus on top of his salary of £330'000 - even though he must already have known that his company was heading for the trouble which has made it necessary for the Government to bail it out to the tune of £200 million a year for ten years in order to safeguard its nuclear power generating capacity.

There is, of course, a limit to the influence that the Government can have on the pay and benefits of the higher echelons of business. But at a time that the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer are locked into one of the most important battles of the past twenty years for general wage restraint, it is unhelpful, to say the least, that greed and insensitivity to national interest should so frequently be displayed in the boardrooms of the private sector. In particular, there should be no golden handshakes for failure - and Patricia Hewitt is to be commended for the robust public stance she has taken over the departure of Mr Jeffrey from British Energy.