Tremonti may be troublesome

Politics hath no fury like a finance minister scorned. So it was with Germany's Oskar Lafontaine, kicked out by chancellor Gerhard Schröder, in 1999 and today the scourge of his ruling Social Democrats. Now Italy's Giulio Tremonti may follow suit.

Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi sacrificed Tremonti in July after a stab in the back from Gianfranco Fini, deputy prime minister in his centre-right coalition.

It was in any event a hard decision for Berlusconi, who hates making cabinet changes.

Moreover, Tremonti had played an invaluable role in stabilising the coalition by staying on the best of terms with Umberto Bossi, the rambunctious Northern League leader who has regularly threatened to pull his party out of the government.

Observer's person in the piazza says Tremonti is quietly preparing a return to the political limelight, using his friendship with Bossi as a platform.

National elections are due in Italy by May 2006. The word is that Tremonti may align himself with Bossi in what would be a new rightist alliance in the north of the country.

Tremonti was a loyal lieutenant in Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, so no one is - yet - suggesting that he's out to harm the prime minister.

Rather, Tremonti's apparent target is Fini, who has long-term ambitions to replace Berlusconi as leader of the centre-right.

Book your tickets now to watch the Tremonti vs Fini rematch.

Zalm in a jam

It helps to have a sense of humour if you are a eurozone finance minister these days.

The Netherlands' jocular Gerrit Zalm made light of his late arrival at a bash in Amsterdam yesterday to debate the "successes, lessons and challenges" of five years of the euro.

Zalm was held up by heavy traffic on the motorway from The Hague. "It is a sign of growing economic activity," he quipped.

Few other speakers dwelt on the sclerotic growth or stubbornly high unemployment endured in the eurozone since the introduction of the single currency. Instead, there was much back-slapping about the taming of inflation.

Wim Duisenberg, the European Central Bank's first ECB president, shambled out of retirement to proclaim that "the euro has been a success from the start".

He has ended his purdah and is speaking in Madrid and Toronto in the next few weeks. This follows a trip to Kuala Lumpur last month, where he lectured on "The euro and Asia".

Duisenberg has certainly started clocking up the air miles since joining the board of Air France/KLM in June.

Disarming Arnie

As much as they love him - and they do, even after a year in the job - most Californians think governor Arnold Schwarzenegger should stop talking about foreign-born citizens getting a shot at the presidency.

The latest Field poll shows 60 per cent in the state opposed to the idea of changing the constitution, which allows a run for the White House only by born-in-the-USA candidates.

While attempts to amend the provision are under way in Congress, Schwarzenegger has limited his contribution to suggestions that at least there should be a national debate on the subject. Having heard the opinion of an electorate not exactly famed for its orthodoxy, he can probably guess at the response from the boondock states.

The odd thing is that a large majority said they would not vote for him even if the rules were changed. All the odder because, on the first anniversary of his election, 65 per cent say they think he's doing a good job as governor. This number has not changed since May. And for the first time in three years, a plurality of voters (46 per cent) believe California is heading in the right direction.

The only explanation Observer can suggest for this obstinacy is that Californians want to keep him all for themselves. That's probably fine by the rest of the country.

Sum of knowledge

Tony Blair has long extolled the enriching benefits of introducing private sector expertise and practices into the public service arena.

Sadly, the British prime minister's message does not appear to have reached all parts of government life - as Tristram Jones-Parry, headmaster of one the country's smartest private schools, has learnt.

Faced with the prospect of retirement next year from Westminster School in London, Jones-Parry offered his services to the state sector as a mathematics teacher of 30 years' standing - only to be told he lacked the necessary teaching certificate and thus wasn't eligible. Westminster frequently tops the charts of school examination performance and more of its pupils take maths than at most schools. Elsewhere in UK secondary education, the subject is in decline.

So whether his rebuff was a bit of petty bureaucracy or an anti-elitist reflex, the whole thing doesn't appear to add up.

Lure of Lazard

Lazard raised the eyebrows of investment bankers when it made about 10 of its rivals promise not to poach any Lazard staff if they want to underwrite its initial public offering. But, it turns out, this is a case of "do as I say, not as I do".

When Lazard was advising Oppenheimer & Company on its sale to Mercantile House, a British merchant bank, for $162m (€130m) in 1982, it used the due diligence process to woo many of the Wall Street house's best and brightest.

Leon Levy, former head of Oppenheimer, was so scarred by the episode that he complained about it in The Mind of Wall Street, a book on stock market psychology that he published 20 years later.

He recalled Steve Robert, president of Oppenheimer, telling Felix Rohatyn of Lazard: "It's like a divorce in which your lawyer is sleeping with your wife."

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