A few months ago, the chief executive of one of the top three brokers called a meeting with some of his senior executives. He wanted to discuss the personable nature of the insurance industry.

What was puzzling him, it seems, was why the industry was so "pally" and worked together as friendly rivals. It was explained that on large risks, particularly marine or energy risks in the Lloyd's and London market, the risk had to be spread among the whole market to be feasibly placed.

Acknowledging the practicalities of the market, he explained that wasn't the point. From his own experience of investment banking, the idea of working closely with competitors was to take them to dinner, befriend them, know their foibles and thus their weaknesses. "Then you annihilate them," he told colleagues.

Could the dark days of the defining 1980s film Wall Street and its anti-hero Gordon Gekko be back? Is Sun Tzu's Art of War back on the bedside tables of City power brokers?

Tracking the news from the big five or six brokers since Christmas, there is definitely something shifting in the collective karma.

Joe Plumeri's rabble-rousing speech at the IIL was about a bullish broker riding the wave of the hard market. Willis will have a shiny new building in a few years and Plumeri expects his shiny new boots to trample over his rivals to world number one.

He, like Marsh and Aon, knows that return on capital has been low. Shareholders are sniffing around and asking if there is "trouble at the top". The brokers must make radical changes.

Aon has started to streamline its UK operations. Capita has picked up probably the largest claims handling contracts in the UK by taking on its miners' compensation business.

Only two years ago bigclaims.com was launched to a huge fanfare and recruitment drive for claims work. Two years later, Aon deems it a non-core activity. It has put Axiom up for sale at £20m, another if not flagship, then reasonable frigate, in its commercial flotilla.

And then last week Capita gained more business in Aon's Health Solutions and Aon Risk Services' personal and group programmes, and chief executive Peter Friend decides to retire and is replaced by Bupa's Joanne Caparn. She pushed Bupa more towards the corporate client base of construction and airlines, while Friend's brief was more trade associations and charities.

Marsh is aggressively pitching for everything that is going. According to market sources, the Olympics, Euro 2004 and major construction contracts across Europe are broked by Marsh. Chief executive Bruce Carnegie-Brown has used his charm and influence to get the thumbs up from the CBI on its EL proposals.

But Marsh wants to go it alone. In doing so it may miss a trick. For weeks the rumours of a major acquisition in the broking community have appeared. Venture capitalist KKR distancing itself from Willis means that an acquisition could be ripe, while bubbling under the surface is Jardine Lloyd Thompson. Good results, good prospects. It may swoop on one of its smaller buddies such as Heath Lambert or rifle through the offers at the Aon sales.

Heed the words of Machiavelli's The Prince. To paraphrase: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer still.

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