Cable fires a warning shot at the bankers (and Osborne)

Business Secretary attacks the banks as "disingenuous in the extreme" for attempting to delay reform

Vince Cable built his reputation in opposition as the hammer of the bankers, so it's no surprise that he's taken exception to their recent behaviour. In an interview in this morning's Times (£), the Business Secretary criticises the "special pleading" of those banks attempting to use the eurozone crisis to delay structural reform. He declares: "It is disingenuous in the extreme to use the current context to argue against reform. Banks are in a way trying to create a panic around something which they know has got to happen".

While the likes of Angela Knight, the chief executive of the British Bankers' Association, argue that reform should be postponed until the economy has recovered, Cable takes a diametrically opposed position: recovery is impossible without reform. As he argues: "The fact that we continue three years after the 2008 crisis to still have anxieties about big financial institutions is all the more reason for grappling with this issue."

In other words, banks' retail and investment arms must be split, or at least ring-fenced, in order to ensure that institutions are no longer "too big to fail". As Mervyn King recently noted in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, it is the knowledge that the state will bail them out "on the downside" that allows banks to pay their staff such extravagant bonuses.

The context for Cable's intervention is the imminent publication (12 September) of the final Vickers report into banking. The Business Secretary is willing to accept the imposition of a ring-fence between banks' retail and investment divisions (the solution proposed by Vickers' interim report and endorsed by George Osborne in his Mansion House speech) but only on the condition that it can be "as effective as a full separation". But while the banks accept that some kind of structural reform is inevitable, they are prepared to do everything in their power to delay it. The fear among Lib Dems is that Osborne is prepared to appease them. As the FT reported earlier this month, the Chancellor is considering a plan to endorse ring-fencing but give banks until 2019 to implement the changes.

Should Osborne agree to an eight-year delay, he will find himself on a collision course with Cable. The Business Secretary accepts that any changes would require legislation and would not take place immediately. But it's safe to say that 2019 is not the date he has in mind. As Lord Oakeshott, Cable's representative on earth, told the Independent: "The banks are like car-makers who say they cannot afford proper brakes. There is no possible excuse for delay. Every day that goes by with no action on the Vickers report puts the British economy at more risk."

Cable's fear is that the banks view the postponement of reform as a prelude to its abandonment. But should the status quo survive, a repeat of the crash is not just possible but inevitable. The stakes could not be higher. For the sake of the economy, Cable must prevail.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories