Vickers' "electric fence" - are bankers' DIY skills up to it?

Cows, cricket, and dangerous fences.

John Vickers, the man who has laid out the plans for a redesigned  Vickers Report recommended the separation of retail and commercial activities.

Last month, having digested Vickers’ recommendations, the Parliamentary Committee on Banking Standards published its own report, advocating the “electrification” of that ring fence.

Last week, John Vickers appeared in front of the Committee to endorse the proposal. “I welcome anything that reinforces the ring fence and, in particular, I welcome this committee’s proposal to that end,” he said.

“We are now 16 months on from publication of the final report, and nothing has happened in that period which makes me doubt that ring fencing is the right structural ingredient, along with others – loss absorbency and so on – for banking reform in the UK.”

At the time the Vickers Report was published, many in the banking industry were sceptical as to whether a fence could be erected at all. Senior bankers are not known for their DIY skills… And that was before any talk of passing a current through it.

However, the solution has become generally accepted as preferable to the Volker Rule that is currently causing panic on the other side of the pond. In order to avoid similarly draconian measures being adopted here, most bankers are keeping quiet.

But one committee member, Mark Garnier MP, wanted to make sure that Vickers had faith that bankers would resist the temptation to wield the wire cutters. “Is it inevitable that banks will try and test the limits of the ring fences?” he asked. “And is there a commercial advantage in doing so?”

In response, Vickers painted a surprisingly bucolic scene. “I can’t think about this topic without reference to my own experience, in a rural cricket match a long time ago,” he reminisced. “I was on the boundary, and there were cows in the next field.

“I didn’t realise how much power there could be in an electric fence until the ball whizzed past me and I went to get it.

“Having had that experience, I wouldn’t test the boundary. In fact, I’d try and field much closer in.”

A cautionary tale that I’m sure the UK banking industry will give full consideration to. But I have my own electric fence/cricketing anecdote.

At school, our cricket pitch was surrounded by an electric fence to stop errant woodland creatures defecating on the square. It may have been effective in that aim, but did not do a great deal to prevent errant schoolboys from weeing on it. And trust me, despite YouTube evidence to the contrary, it really didn’t do anyone much harm. Indeed, in those pre-mobile, pre-internet days it passed as entertainment.

I guess it really comes down to just how much current you pass down the wire, and whose hands are on the voltage dial. Those are going to be very difficult decisions to make indeed. As admirable as Vickers’ faith in humanity is, most of the investment bankers I know would look at an electric fence as little more than a potential practical joke.

The “electrification” of that ring fence. Photograph: Getty Images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

Getty Images.
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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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