Osborne thinks we're a Mac. We're a PC

Our banks don't have a reset button.

I had a Mac well before they were cool. It was fine when it worked, but occasionally it would throw a hissy fit and leave me utterly helpless. Apple clearly knew full-well their machines were prone to problems. Their universal solution was to include a reset button, accessible by forcing a paperclip into a tiny hole on the side of the machine, which would override everything and restart the machine, wiping all your work in the process.

The problems with my Mac were so persistent that I used to keep a paperclip permanently blu-tacked to it.

But of course, Macs are perfect these days, and Apple is unassailable – the kind of business most companies could only dream of becoming.

And at the other end of the scale are the banks. They keep stalling. Every now and then they make worrying noises, and after five years on hold, the Help Desk (John Vickers), says it’s really about time we got a new one.

When George Osborne told us that 2013 would be the year “we reset our banking system”, I couldn’t help but imagine him walking around the impenetrable edifice of the Bank of England wielding a giant paperclip, trying to find the hole. Horrified city workers looking on, saying “I hope I’m not going to lose all my work”.

Yesterday he announced that he wanted to open up the UK banking market to increased competition. No doubt he sees Virgin Money and Metro Bank leading a charge of bright young banks, who will hit the high street with branches that look like the set of Big Brother and staff who look like the cast of Hollyoaks… All very “I’m a Mac”.

I’m sure, or at least I hope, that Osborne knows there is no easy-reach reset button, and no “turn-it-off-and-on-again” fix. I know it’s boring (don’t fall asleep), but the decision to increase competition in the UK banking system is not political or regulatory… It is about IT – it’s about enabling new companies to plug into the payments system.

And trust me, the payments system is not a shiny Mac with handy firewire ports. Our payments infrastructure makes Windows XP look cool. It’s a tangled, home-made mess that looks like the inside of Jackson Pollock’s brain. What forward-thinking, tieless entrepreneur would want to plug into that? Even in these straightened times, there are easier ways of making money, let’s be honest.

The fact is that Metro Bank, which provides customers with free dog biscuits in their branches, is the first new entrant into the UK retail banking industry for over 150 years. They have less than 20 branches, none north of Watford, and there aren’t many behind them in the queue for banking licences. Mobile phone companies are moving into financial services, for sure. But most of them struggle to keep our voicemails secure, and I’m not sure people are ready to let them look after their hard-earned cash.

Has he tried turning it off then turning it on again? Photograph:Getty Images

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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.