Yes, I am comparing the FCA to a reptilian monster

Problems regrow with the new financial services regulator.

Monday’s handover of responsibility for UK financial services regulation from the FSA to the new Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA) had a touch of Hercules’ second labour about it.

For the less classically inclined among you, that’s the one where Hercules lops the head off the Lernaean Hydra, only to find two heads growing back from the stump. And while I don’t intend to be malicious in comparing our new regulators to an aggressive reptilian monster, the multiple heads part at least is quite apt.

Because as well as the obvious duality of the new status quo – the PRA will supervise lenders as an arm of the Bank of England while independent agency the FCA will concentrate on ensuring good behaviour among the same pool of companies – there’s also a serious split in priorities for the new bodies.

Commenting on this week’s changing of the guard in finance, the FT’s Brooke Masters called the sector that the FCA and PRA were opening their doors to “reviled and weary” – two well chosen words.

Reviled because, as was pointed out in a report by KPMG last week. reputational issues and the restoration of consumer trust are set to be the biggest challenges faced by lenders in the months and years to come. After all, it was disappointment over the old FSA’s failure to avert the boom and bust of the late 2000s that led to George Osborne announcing the new regime back in 2010.

Weary because, having experienced a more severe drubbing in 2008 than most of the world’s financial centres, and with a UK economy still barely hovering beyond the grip of recession, financial institutions of all kinds are desperate for room to grow.

On the one hand, the new regulators have consumers (and those who rely on their votes) expecting a bloody-knuckled champion, and banks begging for a pair of watchdogs that won’t drown them in twin torrents of red tape.

The situation is summarised nicely on the FCA’s home page, where a photograph of a woman on a British high street, captioned “Making sure consumers get a fair deal” sits alongside an image of a confident-looking businessman, captioned “Making markets work well”. The consumer and the businessman are facing in different directions.  

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.