A welcome U-turn from Osborne as he gets tougher on the banks

The Chancellor backs down and announces that regulators will have the power to break up banks that try to evade new rules.

It isn't often that we have cause to praise George Osborne here at The Staggers but today is one of those rare occasions. Having previously resisted calls from MPs for the government to toughen up its proposed banking reforms, the Chancellor has now decided that regulators will, after all, have the power to break up the banks if they try to evade new rules aimed at ensuring they are no longer too big to fail. The ring-fence separating their retail and investment arms will be "electrified" (one might call it the "Jurassic Park solution"). 

Osborne is giving a speech at 10:30am at JP Morgan's office in Bournemouth (yes, bankers do exist outside of London, is the message from his choice of venue) and will say: 

My message to the banks is clear: if a bank flouts the rules, the regulator and the Treasury will have the power to break it up altogether - full separation, not just ring fence.

He will add:

We’re not going to repeat the mistakes of the past. In America and elsewhere, banks found ways to get around the rules.

Greed overcame good governance. We could see that again – so we are going to arm ourselves in advance. We will electrify the ring fence

Proving that, like the Bourbon kings of France, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, the banks have hit back at Osborne, accusing him of creating "uncertainty for investors" (and more certainty for the rest of us?)

Anthony Browne, the head of the British Bankers' Association (formerly Boris Johnson's economic policy director and the director of Policy Exchange) said: "This will create uncertainty for investors, making it more difficult for banks to raise capital which will ultimately mean that banks will have less money to lend to businesses.

"What banks and business need is regulatory certainty so that banks can get on with what they want to do, which is help the economy grow. This decision will damage London’s attractiveness as a global financial centre."

Labour has responded more favourably to Osborne's move, describing it as a "partial climb down", but also raising two major concerns. First, that the new power to break up the banks will only apply to those that misbehave under the new criteria, rather than across the board. Second, that Osborne is planning to introduce a cap on leverage set at 33 times banks' capital, rather than the tougher 25-times limit proposed by the Vickers report.

Shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie said: "If the reports are correct and the Chancellor is planning to stop short on both the backstop powers and legislation for the leverage ratio, then there will be a very real sense in the country that despite all the rhetoric the Chancellor hasn't got the appetite for the radical banking reform we need."

Having already conceded that his original position on ring-fencing was wrong, Osborne will need to address these criticisms in his speech if he's to have any credibility on this issue. 

George Osborne will say in a speech today that "if a bank flouts the rules, the regulator and the Treasury will have the power to break it up". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.