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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle