A few months ago the government saw a great opportunity in the proposed tanker driver’s strike. The word from No 10 was that the government saw the dispute as a potential “Thatcher moment” when the government rallied the general public around a foe that threatened the economic prosperity of the country and defeated it, just as the Lady had with the miners. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude was duly sent out with the advice that we should all stock up on petrol by filling jerry cans, just as the Thatcher government had stockpiled coal. We all know how it ended.
David Cameron wants a “Thatcher moment” that cuts through to “Worcester woman” or the “pebble-dash people” or “Sierra man” or whatever demographic descriptor the PROs and political strategists have come up with this week, in order to regain the political momentum. He’s been looking in the wrong place.
Much has changed since the long, summer days of 1984. The Public & Commercial Services Union went on strike over outsourcing of jobs last week, did you notice? I suspect not, because three separate tranches of legislation, the Prior Act, the Tebbit Act and the Trades Union Act of 1984 have brought the unions into line, democratised them and left them needing to listen to their members before the shout goes up “everybody out". If they step out of line the penalties can be ferocious, as the miners found out.
Strangely, the prime minister’s “Thatcher moment” appears to be right in front of his face and his government has already done much of what needs to be done. Talk of further inquiries and commissions merely appears to be delaying much-needed action.
If I was advising the PM, I would suggest a simple message along the lines of, “This is my four-point plan for dealing with the bankers.”
1. “We are going to implement the Vickers Commission Report in full with a deadline of 2015 brought forward from 2019.
2. “We are going to implement a UK version of the Volcker rule which prohibits proprietary trading by the banks on their own account. This will ensure that banks are serving their clients and customers not just making money for themselves.
3. “We will beef up the Financial Conduct Authority with enough budget and people to launch investigations into financial malpractice. We will do the same with the Serious Fraud Office.
4. “We intend to ask a senior figure to look into the economic implications of a forced separation, not just a firewall, between retail and investment banking along the lines of the Glass Steagall Act.”
Much of this will go against the PM’s instincts. His late father was a stockbroker, but even he would now surely realise that, to paraphrase former equities broker and author Philip Augar, gentlemanly capitalism has died a death.
There is a great prize to be won. The victor will be the politician who is seen to side with the electorate, the loser will, rightly or wrongly, be perceived to be on the side of vested interests.
Tom Leatherbarrow is head of B2B at Willoughby PR and a registered representative of the Securities & Futures Authority.