BREAKINGVIEWS-Cable's muzzling is Christmas present for banks

Wed Dec 22, 2010 12:12pm GMT

-- The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions -- The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own --

By George Hay

LONDON, Dec 22 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Christmas has come early for Britain's banks. Until now, their yuletide good cheer had been dampened by the threat of serious structural change when the UK's independent commission on banking reports next September. Now the main champion of bank break-ups has himself been weakened.

Vince Cable's power to bash banks can be overstated. Whatever boasts the UK business secretary might make in unguarded remarks to female reporters, his Liberal Democrat party is the junior player in a coalition dominated by the right-wing Conservative party. True, he is deputy chair of a special cabinet committee on banking -- which the commission will report to. But the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne is in charge.

Cable still worries banks. In opposition, he was often a couple of steps ahead of the Labour government, calling for troubled Northern Rock to be nationalised long before others. He has since moderated some of his bank-dismembering rhetoric -- a commitment in the Lib Dem's manifesto to simply break them up has become, in government, the more nuanced view that the structure of banking must be reformed to deal with lenders that are too big to fail. Even so, his real views are likely to be much more radical -- and in tune with popular sentiment -- than his coalition peers.

An untainted Cable would have been a powerful force in 2011

-- whatever the commission concludes. As it is, the coalition -- whatever the commission concludes. As it is, the coalition may now be at pains to distance him. Given that Cable has shown himself to be inappropriately partisan, banks could similarly complain of unacceptable bias if he were involved in any moves to squish their business models.

So the banks might prefer a muzzled Cable in cabinet to an angry one on the back benches of parliament. Part of the reason the British people like Cable is that he is perceived to speak his mind. That appeal is subsiding now he has rallied behind controversial policies such as raising university fees. Had he been sacked, banks would have an articulate and voluble critic with time on his hands and a reinvigorated capacity to say what he thought. For the moment, the banks have him where they want him.

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CONTEXT NEWS

-- Vince Cable, the business secretary, will no longer be in charge of regulating the media after making critical comments about Rupert Murdoch's News Corp empire to undercover reporters.

-- Cable told reporters for the Daily Telegraph that he had "declared war" on Murdoch and intended to block attempts by News Corp to take full control of BSkyB, the BBC reported on Dec. 21.

-- Cable will remain in his post but his comments were disowned by the prime minister's office. "The Prime Minister is clear that Mr Cable's comments were totally unacceptable and inappropriate," it said in a statement.

-- Reuters story: UK minister stripped of media role for Murdoch jibe [ID:nLDE6BK1JN]

RELATED COLUMN

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-- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can -- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can click on [HAY/]

(Editing by Chris Hughes and David Evans)

((george.hay@thomsonreuters.com)) Keywords: BREAKINGVIEWS CABLE/

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