James Moore: Branson looking set for a double delight on the railways and at the bank

Outlook: It's consumers who are going to feel the migraine on the West Coast Main Line
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The Independent Online

Adouble win for Sir Richard Branson? It's too early to say right now, but events over the past few days suggest there is a strong possibility that Virgin's banking and transport businesses have cause for optimism.

For consumers, the right results for him would be of more questionable benefit to them. More of a no-score draw, perhaps.

Banking customers probably would benefit if Virgin can beat off the possible private-equity competition for the 300-plus Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) branches that are once again on the block as a result of Banco Santander's decision to abandon the deal, allegedly because of frustration at repeated delays.

RBS would ideally like to move the goalposts and alter what it has to sell, and the time limit it has to operate under. But it would be very surprising if the EU did anything other than tell the bank to get on with it.

Decisions taken since the RBS bailout might indicate that the EU is taking a softer line on questions of state aid. But the regulators will be well aware that retrospectively altering the conditions imposed on any one bailed-out bank would open a can of worms and produce howls of outrage from others which have been similarly penalised across the continent (including Lloyds Banking Group). Having the Treasury going in to bat for RBS might not help much either, given the state of relations between this country and our European partners.

All of which is grist to Virgin's mill, which was an under bidder last time the branches were on the block and will probably be able to get them for much less now than it was offering then.

The result from combining those branches with the good part of Northern Rock that Virgin Money already owns would create a serious competitor to the big banks, a "challenger brand" in bank speak.

Certainly having Virgin's skilful PR men running around poking holes in rival banks, while glossing over any of the company's own failings with a cheeky smile from Sir Richard and a nice day out with the kids for any aggrieved customers, is a headache for the industry. A bigger Virgin with a stronger punch could mean a migraine.

It's consumers who are going to feel the migraine on the West Coast Main Line, whatever the result. As had been expected, yesterday the Government moved to hand Virgin the right to carry on running the franchise while it reheats a tendering process exposed as a sham by Branson's bunch which took the award to its rival, FirstGroup, to a judicial review.

With his typically sharp eye for a PR opportunity, Sir Richard has offered to donate any profits made while this happens to good causes. Which is nice for good causes but customers would probably rather the money be invested in the good cause of getting from A to B for a competitive price with the minimum of fuss.

Unfortunately, while politicians and regulators do seem desirous of improving the customer's situation when it comes to banking, the fare-paying public are at the back of the queue when it comes to trains. It's hard to see there being much difference to them whether Virgin, FirstGroup or even the Fat Controller and his Sodor Rail Company wins the second round of this contest.

Business brains chose Virgin Trains and pay through the nose because they have to.

It's a state-approved, private monopoly, and the customer's voice has never been heard above the noise of the franchsing system by which these are doled out

Second-tier bosses are poor relations of fatcats

The men and one or two women at the top of the second-tier companies that occupy the FTSE 250 are like ill-fed moggies when compared to the fatcats of the FTSE 100.

That, at least, is the conclusion of Deloitte, whose survey of their pay packages is published this morning.

It's found that the median salary increase for executive directors in FTSE 250 companies has remained at 3 per cent, the same as last year. Nearly a third (30 per cent) of companies gave no increase at all while a further 46 per cent offered rises of under 5 per cent.

Annual bonuses are typically capped at 100 per cent of salary, where they have remained for the past five years, while increasing numbers are imposing shareholding requirements on executives and claw back rewards when a company's performance make them look inappropriate.

Of course, as a professional services firm, Deloitte makes good money from advising companies on executive pay.

Such remuneration consultants have been under intense scrutiny recently and so Deloitte has a real interest in showing that it isn't all fat cats and cream in corporate Britain.

Nonetheless, one interesting point made by the survey is that market capitalisation is less of a factor in how much executives are paid in the FTSE 250 than it is in the FTSE 100, where if a company is huge the package that comes with it reflects that.

Why should that be? Perhaps because the smaller the company, the more chance of the handful of people at the top having a meaningful impact on its progress. So a close link to performance makes sense and pays dividends.

At the top of the scale it can much harder to quantify just how much impact a single person can have.

Big company bosses are often so busy running from meeting to meeting that they don't notice quite serious problems developing under their noses.

So they rely on the argument that a big job requires a big salary to attract big talent.

That said "talent" then quite often has little choice but to sit back and hope that the people beneath them and the economy can pull through for them, which is one of the City's dirty little secrets.