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Business Comment

Simon English: Who was to blame for the horrendous mismatch of Co-op and Britannia?

Outlook The press release was effusive. Britannia and Co-op Financial Services "unveil plans for super-mutual". The merger was to create "a unique" (that's always a worrying word), "ethical" (ditto), alternative to the nasty big banks.

That was in January 2009. The outcome four years later is a complete shambles, from which no one emerges with credit, not least CFS. Its credit rating has been slashed to junk status, the chief executive Barry Tootell has been allowed to spend more time with his family, and serious questions remain about the future of the company.

It will survive, we assume, but at what price?

In retrospect it seems clear that this deal was the mutual world's equivalent of the merger of HBOS and Lloyds. One was a prudently run outfit, the other a growth-obsessed, hard-charging affair that operated on the basis that the housing market would never run out of steam, that there would never be another recession.

The City trader expression for what happened next goes like this: if you merge ice-cream and horse manure, you get horse manure.

The Britannia loaded on to the Co-op all sorts of bad debts and other nasties that it didn't deserve, giving the lie to the notion that building societies avoided the worst excesses of the bad banks in the run-up to the credit crunch.

The architects of the HBOS deal have since been hounded by the press and forced to say sorry. Perhaps the folk behind the Britannia deal should suffer similarly.

Who was to blame for this awful merger? Well, no banker in Britain is actually to blame for anything. You can be assured of this if you ask them.

But let's return to that 2009 press release, and remind ourselves who was so keen to have their name in lights trumpeting this merger.

Here we have Britannia's chief executive, Neville Richardson, who later left with a multimillion-pound pay-off, bragging that the deal "offers a unique opportunity" (that word again) "to create a new force in British financial services".

Mr Richardson was last year appointed to the board of the construction company Seddon, whose chairman, Rod Sellers, says: "Neville brings exceptional strategic and financial expertise." He is also on the board of Marks & Spencer Financial Services and a member of the board of governors of the University of Manchester.

Britannia's chairman, Rodney Baker-Bates, banged on about "a strong, fair and ethical alternative". His opposite number at the Co-op, Bob Burlton, talked of "momentum within the co-operative and mutual sector".

No one can now say he was wrong about the momentum, though the direction was not as he intended.

CFS's chief executive, David Anderson, left as the deal emerged – what did he know? – but still felt able to comment on his way out that mutuals had "never been more relevant", that "people have been crying out for a new way of doing business".

Which City bankers, you are now asking, advised the Co-op on this horrendous merger? Tim Wise of JPMorgan Cazenove is the name in the frame.

Mr Wise is now chairman of the storied broker, successor to the mighty David Mayhew. Does he feel any culpability for what he helped the Co-op to do? Would he like to share it with us?

Mr Wise, those awful profiles of business people point out, is a "cricket fan and keen cook". Jolly good. Would he agree that it would have been better for Co-op members had he been busy doing a catering shift at Lord's when this deal was being engineered?

Meanwhile, sniffy remarks are being made about the non-bankers on the Co-op's board, as though this plan were their idea.

Oh, and just an aside: The public relations for this catastrophe – both sides – was done by Brunswick. Of course it was.