Mr Regan's caper doesn't deserve to succeed

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The Independent Online
I've never met Andrew Regan, the man who wants to break up the Co-op, but my opinion of him soared on hearing that at the ripe old age of 31, he already has a family of five children. Plainly this is not quite the BMW-driving, bimbo on each arm, 1980s stereotype the Co-operative Wholesale Society would like to imagine. Whether this makes Mr Regan any more of a serious or fit and proper player in this increasingly bizarre and farcical escapade is a different matter.

The Co-operative Wholesale Society has been in gentle, and in some parts not so gentle, decline for so long now that it perhaps fully deserves to be thrown to the wolves. Nonetheless, every time Mr Regan suffers a setback, as he undoubtedly did yesterday, I feel an irresistible urge to punch the air in triumph.

This is not just a case of support for the underdog, if indeed the Co- op can fairly be described as that in this battle of the upstart against a 100-year-old tradition. Rather it is to do with a sense of revulsion for what he is trying to do - plunder assets and reserves built up over generations for his own short- term gain and that of his friends in the City. There is a bad smell about this adventure, right down to the news- managed way in which Lanica's various twists and turns are selectively leaked to the media. There appears no substance or purpose behind it, outside money making, and it doesn't deserve to succeed.

Most people would share this view. The calculation that Mr Regan has made is that though we may think of him as an asset stripper and a Mr Nasty, it doesn't really matter. There appear to be no good public policy reasons for stopping him. Even the Labour Party, with its 16 Co-op-sponsored MPs, would be hard pressed to find one. And if the truth be known, many of the CWS's 300 corporate members would dearly like Mr Regan's money. In some cases it would be enough to refinance their businesses.

The audacity of Mr Regan's plan defies belief. But for the Co-op's legal spanner in the works, he would yesterday morning have been unveiling a pounds 1.2bn fully underwritten bid. Buyers have been lined up for all the Co- op's various bits and pieces apart from the insurance business, which would have been left with members as a rump interest. Allied Irish Bank would have bought the Co-op Bank, so as to get round any problem the Bank of England might have had with Mr Regan and his merry men, and there were equally impressive partners waiting in the wings for everything else.

For the time being this grand design is stalled. By court order Mr Regan is prevented from making use of any of the confidential information he might have obtained from his various spies in the movement. Since the bid and its delicately balanced financial structure may have drawn on this information, both his lawyers and his bankers have to tread warily. It may well be that they now cannot proceed until the court order is lifted.

If and when that hurdle is surmounted, there are others that lie waiting just round the bend. The Co-op is accusing two of its senior executives of colluding with Mr Regan and giving him confidential information. Secret meetings in car parks, private eyes, logged telephone calls - intrigue on this scale may be more the stuff of thrillers than the real world, but it is also meat and drink to the courts and casts severe doubt on the integrity of this bid. Certainly Mr Regan's lawyers will want to make absolutely certain that no part of the offer, or the various side deals with partners, is based on stolen information.

This is not the only risk to Mr Regan and his supporters. To date Mr Regan has managed to limit his costs very effectively. But these rise exponentially the moment he pulls the trigger. As a result they may already have risen through the pounds 10m mark, which is quite a gamble for such an uncertain outcome. Even if Mr Regan is right, and it is possible to unlock the Co-op's hidden wealth, there would seem to be a very high possibility of a rival proposal, or of the Co-op doing the exercise itself. Mr Regan may have started the ball rolling, but can he really expect to reap the rewards? I find it hard to believe he can.

What do the Independent's business pages stand for? Given that we have just won the Wincott award as financial journal of the year, I might perhaps be excused a little self-indulgence in attempting to answer this question.

In its ten-and-a-half years on the news stands the Independent has tried to stick broadly to the same set of guiding principles in its business coverage. Someone once described us as Thatcherite economics but with a social conscience. While we wouldn't accept that description in its entirety, it's a reasonable cariciature. Along the way there have been some errors of judgement, as well as some straying from the path of righteousness. But on the whole the approach has been consistently pro-business, pro- free market (in capital and labour), pro-competition and (here's something Mrs Thatcher wouldn't approve of) pro-European.

By the same token we are naturally anti monopoly in all its guises, and anti abuse of commercial and market power. While supportive of British commercial interests, our outlook is essentially international and we don't like Little Englander tendencies.

We believe that on the whole business, enterprise, commerce and markets should have an unfettered ride, that they should be supported in what they do unless there are very good public policy reasons for restricting them. That is not to say that we are sycophantically in favour of everything that business does. We like to think of ourselves as combative and campaigning, and we certainly don't stand in awe of business and the City, or their leaders. Quite a lot of what businesses and markets do is silly, indefensible and destructive. It is part of our purpose to expose humbug, corruption, abuse and other forms of try on when we see it.

Warts and all, however, we believe in the free market system as a force for good, dynamic change, revitalisation and catharsis in society as well as the best method yet discovered for creating wealth. If all this sounds unnervingly like New Labour, let it not be forgotten that the Independent got there long before Tony Blair. Indeed so much of what the Independent stands for on economics and business is now so widely accepted, internationally as well as across the domestic political divide, that there is a perverse inclination to believe it may be time to move on and establish an entirely new agenda. Only kidding. The triumph of the businessman's view of the world in so much of public policy is one of the most striking features of late 20th Century history. In our own small way, we have been a part of that process.

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