Three questions 'Chancer' Regan must answer

COMMENT: 'Already Mr Regan's supposed City backers are preparing to distance themselves from the young pretender. If he doesn't move soon, he'll be finished'
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Here are three questions for Andrew "Chancer" Regan, the man who would break up the Co-op. Where's the money going to come from, when, if ever, will he do anything (as opposed to talking about the prospect of doing something), and when, if ever, is the suspension going to be lifted from shares in Lanica Trust, the company ramped up on the back of this grandiose ambition?

The longer Mr Regan persists in refusing to answer these questions, the more his credibility declines. Already his supposed City backers are preparing to distance themselves from the young pretender. If he doesn't move soon, he'll be finished. The Co-operative Wholesale Society's annual meeting approaches and if Mr Regan really intends to take a tilt at the movement, he's presumably going to have to put some kind of resolution to this august assembly of worthy members. Neither Mr Regan nor Galileo, the Lanica subsidiary through which the assault is planned, are members, so he will have to find an ally to do it for him. Is there a traitor among the cloth caps?

And if there is, are members really prepared to abandon the movement to its fate and "raid assets built up over 100 years or more?" as Terry Thomas, managing director of the Co-op Bank asked on Wednesday. Unfortunately for those who want the tradition defended, the answer to this latter question is of course they are, offered enough money. Assuming Mr Regan gets off the starting blocks, the movement will have to do more than appeal to the altruism of members, overflowing though it no doubt is.

If nothing else, Mr Regan has highlighted the huge unlocked potential and value of the Co-op. Hiding behind the Co-op's traditions is no longer an option; the movement must itself begin to think about how to unlock value, shake up management, bring about mergers, and focus the business on areas where its tradition still has something to offer. Indeed, were it not for the fact that Mr Regan is such an incredible bidder, he might have succeeded. As it is, it is hard to see how he's going to get anywhere.

Nobody really knows how serious his backing is but if it stretches no further than the likes of the racist Tory MP, David Evans, then he's in trouble. With the movement rapidly closing ranks against him, he's lost the initiative and with the Labour Party now less than a month away from power, he's almost certainly lost the war as well. Hasn't Mr Regan heard? The 1980s are over.

Why City can ignore those party promises

There was about as much news for the markets in the Labour manifesto yesterday as there was in the Conservative one a day earlier - virtually none. These two important political documents caused not a ripple in the City, where analysts appear to be even more underwhelmed by the election campaign than the population at large. One reason for this is the anodyne nature of the manifestos themselves, Labour's as much as that of the Tories. They are designed not to offend anybody and to be sufficiently vague in their commitments to allow maximum room for manoeuvre while actually in government. Their purpose is an entirely cynical one - to create the right corporate brand image for the political parties and to avoid as far as possible setting out detailed policies that mean something for the economy and business.

There is a more fundamental reason, too. The prospect of a Labour government no longer frightens financial markets not so much because Labour has changed, but because traders know that the markets more than ever hold the upper hand.

If a Labour government - any government, anywhere - introduces policies that increased public sector borrowing unduly or ran excessive risks with inflation, the markets will penalise them promptly with higher long-term interest rates and/or a run on the currency. It has happened often enough that sensible politicians have absorbed the lesson. Macro-economic policies have the same shape across all parties and countries.

Labour could introduce specific policies that will hit particular sectors of the stock market. The windfall tax is the obvious example. A minimum wage might also harm some companies in low-paying service industries like hotels and catering. Furthermore, investors might reasonably conclude that in the longer term a Labour government would be more likely to take the UK into the single European currency. It might, despite its business- friendly new clothing, turn out to be less inclined to deregulate or more inclined to intervene than a Conservative government. But all these are marginal factors as far the markets. are concerned. Now that New Labour has successfully jumped the key hurdle of convincing people it means what it says about fiscal and monetary responsibility, the City will not be unduly concerned about the shade of the next Government.

First there was Porterbrook, then there was Eversholt and now the strange case of Angel Trains. The first two of these rail privatisations were management buyouts, so it was always likely they would eventually enrich directors, even if the speed of the process was unexpectedly swift and the scale excessively large. But the third was a trade sale to the Japanese securities house Nomura. Even so, it now transpires, some of the rewards have rubbed off on the British Rail old guard. Through Prideaux and Associates, John Prideaux, former head of InterCity and one time pretender to the BR chairmanship, in effect owns 5 per cent of Angel. On the basis of deals already struck with Porterbrook and Eversholt, this would make him an extremely wealthy man in the event of Angel being sold.

But it is not the purpose of this piece to pass judgment on the way privatisation has transformed so many former civil servants into wealthy men. Rather it is an old hobby horse - the extraordinary obfuscation of commercial life that present limited disclosure requirements allows to flourish. Corporate and commercial life remains one of the last great bastions of secrecy in an increasingly transparent and open world. As the story opposite shows, it is impossible to tell from the meaningless mumbo jumbo or filed company returns what's been happening here. Mr Prideaux seems to have received some kind of substantial windfall payment from Nomura. How much, and whether it has anything to do with Angel, the records do not show. Then there is the sudden guest appearance as an Angel shareholder of a Gibraltar registered company called Graylands.

These are private transactions and both Mr Prideaux and Nomura are perfectly entitled to refuse explanation. But if even top forensic accountants cannot decipher what's going on here, why is public money being spent on recording all this meaningless gobbledegook. It is fair enough for companies and financiers to hide what they are doing from competitors. All too often the purpose is to avoid tax and hide potentially embarrassing information from the public.