Leafing through a yellowing copy of the Independent, I note that it is 25 years since (pre-Blairite) Labour dubbed the late Monopolies and Mergers Commission a ‘laughing stock’. Again and again the ‘toothless’ watchdog comes down on the side of big business against the consumer, declared the opposition, calling for the commission’s leadership to be sacked.
Anti-trust regulation has morphed more than once since 1994, but this charge has hardly gone away. ‘Trustbusters are too cosy with their industries,’ grumbled free trade bible The Economist recently. ‘Given the profound consequences of a rise in corporate power, this is an unsustainable position and will have to change.’
In Andrew Tyrie, redoubtable former chair of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, the Competition and Markets Authority may have got the right person for the job. It is not just left-leaning types who are a tad more sceptical about the incontestable verities of capitalist progress than they were in 1994; and the former Conservative MP once dubbed the ‘scourge of the banks’ understands this.
Setting out the strategic direction of the CMA last month, Lord Tyrie vowed to be a more active in dealing with abuses of market power as part of a declared endeavour to save capitalism from itself.
‘If we don’t contribute to finding the solution to the demise of trust in markets, we increase the danger of being cast – by populists on the left and right alike – as part of the problem,’ he said. ‘This will put at risk the foundation of an independent competition regime.’
Tyrie’s task would be daunting enough were the CMA principally concerned with taming the runaway technology giants. But there is also Brexit, which presages a huge increase in the regulator’s workload at a time when its budget appears ill-equipped to cope. Moreover, will a post-Brexit UK piloted by an aggressive freemarketeer in Number 10 (the most likely scenario) prioritise the resourcing and profile of an agency viewed by some as a drag on markets?
Perhaps. As Tyrie contends, the existing framework is not only letting down consumers but also those businesses – the vast majority – that compete fairly and play by the rules.