A friend reminds me that she sold her house last summer because I warned her 18 months ago that Brexit chaos would loom over every aspect of life by the beginning of 2019. I got that horribly right, and I was right too that the dismissive attitude of Westminster politicians towards the Irish border problem — call it ‘the Barnier trap’ if you prefer, but I can tell you I heard grown-up Irish voices trying in vain to alert UK ministers as long ago as September 2016 — would come back to baulk the entire negotiation.
But would I care to make any sort of prediction for the three months ahead? No, I wouldn’t. I have no idea whether we’re heading for an anti-climax akin to ‘Y2K’, the false fear that the world’s computers would shut down at the stroke of millennium midnight; or a short-term disruption like the fuel tanker protest in 2000; or a strife-torn seven-year winter straight out of Game of Thrones.
Then again, we might be in for a pleasant surprise more like the recovery that gradually gathered momentum after Black Wednesday in 1992, when the pound plunged out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. I have no inkling which of these scenarios is most likely, and anyone who tells you he has is a fool or a charlatan. I’ll stick my neck out only so far as to say that things are bound to get worse before they get better.
Tired of shopping?
That forecast, such as it is, applies most obviously to continuing bloodshed in the high street — a trend that can only peripherally be blamed on Brexit. UK wages have been rising ahead of inflation while interest rates have barely twitched: consumers still have spending power but are tired and nervous of spending. Christmas shopping footfall was 3 per cent down on 2017, its third consecutive annual decline. The collapse of HMV told us nothing new, since the music chain was already past its time; but a profit warning from Asos, the online fashion retailer, was more telling. Data from the insolvency firm Begbies Traynor said that more than 30,000 retailers were in ‘financial distress’ before Christmas — and 8,500 of those were online.
It turns out this story isn’t just about bricks and mortar. Shoppers are overwhelmed with choice, while discounters cannibalise each other. Smart operators continue to prosper: Next bucks the trend, and the online grocer Ocado is the darling of a stock market sector in which others such as Debenhams, Morrisons and Marks & Spencer have become targets for short-sellers. Failing store chains and a wipe-out of nothing-special online sellers will be a constant theme of 2019 — and a dampener on national spirits, whatever else transpires.
Knights on top
Did you notice that Knights Bachelor still lead the New Year Honours List, leaving female counterparts in the DBE category way down below the Gilbertian chorus of the Order of the Bath and the Royal Victorian Medal? Something should be done about that, lest anyone thinks Dames Jayne-Anne Gadhia (former boss of Virgin Money), Ann Gloag (doyenne of Scottish transport) and Alison Nimmo (chief executive of the Crown Estate, the far-sighted property business that funds the monarchy) less worthy than the knights on top, which they’re not.
Mind you, these days it’s a lot easier for a feisty businesswoman to acquire a handle than a pin-striped chap. The financial sector being forever in the doghouse, only two of its denizens made the cut this time, both having laboured long for recognition. James Leigh-Pemberton manages the Treasury’s interest in RBS and the remnants of Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley; Donald Brydon is the veteran chairman of the London Stock Exchange who will finally retire in May, at 74. What with the botched departure of former chief executive Xavier Rolet, the controversial listing of the Russian aluminium giant EN+ and the threatened exile of Unilever from the FTSE 100, the LSE has had a bad press these past couple of years. But Brydon — one of my own City bosses long ago and a survivor of many battles since — deserves a gong for stamina.
Win-win for NatWest
High-street forebodings bring me back to one of my bugbears of 2018: the former NatWest branch that has stood abandoned in my Yorkshire town of Helmsley for almost four years. In November I contacted Ross McEwan, chief executive of Natwest’s parent RBS, and was promised an explanation: not a word since. A further 197 NatWest branches were due to close last year; Helmsley’s is one of many adding to the shopfront blight. A clutch are for sale through a property firm called GVA, but the proceeds would be a drop in the bank’s bucket. Since RBS is still two-thirds owned by you and me as taxpayers, however, so are those empty buildings — and here’s my suggestion for McEwan and Leigh-Pemberton: transfer them all into a social-enterprise charity with a mission to find new community purposes, creating a boost for town centres and some feelgood for your brand. A scheme on these lines was recently discussed in the House of Lords — and I say it’s a win-win idea.
My Christmas lament for the ‘lost City’ struck a chord. Several of you emailed to tell me where authentic whiffs of the 1970s Square Mile, minus the cigarette smoke, can still be found. Favourites include the Lamb Tavern in Leadenhall Market, the Wine Lodge in Fenchurch Street (‘the racing’s on permanently’) and — for the dwindling tribe of money market men not yet replaced by algorithms — the Hatchet in Cannon Street or the Old Doctor Butler’s Head off Moorgate. Meanwhile, London’s oldest chophouse, Simpson’s Tavern off Cornhill, still conjures a faint whiff of the 1750s. More suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. A pub crawl might cheer us up.