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The Fred Goodwin knighthood row: Mehi Hasan on five things to consider

Don't be distracted by Goodwin; the real issue is bonuses.

1) Let us be under no illusions: Frederick Anderson Goodwin is an awful, awful man who doesn't deserve anyone's sympathy - or pity. I say this not just because, as Alex Brummer points out in today's Mail, "he was he felt able to conduct an extramarital affair with a senior female colleague" and "then hid behind a court injunction until he was found out", but because, by all accounts, he was a terrible, terrible boss to work for. Have a read of the recent book, Masters of Nothing by Tory MPs Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi, which paints an, ahem, unflattering portrait, shall we say, of the power-crazy former RBS boss.

From the Evening Standard:

The book claims Sir Fred, 53, could not control his anger if the wrong type of biscuit was put in the boardroom, and even threatened catering staff with disciplinary action in an email titled "Rogue Biscuits" after executives were offered pink wafers.

RBS staff also "went into panic mode" after a window cleaner fell off a ladder in Sir Fred's office and broke a toy plane, the authors allege.

At dinner functions, an engineer was also kept on standby until the early hours to switch off fire alarms when executives wanted to smoke.

Peter de Vink, managing director of Edinburgh Financial & General Holdings, said bank staff "were absolutely terrified of him".

2) Having acknowledged how bad a boss Goodwin was, and how odious an individual he is, it is, however, worth noting that he has been made a bit of a convenient scapegoat since the crash in 2008. Remember: Goodwin's disastrous decision to pay a total of £71billion for debt-laden Dutch bank ABN Amro in the autumn of 2007, just as the credit crunch took hold, was backed by the RBS board and not prevented or questioned by the regulators. Few financial journalists sounded alarm bells; there was not a peep from Downing Street or the Treasury.

Also, it is often forgotten that the then Barclays boss John Varley had been involved in a bidding war with Goodwin for ABN Amro - which helped drive the price up. Had Barclays, rather than RBS, ended up buying the Dutch bank, Varley might be as reviled and ridiculed today as Fred "the Shred" Goodwin. Instead, Varley retired from his post as chief executive of Barclays in 2010 with his reputation - and his windows - intact.

3) Is it unfair and/or disproportionate to strip Goodwin of his knighthood? The government revealed yesterday that Goodwin's title had been referred to the "forfeiture committee".

Goodwin is not guilty of any crime. The Guardian points out:

Since 1995, the committee has recommended that 34 people, including the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, be stripped of their honours. Honours are normally taken away only if someone has been found guilty of a criminal offence or has been reprimanded by their professional regulator, including a professional register.

But the question is: why wasn't Goodwin investigated or prosecuted? Why weren't bankers arrested and charged with breaking the law, as they drove the economy off a cliff? Why wasn't the Serious Fraud Office brought in at the start of the financial crisis? These are questions that are starting to be posed on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong," said Charles Ferguson, director of the documentary Inside Job, as he accepted his Oscar last year.

"Why have no bankers been arrested?" Jon Snow asked Treasury minister Mark Hoban on Channel 4 News in September 2011. Snow later noted on his blog:

[I]nvestigators on both sides of the Atlantic have had no doubt that criminality, subterfuge, and downright dishonesty accompanied many of the ingredients that brought about the crash. At the very least there was gross dishonesty in the representation of exposure to the sub-prime mortgage business.

...In one month, hundreds of rioters and looters have been prosecuted and punished by the English courts, often for offences with a value of under fifty pounds. Yet the threat to the wellbeing of UKplc was far greater from the bankers than from any number of more arrestable rioters.

There is a strong impression abroad that the UK doesn't want to prosecute anyone for the banking crisis, a crisis that has affected every tax payer in the Kingdom.

Soon enough the statute of limitations will kick in to ensure that no-one will ever be prosecuted for their role.

4) If Ed Miliband is looking to apologise for things Labour did wrong in its 13 years of office, in order to win back public trust, he could start by saying sorry for the party's indulgence of all the top bankers in the City, not just "Fred the Shred". According to an investigation by the Daily Mail in 2009:

Labour has given 23 bankers honours, brought three into the Government as ministers and involved 37 in commissions and advisory bodies.

In today's Independent, John Kampfner reminds us of how deferential to, and in awe of, the City, Labour's leaders were:

It is salutary at moments like these, with David Cameron opining about the miscreant behaviour of Fred Goodwin and his like, to recall a speech given by Gordon Brown. It was delivered in April 2004, as he was trying to oust Tony Blair. "I would like to pay tribute to the contribution you and your company make to the prosperity of Britain," the then Chancellor declared. He was opening the European headquarters, in London's Canary Wharf, of Lehman Brothers, the bank that later went down the Swanee, almost taking with it the entire financial system. Talking of "greatness", Brown added: "During its 150-year history, Lehman Brothers has always been an innovator, financing new ideas and inventions before many others even began to realise their potential."

5) The shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, among others, is right to warn that Cameron and co must not be allowed to use a story about the former RBS chief executive to distract attention from the current RBS chief executive, Stephen Hester, and reports that he is in line to receive a £1.5m bonus - despite the RBS share price having halved over the last year. This is the real test for Cameron - not whether he strips Goodwin of his title but whether he has the power and resolve to deny Hester his ludicrous bonus

Channel 4 News's Gary Gibbon asks on his blog:

Is going for Sir Fred a decoy for bonus row?

I suspect it is. The real issue is bank bonuses: despite the tough talk, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition has so far failed to stop massive payouts. So don't be distracted by Goodwin; keep your eyes on Hester.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.