Osborne should nationalise RBS, but he won't

Cabinet ministers are reportedly pushing for the full nationalisation of RBS.

Back in the halcyon days of May 2010, George Osborne probably hoped to use the government's RBS shares as the basis for a pre-election giveaway. Now, he'd be lucky not to make a loss. Based on current trading conditions, the Treasury has already conceded that the chances of a sale of taxpayers’ shares before 2015 are "virtually nil". Indeed, so much has changed that the government is now considering the reverse: buying more shares in RBS.

Today's FT reports that senior government figures are discussing the possibility of "fully nationalising" the bank amid frustration at the paucity of lending to British businesses. Acquiring the 18 per cent of RBS that it does not already own would allow the government to direct the bank to increase its lending to companies without fear of legal challenge from the remaining private shareholders. One official tells the paper: "This is a conversation that takes place all the time."

Though he is not named in the report, it's safe to assume that Vince Cable is one of those leading the charge. It was the Business Secretary who recently accused the banks of "throttling the recovery" by failing to lend to small businesses and who called for part of RBS to be converted into a National Investment Bank. But Osborne, the man who voted against the nationalisation of Northern Rock, is unsurprisingly opposed. In a statement, the Treasury said:

We are committed to repairing and returning RBS to full health so that it is able to support the UK economy in the future, and the current strategy is working to achieve that. The government’s policy has always been to return RBS to the private sector, but only when it delivers value for money for the taxpayer.

With the economy now in a deep recession, the nationalisation of RBS is exactly the sort of game-changer the government should pursue. But Osborne's ideological preference for the private sector will, one suspects, again prevent a necessary step towards recovery.

Update: My colleague Rafael Behr suggests another reason why Osborne is opposed to nationalisation: "Nowhere to hide in bonus season when it is 'state bank' paying out."

Cabinet ministers are discussing the possibility of taking full control of RBS. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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