Hester's bonus decision is a victory for Ed Miliband

It was Labour's plan to hold a Commons vote that forced the RBS chief to give up his £1m bonus.

It was Labour's plan to hold a Commons vote that forced the RBS chief to give up his £1m bonus.{C}

Explaining Stephen Hester's decision to waive his £1m bonus, RBS was clear that one man was responsible: Ed Miliband. It was Miliband's plan to force a Commons vote on the issue that prompted Hester's announcement last night. As one RBS director put it to the BBC's Robert Peston, it would have been "untenable" for a semi-nationalised bank to defy the will of parliament. Miliband probably would have preferred the row to continue for another week but this is still a significant victory for him. Like his intervention over the BSkyB deal, it is further evidence of his willingness to take on "vested interests".

For the coalition, which badly mishandled the issue, Hester's decision will come as a relief. It deprives Labour of an opportunity to inflict further damage on a dithering government. But the saga doesn't end here. Most bonuses are yet to be announced and Labour's intervention sets a significant precedent. As Faisal Islam pointed out, the logic of the party's position is that no one at RBS should receive a bonus of £1m. But around a hundred bankers pocketed that amount or more in 2010. Will Labour now scrutinise RBS pay more widely? The answer from Chuka Umunna on the Today programme this morning was "yes". He argued that RBS staff "like other public sector workers" should have their pay squeezed and promised to look at salaries "across the board".

But speaking for the government, William Hague sounded a cautionary note. He warned that politicians were not qualified to comment on "individual decisions" and the "day-to-day running of the banks". Then again, pointing to David Cameron's decision to ban cash bonuses above £2,000, he declared: "if we need to do more, we will do more." With RBS now likely to remain a state-owned institution until 2015 and beyond, both Labour and the Tories will have to think hard about how they ensure its pay is seen as fair in the eyes of the public. The government has every interest in avoiding a repeat of the furore next January.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.