Stephen Hester's magical misdirection: defending RBS's £5bn losses and £679m bonuses

RBS has announced losses of over £5.1bn and bonuses of £679m, after being bailed out by the taxpayer. Through Stephen Hester's sleight of hand, we are expected to believe that this has been a “chastening year” for the bank.

There is one essential ingredient to almost every magic trick: misdirection. Dangle something with your left hand, while your right pulls all manner of rabbits, bouquets, bonuses and silk handkerchiefs out of a top hat. Stephen Hester used it truly magnificently today, when he announced that RBS had posted losses of over £5.1bn, while doling out bonuses of £679m. This bonus pool is certainly not the “far lower” figure Treasury minister Danny Alexander had in mind, with commentators having predicted last month that it would be in the region of £250m.

Fret not, however. This figure is very modest, indeed the result of a “chastening year”, Hester argues, in an act that would leave Penn and Teller shaking their heads with bafflement. Modest compared to what? At which question, Hester starts pulling a number of shiny coins from behind our ears.

This figure is very modest, we are told, compared to the bonuses Barclays are expected to announce. Hang on, Stephen. Barclays is a privately owned company which has turned profit for the last couple of years. Your bonuses come directly from the money all of us stumped up to bail RBS out. What else have you got?

Oh, sorry, this figure is modest – punitive even – when you take into account that it has been reduced in order to recoup Libor-related fines to the tune of £300m. One momentito, if you please, Stev-o. Is what you are telling us, essentially, that if we compare it to an even higher and totally fictional figure, the actual figure is lower? Anything else?

This figure is modest when you compare it to last year’s figure of £800m. Sorry to interrupt again, but if one adds the £300m Libor fines, by which you claim to have reduced the bonus pool with the very specific purpose of penalising traders for manipulating the rate, then it would have been bigger than last year’s. Add to that the fact that you have engaged in a programme of redundancy of tens of thousands of employees – reducing the staff in the investment arm alone by roughly a quarter – and this must represent a real increase. Or am I missing something?

It seems that I am. The missing piece of the puzzle, as articulated by Hester, is that RBS needs to remain competitive by offering performance-related bonuses, in order to attract the best people. This includes a very competitive £2m paid to Hester himself. This view was fully endorsed by our beloved Prime Minister only today in a European context, in which, disgracefully in my view, he is gearing up to resist a move to cap bankers’ bonuses at EU level to 100 per cent of their salary or 200 per cent of their salary with board approval.

This is where reality and rhetoric disconnect – the latter flying off Hester’s outstretched finger, like a white dove. Which group of people – other than those working in the highest echelons of the financial sector – would view doubling or tripling their annual salary, after performing so exceptionally badly that the company lost over £5bn, as a snub?

This is the fundamental proposition which all this misdirection attempts flamboyantly and flagrantly to hide. At a time when millions are being made redundant all across Europe and unemployment rates hit record highs, at a time when everyone else’s salaries are being frozen or reduced in real terms (including lowly RBS staff), at a time when RBS itself, like most other banks, is laying off thousands of employees specifically from its investment banking arm – we are asked to believe that, at this time, investment banking is the only industry which is not an employer’s market.

And now turn your attention to what the other hand is doing: people being forced to work for nothing in order to maintain their basic benefits. Public servants – including the people who heal you when you are sick, protect you when you are threatened and teach your children – being told to do more with less. Tax credits vanishing for ordinary families. Benefits being capped for those being exploited by landlords. Drawn curtains. Closed blinds. Strivers and shirkers.

Contrast those two attitudes and a further policy assumption emerges. It is at the heart of everything this government is doing. While the poor can only be bullied into productivity by the threat of more poverty, the rich can only be coaxed into it by the promise of more wealth.

Perhaps we might hope for a shareholder revolt, similar to those recently observed in other large companies. Only,the one powerful shareholder in this case is the government and they have made their position clear on many occasions: it is time to stop with this banker-bashing and let the crème de la crème get on with the difficult work of losing billions and leading us into the next phase of this crisis, unfettered by regulation, decency, logic or morality.

Take a bow, Stephen Hester. Next stop, Las Vegas.

Protesters outside Royal Bank of Scotland HQ in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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