Why is the RBS fine so small?

What is £400m for a bank bailed out to the tune of £45bn?

So, now we know. The guessing game is over and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has been hit with a fine of £400m for its role in the LIBOR-rate rigging scandal.

It may sound a lot but don’t be kidded, don’t be conned. RBS is, after all, a firm with annual revenue of around £30bn. To put the size of the fine in context, it has already set aside £1.7bn (and rising) to cover the cost of claims for mis-sold payment protection insurance (PPI).

What is another £400m between friends for a bank bailed out to the tune of £45bn?

Taxpayers currently have the dubious distinction of holding around 81 per cent of shares in RBS with the government having paid the equivalent of just over £5 per share.

With a current share price of £3.40, the government is sitting on paper losses of just under £15bn.

As Vince Cable has gloomily but accurately forecast, early hope for RBS being re-privatised is no more than a “distant dream.”

There is however one thing that the UK government could do and do quickly. It could stop pussyfooting about over RBS’ US-based subsidiary, Citizens Bank.

Citizens, headquartered in Rhode Island, operates in 12 US states; it is a top 20 US bank with assets of $132bn, around 1,400 branches and a staff of 19,000 employees.

To date, RBS has resisted calls to sell Citizens, despite interest shown in its US unit from a number of banks.

Canada-based Toronto-Dominion and Brazil’s Itau-Unibanco have, from time to time, been linked with an interest in snapping up Citizens. US-based PNC is another potential bidder.

Analysts forecast that if Citizens was on the block, it might fetch around £7.5bn. The party line from RBS has, to date, taken the line that Citizens is a core asset and not for sale. Poppycock.

RBS will, eventually, have to bow to the inevitable and cash in its Citizens chips. It is now time for the government, via UK Financial Investments Limited, the organisation set up immediately after the October 2008 bailouts of Lloyds and RBS, to bear its teeth.

It could start by leaning heavily on RBS to focus on getting its domestic market in order and sell off Citizens.

Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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