Hester's successor: the runners and riders emerge

With seven figure salary, job hardly a "thankless task".

A successful sell off the State’s shareholding in Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) seems further away than ever. The RBS share price continues to tank. RBS shares kicked off the year at around 366p each; today they are down to 288p, down 23 per cent for the year to date, the worst performing UK banking share. Take a bow Mr. Osborne.

Since his latest RBS comments at the Mansion House speech on 19 June, the share price has fallen by more than 30p. The kindest interpretation of the Chancellor’s intervention in the past 10 days relating to the future of RBS is that he has created fresh political confusion. Encouraging the RBS board to dispense with Stephen Hester prematurely did little in the short term for the RBS share price.

Just to really put the boot in, Osborne then performed a U-turn of stunning proportions by saying that he would examine a good bank/bad bank split at RBS. This proposal was one that Osborne had argued against consistently despite strong arguments in its favour from such distinguished advocates as Mervyn King and Lord (Nigel) Lawson. If such an argument had merits – and it had three year ago – that time has passed.

A period of silence from Mr. Osborne concerning RBS would be welcome for the foreseeable. Meantime, keep a close eye on possible obfuscation relating to the share price that the government requires to obtain to break even on its RBS share acquisition. The UK government currently holds 81.14 per cent of shares in RBS, having injected £45.5bn. The average government buy-in price was 502.26p.

According to RBS, the break-even price has dropped to 440.6p, taking into account fees that RBS has paid to the government. This does not however take inflation into account. A more accurate breakeven figure would be somewhere about 470p but the RBS website continues to promote the notion of 440p as the magic figure.

One thing that the Chancellor could do by way of damage limitation would be to encourage an acceleration of the process to appoint Stephen Hester’s successor. The RBS board does not have to look too far for the standout candidate. The bank has reportedly engaged the doyen of City headhunters, Anna Mann, co-founder of blue-chip consultancy MWM, to recruit Hester’s replacement. MWM certainly has form: it has recruited 16 of the current CEOs of the present FTSE 100. Ignore the guff in the press about the CEO of RBS being a thankless task.

The job carries a seven figure salary, generous bonuses and guaranteed recognition in a future Honours List for successful execution. The latest odds, courtesy of Ladbrokes, suggest that Chris Sullivan, RBS chief executive of corporate banking, is the favourite at 9/4. Nathan Bostock, RBS’ head of restructuring and risk and the early front-runner – Ladbrokes quoted him as short as 1/2 last week – has drifted like a barge out to 3/1. National Australia Bank Group CEO Cameron Clyne has attracted support and has been backed into 4-1 from an initial show of 6-1. As Investec analyst Ian Gordon argues today in a note to clients, Ross McEwan, CEO, UK Retail at RBS is a stand-out choice. This time last week, his odds were a generous 20-1. This morning, his odds have tumbled to 8-1.

Last Wednesday, just ahead of George Osborne’s Mansion House speech, I asked a group of senior bankers attending a meeting of The Digital Banking Club I was chairing, to name what they reckoned was the world’s leading retail bank. There was strong support for Royal Bank of Canada – a view with which I concurred by the by. Interestingly, the CEO of Royal Bank of Canada, Gordon Nixon, is quoted at 16/1 to succeed Hester.

But the retail bank currently most admired in my straw poll last week was Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Much of the credit for CBA’s current success can be attributed to the work of Ross McEwan. McEwan joined RBS in August last year from CBA where he was Group Executive for Retail Banking Services for 5 years.

If Osborne has to interfere again in the running of RBS – on balance it would be better if he did not – he could do worse than give a nudge to the RBS chairman and to his expensively engaged headhunter – to view McEwan as a worthy successor to Hester.

Hester ousted: who's next? Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.