The RBS privatisation is set to be Osborne's version of selling off the gold

There needs to be pressure on Osborne to state what success looks like in respect to the £37 billion investment the Government made in two banks, writes VMC Rosario.

A couple of tweets crossed my timeline this morning about a piece from the Guardian last month by former Labour MP Chris Mullin arguing that a readjustment to restore the balance in Gordon Brown reputation. In it he argues that Brown’s handling of the crisis was world leading:

It was the British government's decision, announced on 8 October 2008, to take a controlling interest in three major banks that prompted the Europeans, followed quickly by the Americans, to do likewise. Indeed, the Europeans made no secret of this. A few days after the British had acted Brown was invited to address the 15 eurozone heads of government.

How we view the decisive action Gordon and Alastair took on the banks will be coloured by the decisions the current Chancellor, George Osborne, takes on the publicly-held stakes in Lloyds TSB and RBS either later this month in his Budget statement (or later this year as the Spending Review and possible Winter Statement come into view).

It’s clear that some sort of decision is being put together in haste. Stories in media earlier this month were that Osborne was doing some clarification about how the Government could divest its stock: either if a share price of 73.6p has been reached for a given period of time or the Government has sold at least 33% of its shareholding at prices above 61p.

This week the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, told the Banking Standards Commission that the Government should sell the banks:

The whole idea of a bank being 82 per cent-owned by the taxpayer, run at arms’ length from the Government, is a nonsense.

It cannot make any sense. I think it would be much better to accept that it should have been a temporary period of ownership only, to restructure the bank and put it back.

That has certainly piled pressure on Osborne to act. Now it seems Treasury ministers are planning to stage a "Tell Sid"-style cut price sell-off of shares to the public. That Policy Exchange are going to pronounce on the idea in a couple of weeks time gives it credence but it could potentially give Osborne a distracting announcement for an otherwise depressingly meagre Budget statement.

Osborne has form on doing something seemingly clever but ultimately foolish. Still, if he does go with a public sell-off he can take comfort in the cover the Liberal Democrat-leaning think tank Centre Forum will have given him in floating something similar but crucially different last year. Tim Montogomerie was picking up something similar even earlier.

Eye-catching ideas to one side there needs to be pressure on Osborne to state what success looks like in respect to the £37 billion investment the Government made in these two banks.

With banks "stabbing businesses in the back" in respect to lending, the banking reform bill still in draft and the banking standards commission still considering a wide range of issues relating the banks, playing politics with £37 billion looks like an awfully big risk.

This is especially true given just how Osborne has made considerable mileage out of bashing Gordon Brown for costing the taxpayer "£9 billion by selling the gold cheap".  If the now-Chancellor was keen for the taxpayer to pay attention to the bottom line then he should expect just as much scrutiny this time around.

Secondly, a public sell off which puts money in the hands of ordinary people is potentially something Labour should applaud, if a fair investment can actually be shown to reach ordinary people. Frankly if the chief executive of Lloyds TSB is going to make £1.4m out of any share sell-off, then it has got to be worth more that a token gesture for "Sid".  That’s especially important when saving the banks has overall cost every man, woman and child £20,000.

Labour should be holding Clegg and Cable to the principle that any effort should "socialise the profit" and ensure that the Government (in serious need finance-wise) does not sell the family silver off cheap.

If after investing £37bn to save banks there is nothing but a continuing litany of appalling behaviour when it comes to bonuses, Libor, bank charges, and lending—not to mention the lack of visible reform— then George and David will need to be clear about what they’ve achieved in finishing what Gordon and Alistair needed to start. 

Photograph: Getty Images.

V M C Rozario is a pseudonymous former housing professional and a member of Generation Rent.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

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

0800 7318496