How Osborne backed down on an RBS firesale

Having previously briefed that Osborne was planning a pre-election give-away of shares, the Tories changed tack after Balls's intervention.

It's now thought unlikely that George Osborne will use his Mansion House speech tonight to announce plans for a quick-fire sell-off of RBS, but that's not what the Tories were briefing a few months ago.

As recently as February, it was reported that Osborne had ordered Treasury officials to plan for a pre-election give-away of shares in the bank, with a source telling the Independent: "One of the options could be to put it in our manifesto – but then Labour could do that as well. Wouldn't it be much better if voters were getting a check for £400 a few months before election day?" Another Treasury figure suggested that selling the shares at a loss would be better than the "political headaches" associated with retaining them. A few days later, David Cameron confirmed that the government was examining the "interesting" idea of distributing shares to taxpayers and was reported to have ordered RBS executives to "accelerate" preparations for a pre-2015 sell-off. 

Then, in May, a minister close to Osborne suggested that it was "unrealistic" to expect the RBS share price to return to its 2008 level in the near future and that the government may have to sell the shares while they were "under water". Later that month, speaking to reporters in New York, Cameron refused to rule out selling the shares at a loss and said he was open "to all ideas and proposals".

It was soon after this, on 27 May, that Ed Balls intervened, warning in an interview with the Times that a loss-making firesale would "add billions to the national debt" and urging Osborne not to put "politics before economics". Osborne was later reported to be planning to use his Mansion House speech  to set out his strategy for an RBS sell-off, with the Treasury examining proposals from Policy Exchange on a share give-away.

But by mid-June, the government had started to rapidly shift its position. The Treasury insisted that it had no fixed timetable or share price in mind and Cameron remarked that taxpayers were "more interested than getting their money back" than the timing of a return to the private sector. Having previously talked up the possibility of Osborne unveiling plans for an RBS sell-off in his Mansion House speech, the Treasury now suggested that the speech would focus on the sale of Lloyds' shares and would not set out a firm timetable for privatisation for either bank. Then, on 18 June, Osborne himself told the Today programme that he wanted to make sure that "the taxpayer gets value for money" and that the return of RBS to the private sector was "a matter for the market". Having previously expressed a bias in favour of an early sell-off, the Chancellor had backed down, heeding the warnings of Balls and others that a firesale was not in the public interest. 

Score this one for the shadow chancellor. 

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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