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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.