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.

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Watch: The evidence Nigel Farage said money sent to the EU should go to the NHS

After the EU referendum result, Nigel Farage said it was a "mistake" for Leave to suggest funds could go to the NHS. But what's this?

Remember Friday? (I know: it's not necessarily a pleasant thing to do, but bear with me.) On Friday, hours after the result of the EU referendum was announced, Nigel Farage appeared on Good Morning Britain and said that the Leave campaign advertising which linked the extra "£350m a week" Brexit would allegedly gift us with the NHS was a "mistake".

Sure, it was on posters, and emblazoned on a bus, and he didn't speak up to disabuse anyone of the notion. But let's give Farage the benefit of the doubt and pretend he does sorely regret the fact that, through no fault of his own, members of the electorate may have been led to believe that that money would be put into healthcare. It must be tough, when you ought to be high on your victory, to have to answer for other people's mistakes

Ah. Hold that thought.

It looks like the Independent has unearthed a video of Nigel Farage on television before the vote, and  strange thing  he tells Hilary Benn that the money currently being sent to Europe should be spent on, er, "schools, hospitals and the NHS".

Well, this mole isn't sure what to say. Maybe Farage doesn't remember this specific moment? Maybe when he said "schools, hospitals and the NHS" he actually meant something different, like "negotiating our exit from the EU", or "paying to access the common market despite no longer being a member"? Or maybe when he said that money should be spent on these things, he didn't mean it necessarily would be, and it would have been entirely unreasonable for the voting public to make such an absurd leap?

All I can suggest is that you watch and decide for yourself, dear reader.

I'm a mole, innit.