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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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