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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump