George Osborne during a visit to the Royal Mint on March 25, 2014 in Llantrisant, Wales. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne's U-turn on RBS bonuses has undermined his credibility

After voting against a cap as recently as January, the Chancellor has taken fright. 

For months, George Osborne has been battling in the European court to prevent the introduction of an EU cap on bank bonuses. But today at least, he's done the reverse. Under the new rules, banks are required to limit bonuses to 100 per cent of basic salaries unless they win shareholder approval for a cap of 200 per cent. It was a loophole that RBS intended to exploit in its pay-outs to executives. But rather than allowing the bank to do so (as its opposition to the cap would suggest), the government, as RBS's majority shareholder, has vetoed the plan. 

Abandoning the pretence that UK Financial Investments, which controls the state's 81 per cent share, acts independently of ministers, a Treasury spokesman said: "Under the new strategy set out by RBS's chief executive, Ross McEwan, RBS is heading in the right direction, but it has not yet completed its restructuring and remains a majority publicly owned bank. So an increase to the bonus cap cannot be justified and the government made clear it would not have supported such a proposal. The government therefore agrees that retaining the cap at the default ratio of 1:1 and RBS's proposed pay policy is appropriate."

In other words, far from opposing the EU cap, Osborne has acted entirely in accordance with its principles. It is a double standard that Labour has been quick to pounce on, noting that ministers voted against the party's motion to impose a minimum cap on RBS just a few months ago. Shadow Treasury minister Cathy Jamieson said:  

George Osborne is in a terrible muddle over bankers' bonuses. He is spending taxpayer's money on a legal fight in Brussels against the bonus cap and yet imposing the minimum cap at RBS.

The Government has bowed to pressure on RBS and finally admitted that bonuses of two times salary would be unacceptable at what remains a Bank in Government ownership. They voted against Labour's motion to impose the minimum cap at RBS in January, but have now been forced to reverse their position.

But confusingly at the same time the Chancellor is supporting higher bonuses in Lloyds Bank and elsewhere.

People who are facing a cost-of-living crisis are rightly angry about excessive rewards for failure in banking over recent years. The Chancellor should accept the logic of today's announcement and drop his legal action to block the bonus cap.

The Treasury has sought to justify the inconsistency by arguing that the large taxpayer stake in RBS means bonuses must be restrained. A Treasury spokesman said of the differing treatment of Lloyds and RBS: "It [Lloyds] is majority private-sector owned and the government's shareholding in the bank is now down to less than a quarter. Reflecting these different circumstances, the government will use its shareholder stake to support setting the bonus cap at the maximum allowable ratio of 2:1, in line with all other majority privately owned banks." 

But as so often in the case of Osborne, this decision has more to do with politics than policy. Ministers oppose a bonus cap on the grounds that, as Andrew Bailey, the head of the Prudential Regulation Authority, has said, any limit will "just increase base pay, reduce claw back and undermine financial stability". But all of these objections apply in the case of RBS. The bank responded to the government's veto by announcing that its new CEO Ross McEwan would receive an extra £1m a year in "allowances", doubling his salary. 

The reality is that the political cost of allowing the 81 per cent-taxpayer owned RBS to pay full bonuses was simply too high for Osborne to bear. Labour would have leapt on the move as further evidence of the Tories "standing up for the wrong people" and defending the super-rich. But by choosing political opportunism over intellectual consistency, Osborne has undermined his credibility with the free-market right. 

P.S. Then again, the Chancellor has never been one for consistency. Back in 2009, he declared: "It is totally unacceptable for bank bonuses to be paid on the back of taxpayer guarantees. It must stop." 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.