George Osborne talks to the press as he arrives for an economic and financial affairs meeting (Ecofin) in Brussels on November 7, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne drops legal challenge to EU bank bonus cap

With attention on the Rochester by-election, the Chancellor makes his retreat.

Under the cover of the Rochester by-election, George Osborne has abandoned his long-running legal challenge to the EU's cap on bank bonuses. The decisive blow came earlier today when an advocate general at the European Court of Justice advised that the new law, which restricts payouts to 100 per cent of a bankers’ salary, or 200 per cent with shareholder approval, should be upheld. 

Osborne said: "I’m not going to spend taxpayers’ money on a legal challenge now unlikely to succeed. The fact remains these are badly designed rules that are pushing up bankers’ pay not reducing it. These rules may be legal but they are entirely self-defeating, so we need to find another way to end rewards for failure in our banks."

Ed Balls has been swift to respond, deriding the move as "a humiliating climbdown". He said: "The Chancellor revealed his true priorities when he decided a year ago to spend taxpayers’ money fighting a bank bonus cap while working families face a cost-of-living crisis. He should tell taxpayers how much money he has now wasted on this challenge, which we warned him against.

"It shouldn’t have taken the EU to act to rein in excessive bonuses, but George Osborne has totally failed to act here in Britain.

"Labour will reform the banks and levy a tax on bank bonuses to fund a paid starter job for young people out of work for over a year."

The cap has been criticised by left-wing economists on the grounds that it simply allows banks to inflate employees' basic pay (which is not subject to claw-back) and does little to tackle the underlying causes of excessive risk-taking. But the politics of this debate are too exquisite for Labour to get caught in technicalities. Expect it to swiftly FOI the Treasury to find out just how much of the public's money Osborne spent on his doomed challenge. 

Meanwhile, it's worth noting that forced to side with either the EU or the City of London, Nigel Farage has sided with the City. He told the Evening Standard: "A lot of people in Rochester and Strood commute to London to work in the finance industry. They will be reading about this in the Evening Standard on their way home and may well feel dismayed by the verdict.

"It is the constant drip, drip, drip of Britain losing every single negotiation and ruling. We never win and it’s time we woke up to that fact."

The former trader added: "If you applied this law to the Premier League you would not expect Britain to remain one of the world’s greatest footballing nations. London is the world’s greatest centre for a lot of industries, including finance."

Farage's stance is consistent with his europhobia and his free market principles. But it is unlikely to go down well with Ukip voters, who, as polls have consistently shown, lean to the left on economic issues. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.