“Us? Encourage Stephen Hester to stand down? Nah, really? You mean the RBS Stephen Hester, right? Pffft, nothing to do with us. I mean, why would we even…? It’s not like we want the bank privatised according to some sort of timetable, y’know. We’re completely hands-off. See my hands? Off. Completely. Why would you even think…? Nah. Us?”
And so on and so on.
The above quote many not be – how you say? – real, but it captures the general noise coming out of the Treasury today. They don’t want their paw-prints anywhere near the Hester resignation, and for very understandable reasons. This
state-owned bank may be state-owned, but no-one wants to create the impression that politics is determining its future. Any privatisation must be done for the good of the bank, the public and the public finances – not for the Tories’ electoral chances.
But what’s really going on? Iain Martin – who, with his forthcoming book on RBS, knows more about these things than most – suggests that Mr Hester would have stood down as CEO early next year anyway. As it is, it sounds as though he has been caught between two political concerns. One, that the privatisation ought to go ahead as soon as possible, perhaps in 2014. Two, that the privatisation could require a “five-year transition” period, as a useful article in the FT puts it today. And so, better to have someone in place who can get the process started, but also stick it through to the end.
Whatever the truth of Mr Hester’s resignation, it doesn’t seem too perturbing in itself. There’s just a difference of a few months between his (potential) original departure date and his actual departure date. And the reasons for that difference are understandable on the whole.
The story does, however, suggest just how tricky re-privatisation will be for everyone concerned. For the Chancellor, anything other than a post-election process will be seen – rightly or wrongly; probably rightly – as a pitch for votes. For Mr Hester’s successor, they will have to prise RBS from the state’s grip with politics bustling them from all sides. Could all the participants end up flat on their faces? Yes, yes they could.
As James Forsyth asked yesterday evening, who would want the RBS job? Little thanks, deflated pay by the standards of the industry, and a grindingly difficult task ahead. The Treasury’s distancing act is no doubt intended, in part, to make the role more attractive – but I doubt anyone will believe it.