They don’t know what they’re doing, do they? With every step taken by the Government as it tries frantically to prop up the British banking system, this central truth becomes ever more obvious.
Yesterday marked a new low for all involved, even by the standards of this crisis. Britons woke to news of the enormity of the fresh horrors in store. Despite all the sophistry and outdated boom-era terminology from experts, I think a far greater number of people than is imagined grasp at root what is happening here.
The country stands on the precipice. We are at risk of utter humiliation, of London becoming a Reykjavik on Thames and Britain going under. Thanks to the arrogance, hubristic strutting and serial incompetence of the Government and a group of bankers, the possibility of national bankruptcy is not unrealistic.
The political impact will be seismic; anger will rage. The haunted looks on the faces of those in supporting roles, such as the Chancellor, suggest they have worked out that a tragedy is unfolding here. Gordon Brown is engaged no longer in a standard battle for re-election; instead he is fighting to avoid going down in history disgraced completely.
This catastrophe happened on his watch, no matter how much he now opportunistically beats up on bankers. He turned on the fountain of cheap money and encouraged the country to swim in it. House prices rose, debt went through the roof and the illusion won elections. Throughout, Brown boasted of the beauty of his regulatory structure, when those in charge of it were failing to ask the most basic questions of financial institutions. The same bankers Brown now claims to be angry with, he once wooed, travelling to the City to give speeches praising their “financial innovation”.
Does the Prime Minister realise the likely implications when the country joins the dots? He has never been wild on shouldering blame, so I doubt it. But Brown is a historian. He should know that when a nation has put all its chips on red and the ball lands on black, the person who made the call is responsible. Neville Chamberlain discovered this in May 1940 with the German invasion of France.
We’re some way from a similar event. But do not underestimate the gravity of the emergency and potential for disgrace.
The Government’s bail-out of the banks in October with £37 billion of taxpayers’ money was supposed to have “saved the world”, according to the PM, but now it is clear that it has not even saved the banks. Our money kept the show on the road for only three months.
As the Liberal Democrats’ Treasury spokesman Vince Cable asks: where has the £37 billion gone? The answer, as Cable knows, is that it has disappeared down the plug hole.
It is finally dawning on the Government that the liabilities of the British banks grew to be so vast in the boom years that they now eclipse the entire economy. Unfortunately, the Treasury is pledged to honour those
liabilities because it has guaranteed not to let a British bank go down. RBS has liabilities of £1.8 trillion, three times annual UK government spending, against assets of £1.9 trillion. But after the events of the past year, I wager most taxpayers will believe the true picture is worse.
Meanwhile, the assets are falling in value. This matters, because post-nationalisation these liabilities are now yours and
And they come piled on top of the rocketing national debt, charitably put at £630 billion, or 43 per cent of GDP. The true figure is much higher because the Government has used off-balance sheet accounting to hide commitments such as PFI projects.
Add to that record consumer indebtedness and Britain becomes extremely vulnerable. The markets have worked this out ahead of the politicians, as usual, and are wondering what to do next. If they decide our nation is a basket case, they will make it so.
The PM and the Chancellor , both looking a year older every day, tell us that for their next trick they will buy more bank shares, create a giant insurance scheme for bad debt, pledge to honour liabilities without limit, cross their fingers and hope it all works. The phrase “bottomless pit” springs to mind for a reason: that is what they have designed.
In this gloom, the Prime Minister has but one slender hope: that somehow, by force of personality, the new President Obama engineers a rapid American recovery restoring global confidence, energising the markets and making us all forget this bad dream.
Obama is talented but he is not a magician. Instead, Gordon Brown’s nightmare, in which we are all trapped, is going to get much worse.
9″When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her.
10Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:
” ‘Woe! Woe, O great city,
O Babylon, city of power!
In one hour your doom has come!’
11″The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more
12cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble;
13cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men.
14″They will say, ‘The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your riches and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.’
15The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn
16and cry out:
” ‘Woe! Woe, O great city,
dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet,
and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!
17In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!’