Page last updated at 13:30 GMT, Monday, 2 March 2009

Why is Harman after Sir Fred?

By David Thompson
Political correspondent, BBC News

Harriet Harman
Ms Harman's comments are said to have puzzled some colleagues

Harriet Harman's words were unambiguous.

"Sir Fred should not be counting on being 693,000-a-year better off as a result of this because it is not going to happen."

And just in case Sir Fred Goodwin, the current Public Enemy No 1 of the banking crisis, had not got the message about his multi-million pound pension pot, Labour's Deputy Leader warned: "The prime minister has said it is not acceptable and therefore it will not be accepted."

So that is clear then. Sir Fred should put his yacht catalogue down and start reading Delia's 1970s classic Frugal Food instead.

Er, not quite.

Ms Harman may have ramped up the rhetoric, but we are still none the wiser about precisely how the government intends to claw back any of the money Sir Fred looks likely to pocket in the aftermath of his spell as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

'Public opinion'

Members of the government from Gordon Brown down have insisted that, even as we speak, squads of lawyers are poring over the detail of his pension deal to see if there is any way it can be derailed.

But Ms Harman, a trained lawyer herself, may have given the game away when she said: "It might be enforceable in a court of law this contract, but it's not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that's where the government steps in."

Sir Fred Goodwin
Sir Fred left RBS in October

Problem is, hard-nosed bankers like Sir Fred care a lot more about the court of law than they do about any other opinion, public or otherwise.

He has already indicated he is more than willing to fight his corner in any legal dust-up ministers might like to bring on.

Many outside observers think he would almost certainly win, a view shared by some inside government as well.

So that leaves legislation, which is what Ms Harman seemed to be hinting at - but that has problems too.

It might be possible to change the law to stop a future Sir Fred filling his boots, but in order to affect the man himself, any measures would probably have to be retrospective, something which could give human rights lawyers their own lucrative payday.

That is why opposition parties have been so dismissive of Ms Harman's views, with Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, even deploying the frankly unparliamentary word "potty".

'Small beer'

Some cabinet colleagues are said to be frustrated with Labour's deputy leader, accusing her of grandstanding on this and other issues, as a way of putting down a marker should the top job suddenly become available.

That has been hotly denied - and, while perhaps puzzling, Ms Harman's intervention has carried on a theme which the government seems keen to continue.

While we are all talking about Sir Fred and his pension pot, we are not talking about the hundreds of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money at risk should Mr Brown's plan to save the banking industry go wrong.

Were that to happen, the financial rewards of one man, however irritating, would look like very small beer indeed.

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SEE ALSO
Harman warning on Goodwin pension
01 Mar 09 |  UK Politics
RBS pays for Sir Fred's security
01 Mar 09 |  Scotland
Stand-off over Sir Fred's pension
27 Feb 09 |  UK Politics
Brown vows to claw pension back
27 Feb 09 |  UK Politics
Goodwin vows to keep pension
26 Feb 09 |  Business

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