Government and its former friends face uncomfortable day as links come under spotlight

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IT HAS all the makings of the credit-crunch "show trial" of the decade, writes Ross Lydall.

The so-called "masters of the universe" will appear tomorrow before a committee of MPs at Westminster.

Taking centre stage will be Sir Fred "the shred" Goodwin, the fallen chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland. Alongside him will be the former RBS chairman, Sir Tom McKillop, and Halifax Bank of Scotland's former chief executive, Andy Hornby, and former chairman, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham.

Facing them will be the John McFall, MP, the Labour chairman of the Treasury select committee, who famously demanded to know whether taxpayers were being "taken for a mug" when Mervyn King, the Bank of England governor, appeared to explain the 37 billion bank rescue plan.

What risks being exposed is not simply the mistakes of the bankers, but their closeness to Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, and Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, as well as the Labour hierarchy's part in the current economic collapse.

One Treasury committee member told The Scotsman he would be checking for the Prime Minister's fingerprints on the "smoking gun".

Sir Peter Viggers, a Tory MP, said: "Gordon Brown has said he is angry that RBS invested in derivatives in the way it did. Yet how much taxpayers' money he proceeded to invest in the bank, without due diligence, we don't yet know. I will be trying to follow the smoking gun back to Gordon Brown."

For those seeking to build a case showing that political failings underpinned the risks taken by the banks, there is plenty of evidence.

The links between Mr Brown and Lord Stevenson go as far back as Labour's time in opposition, and the then shadow chancellor's efforts to reassure the City that an incoming Labour government was not to be feared. Then, Lord Stevenson had yet to be raised to the peerage and was at Pearson plc. Two years into the Labour government, he became a peer.

Sir Fred was knighted by Tony Blair in 2004 (although there was no evidence of party affiliation), having already served on a variety of government task forces. He investigated credit unions, which provide finance to people on low incomes. He led a panel on the New Deal, Mr Brown's flagship initiative to get the unemployed back into work. He even made it to Chequers as Mr Blair mulled over when to call an election.

By 2006, Sir Fred was a regular at 11 Downing Street and a member of Mr Brown's International Business Advisory Council. He also sat on the "high-level group on the City".

These days, the friendships have turned sour. The Prime Minister has no hesitation in stating that RBS and HBOS would have collapsed without public support, and has to dodge parliamentary questions about asking the Queen to strip Sir Fred of his knighthood.

But Sir Peter said the bankers did not deserve to shoulder all the blame. "Reading through the CVs of the four people who are appearing before us, they are all outstandingly capable people who, in their time, have been regarded as the most capable of their generation," he said. "I think there is a danger that people will regard them as the culprits, the guilty men. In fact, they were doing what everybody else was doing.

"Was it their fault? Yes, they were at the helm. Yes, they received, in most cases, enormous remuneration, remuneration that would have kept a whole street of ordinary people going for a generation.

"But I think it's simplistic to think they are the guilty men and by pouring our venom and spleen on them that that's going to achieve anything."

Stewart Hosie, the SNP's Treasury spokesman, said the government had to be aware of double standards in criticising the bankers.

"I don't recall Gordon Brown as Chancellor ever complaining when he was raking in billions in corporation tax from the banks," he said.

"As for where the fault lies, some must lie with the government. Even going back to the run on Northern Rock and its bail-out, we have put in hundreds of billions in recapitalisation and guarantees, entirely under the same regulation that allowed the banks to get into that difficulty in the first place."

But another committee member, the Labour MP Nick Ainger, was clear about what he wanted to hear from the bankers. "The first thing I would expect is an apology," he said.

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