Cahal Milmo: 'Fred the Shred' thought the bad headlines had gone away. He was wrong

Our writer reports on yet another public humiliation for the former RBS chief
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The Independent Online

When militant activists staged an attack in 2009 on Sir Fred Goodwin's Edinburgh villa, he may have consoled himself with the thought he could sink no lower in the public estimation.

But a new nadir beckons in the life story of the man widely dubbed "the world's worst banker" for his role in running up losses of £24bn at the Royal Bank of Scotland after it was revealed that the super-injunction granted to him had the purpose of concealing an alleged extra-marital affair with a former colleague.

The gagging order, which had had the curious side-effect of forbidding anyone from referring to the former RBS chief executive as a "banker", was partially lifted after the naming of Sir Fred by a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords rendered farcical any attempt to mask him.

The ruling still prevents the disclosure of the name of Sir Fred's lover and details of their relationship. But questions were soon asked about whether the alleged affair played any role in the events which led to the largest single loss in UK corporate history and his resignation in 2008.

Lawyers for Sir Fred insisted last night that he had never done "anything improper" in his conduct of business at RBS. But the draconian nature of super-injunctions, whose existence cannot be reported, has led to debate about their ability not only to frustrate the desire of the media to publish personal information, but also inquiries by regulatory and even law-enforcement bodies.

Until yesterday, the terms of the court order obtained by Sir Fred were so strict they raised questions about whether the Financial Services Authority, which is preparing a definitive report into how the banking crisis happened, might be unable to use the information contained within the injunction to conduct its inquiries.

The debate is an indication of just how far Sir Fred – dubbed Fred the Shred for the supposed relish with which he cut costs – has fallen since the days when he was welcomed into 11 Downing Street by Gordon Brown, and he presided over the transformation of a finance minnow into the fifth-largest bank on earth.

Raised in Paisley, Sir Fred prided himself on his image as a self-made banking plutocrat. The son of an engineer, he was the first member of his family to go to university and by 29 was made a partner in the accountancy giant, Touche Ross. His reputation for cutting jobs and costs led to him being poached in 2000 as the chief executive of RBS, grande dame of Scottish banking, founded in 1727. With the blessing of his board, Sir Fred embarked on a strategy to expand RBS – making 26 acquisitions at a cost of more than £35bn, including a £23.6bn hostile takeover of NatWest, a rival three times its size. It was the final spurt in this buying spree – a £55bn buy-up of the Dutch bank ABN Amro in 2007 – which ultimately proved to be Sir Fred's (and RBS's) undoing.

The bank was the most high-profile victim of the 2008 liquidity crisis and had to be nationalised at huge cost to the taxpayer. Suddenly, what had seemed like statements of the success of a global finance powerhouse (a new £350m RBS headquarters opened in 2005 by the Queen and described as "comically expensive", a company jet and £200m spent on corporate sponsorship) were held up as examples of a hubristic excess personified by Sir Fred, a vintage car enthusiast. The banking boss found himself carrying the can for the collapse of RBS and did nothing to elicit public sympathy when it emerged he had left his job with a £3m nest egg and an annual pension of £703,000. Only after a huge outcry was it reduced to £342,000.

Faced with his new status as the Ozymandias of global banking, Sir Fred disappeared from public view in a friend's French villa, while his most aggressive detractors, calling themselves Bank Bosses Are Criminals, threw bricks through his windows.

Such a humiliation might have persuaded lesser mortals to seek anonymity. But Sir Fred, whose friends have stated repeatedly that he has been demonised unfairly, had engineered something of a comeback.

After his purchase last year of a £3.5m mansion outside Edinburgh the former banker has accepted a £100,000 consultancy role with a leading architecture firm, RMJM.

One way or another, it would seem, the British public have not heard the last of Sir Fred Goodwin.