Speculation is mounting today that the British government may be preparing to increase its stake in the troubled Lloyds Banking Group, after Chancellor Alistair Darling declined to rule out the option of nationalisation.
The group stunned the City by warning of £10bn (€11.2bn) in annual losses at struggling HBOS, which it rescued with government backing at the height of the financial turmoil last autumn.
The British taxpayer already owns 43% of the group after pumping in some £17bn (€19bn) into the two banks, and was left with paper losses of more than £2.5bn (€2.8bn) at one stage yesterday as Lloyds' shares tumbled up to 40%.
Mr Darling has defended the UK government decision to broker the merger of Lloyds and HBOS and offer financial backing, saying that failure to do so would have brought down HBOS and potentially collapsed the whole UK banking system.
Speaking from the G7 finance ministers summit in Rome, he said the immediate priority was to identify banks' bad assets and "put them out of the system", warning that without this step normal lending to businesses and individuals cannot resume.
Asked on two occasions during an interview with BBC2's 'Newsnight' whether he could rule out nationalisation of the Lloyds Group, Mr Darling did not do so.
Instead, he responded: "I said in January there is a range of options that we will be deploying, a range of levers that can be pulled to help all banks, because I have made it very, very clear that the integrity of the banking system is very, very important.
"What we are focusing on at the moment is making sure that we can identify these bad assets and then deal with that problem. That's our focus at the moment and that will continue not just here but it will continue across the world as well."
Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable said: "It looks increasingly as if Lloyds is being dragged under by the dead weight of HBOS, a financial disaster created by Andy Hornby and his predecessor, James Crosby.
"Obviously we need to digest the detail, but it looks increasingly as if Lloyds HBOS will now go into majority public ownership, followed inevitably by nationalisation."