Alison Carnwarth: “I sometimes... don’t go to sleep at all because I’m anxious”

Why did Alison Carnwarth quit? Her last interview gives a few clues.

Alison Carnwarth has just quit her position on Barclays' board, continuing a series of resignations which has included Marcus Agius, Bob Diamond and Jerry del Missier.

Her statement read: “With regret I have concluded that I am no longer able to devote sufficient time to my role as a director of Barclays given my other commitments.”

She cited no other reasons, and her decision has left people speculating. But her most recent interview, given to economia magazine, gives a few clues. Here's an extract:

“None of us can be proud of how all this [Bob Diamond's renumeration package] was portrayed to the great British public.” She’s keen to point out that she is aware of the mood in the country, and what “people have had to put up with, ordinary people like you and me. When I’m not doing my job I’m an ordinary person. “But, remuneration and risks aside, to sit on the board of somewhere like Barclays, you have a window on how the world is working. You see where the capital flows are around the world, you see where the liquidity is, and you see where the stresses are in the financial system.”

Like any ordinary person, she worries. “I sometimes wake up worried – or don’t go to sleep at all because I’m anxious,” she says. “That’s not so good. Last night I lay awake fretting about something. I then have to stand up and somehow all the worry drains out of my feet, or I write things down."

She said that "a lot of pressures" had come to bear on the remuneration committee.

“It’s not easy, and we don’t always get it right. We clearly didn’t get it right this year. The shareholders were a little upset, although they weren’t upset in the same way as we’ve seen at other companies; our proposals did get through. But, whereas in previous years we would have got perhaps 85% voting in favour of our remuneration report, this year it was just over 70%. So clearly there were some major institutions that were not in agreement with what we did, and we must try to communicate better.”

“I’m very sensitive to the general feeling out there, when people are miserable and unemployed."

The full interview can be read in Friday's economia.

Barclays. Photograph, Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.