Boris Johnson has hugged Barclays too close

The Mayor of London's links with the bank risk damaging reputations in London.

The news today that Barclays have been hit with huge fines for their involvement in the interest rate fixing scandal will have caused great anxiety at City Hall.

While no senior politician can claim to have kept the bank at arms length, there is no politician who has hugged them closer than Boris Johnson. In fact, even before he was first elected Mayor of London, Boris was determined to bring Barclays and boss Bob Diamond into his court.

Asked in April 2008 why he hadn’t named any of his advisers yet, Boris quickly revealed that Diamond was top of his list. Speaking to LBC radio, Johnson said he was “delighted” that Bob would head his new mayoral charity explaining that Diamond was “an extremely wealthy man, and I know how much money they make at Barclays because they rip me off with their charges the whole time."

Diamond and other City big-wigs were singed up to an elite “London Business Club” where the mayor extracted large donations over plates of poached eggs and smoked salmon.

According to one report: “The newly refurbished Savoy played host to the likes of ITIS and Streetcar chairman Sir Trevor Chinn, Goldman Sachs head of economics Jim O’Neill and former chief economist and deputy chairman of Man Group Stanley Fink. They were rubbing shoulders along the breakfast table with incoming Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond, who flipped open his chequebook to deliver a £50,000 donation over the meal.” Boris would later welcome a further £1m in charitable donations from the bank.

Such generosity comes at a price and Boris has since taken to the Telegraph to dismiss attacks on the banking industry as “neosocialist claptrap” and told Londoners to stop “whingeing” about house prices pushed up by city bonuses.

He claimed that a tax on banker bonuses would force thousands to flee the country and campaigned relentlessly for the Conservative government to cut the top rate of tax. While every other politician in Britain was desperate to distance themselves from the bankers, Boris - under the advice of his policy chief Anthony Browne - just hugged them closer. Browne has since gone on to become the head of the British Bankers Association.

When Boris announced that he was launching a central London bike hire scheme it was only natural that Diamond’s bank would be approached.

Boris failed to finance the bikes through advertising like other European schemes. In fact despite promising the bikes “at no cost to the taxpayer” (pdf), Boris’s Barclays Bikes have since cost taxpayers £120m with only “up to” £50m set to come back from the bank. Later one City Hall source told the Standard that the Barclays deal amounted to “payback” for Boris’s support during the financial crisis.

Full details of this payback have never been fully revealed, with City Hall claiming commercial confidentiality on the deal. However a London Assembly investigation into the agreement warned that Boris had risked damaging TfL’s own brand if Barclays later “suffered major reputational damage”.

With calls today for a criminal investigation into the bank, that fear has now been dramatically realised. And in typical style Boris was quick today to insist that “the whole banking industry” should come clean over the scandal.

Whether or not this will be enough to stem criticism of his own relationship with the bank remains to be seen. But with his mayoralty so visibly tied to Barclays and its senior management, Boris will now hope that other banks absorb some of that reputational damage fast.

 

Boris Johnson poses during the launch of the London Cycle Hire bicycle scheme in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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