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

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.