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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.