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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.