Lord Stephenson - dishonest or delusional?

Ex-chairman of HBOS called to account.

The Bank of England has said that the economic impact of the financial crisis was on a par with the Second World War. And the wannabe Inglorious Basterds on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards continue to call to account the war criminals.

It all feels a bit like old news now… We know full well that HBOS was badly run. We know about the secret bailouts, the “spirit of optimism” that led to disaster.

This week it was the turn of Lord Stephenson. The ex-chairman of HBOS was - and still is - suave and silver-tongued. He is the kind of man who you believe when he says something like

..there was just no way we [the HBOS leadership] were encouraging a culture of excessive risk-taking.

But one committee member – Lord Lawson – wasn’t having any of it. “You are living in cloud cuckoo land,” he said.

And to remind ourselves just how risk-averse HBOS was in the lead-up to the melt-down, we should recall the story of Benny Higgins. A bona fide banking superstar, Benny Higgins joined HBOS in 2006 from RBS, where he had overseen the successful integration of NatWest into the group.

After less than two years, he left HBOS under a cloud, having presided over the dramatic reduction of the bank’s  mortgage book. With hindsight it sounds prudent and praiseworthy action. At the time, however, he was universally pilloried for presiding over such a huge loss in market share.

And in the wake of this “disaster”, silver-tongued Stephenson was there to reassure twitchy stakeholders that the bank would bounce back and regain its position in residential mortgages. Not only that, but he wrote to the FSA (a letter since published by the Commission), emphasising that HBOS was a “highly conservative institution”.

I am not aware of any lurking horrors in our business or our balance sheet. Quite the reverse ... HBOS in an admittedly uncertain and insecure world is in as secure a position as it could be.

Happy to be crossed questioned on this but I hope you know me well enough to know this is neither a bravura nor an ill considered statement.

There you are – a man in control… Confident and reassuring. A year later the bank had been merged with Lloyds and was being bailed out by the taxpayer to the tune of £17 bn.

We could rely on Lord Lawson to remind Stephenson just how much bravura there was in that statement. “Either you were being dishonest when you wrote that or, if you believed it, you were delusional,” he said.

“Spirit of optimism” at HBOS: Photograph: Getty Images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.