Barclays' little story and how it changed banking culture

Top City boys queue up, two by two, for a grilling.

This week has seen top City boys queuing up, two-by-two, as the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (PCBS) called them in for a grilling on UK banking standards, rate-rigging scandals and big fat cheques.

In the firing line this morning was Anthony Jenkins and Sir David Walker, Barclay’s group chief executive and chairman, after Lloyds’ on Monday.

During an intense three-hour inquiry, Jenkins told the committee he was “shredding” the legacy left by his former boss Bob Diamond, after (quite publicly) rebuffing a £2.75m bonus having decided it would be “wrong” to receive a cheque too fully-loaded.

It is still far too early to see whether there has been any material change in Barclays’ culture. Rome wasn’t built, or-re-built in a day, and the jury will still be left with a few big questions over the British bank’s cultural DNA after today’s session.

Diamond on his part had received a £2.7m annual bonus for 2011, a pay check of £17m (with the bank paying also his £5.7 tax bill) after resigning amid the interest rate rigging scandal.

The boss was known to lead an "aggressive" and "self-serving" culture in the bank, the committee heard, while hush-hush talks in the City from former Barclays’ people push it a bit further, describing it as “rotten”.

The multimillion-bounty led to the forced resignation of Alison Carnwath, former chairman of the Barclays remuneration committee, who claimed to have been the lone voice for Diamond receiving "zero" bonus.

Along with Walker, Jenkins announced, avoided –and confessed- a few things.

The Committee jumped at the chance to enquire about The Bonus, remuneration and more specifically Sir John Sunderland, the man in control of it –he who replaces Mrs Carnwath.

“The problem we have with [Sunderland’s] evidence is that he didn’t think he had made a mistake (in regards to Bob Diamond's pay off), even in retrospect?” the committee asked.

“You'll have to trust my judgement,” replied Walker, in what looked more and more like a battledome.

Walker and Jenkins informed the MPs of a bonus slim down at Barclays following yet another £1bn provision to cover compensation for interest rate swap products and mis-selling of payment protection insurance (PPI).

According to Barclays, the scandal-hit year is now costing the bank around £2.6bn in compensation: PPI damages will go to borrowers who were (mis-)sold loan insurances (to protect them if they missed repayments due to illness or redundancy), but were not actually eligible to claim it.

During the tense discussion, Jenkins let out that he would step down if there was a regulatory failing under his watch.

This comment seemed too trouble-free for the Committee not to pick upon: Jenkins was head of Barclaycard from 2006, and throughout the time PPI products were sold.

“We worked hard to modify PPI products and we didn't get it right completely” was what Jenkins had to answer. He added: “it's a question of proportionality.”

This answer baffled the Committee; but not as much as when he spoke about the LIBOR-fixing –which cost the bank $450m in fines. “I first learnt about Libor on the day the Libor fine was announced,” he said.

When the committee asked him if he questioned the banking culture while working closely with Diamond, Jenkins took the time before calmly answering, “Yes.”

What he meant by this assent, was that he had been arguing “for a change in culture since 2012.”

Rumours were sparked by Committee chairman Andrew Tyrie when he said it was possible the Barclays bosses would be called in before the Committee again.

But next in line for the grilling are JP Morgan and HSBC’s heads, who will give the Committee more to query until their new report is published.

Photograph: Getty Images

Elsa Buchanan writes for VRL Financial News

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories