Has Rose paved the way for Farage’s comeback? - GulfToday

Has Rose paved the way for Farage’s comeback?

Andrew Grice

Political columnist for The Independent.

Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage

Dame Alison Rose’s resignation as NatWest chief executive was no surprise, after she admitted last night that she was the source of the BBC story about why Nigel Farage was dropped as a client by Coutts, the private bank owned by NatWest. What was a surprise was how Rose was de-banked in the wider sense of the word. Last night the NatWest board stood behind someone who had worked their way to the top in 31 years at the bank, pledging its “full confidence” in her. But government ministers had other ideas. Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor and not a politician usually given to knee-jerk headline grabbers, let it be known he had “serious concerns.” The first edition of The Times said Downing Street and three other cabinet ministers as well as Hunt had “serious concerns.”

At 1.29am this morning the bank announced Rose had “agreed by mutual consent” to stand down immediately — a phrase more commonly used about football than bank managers. Farage’s stock, by contrast, is on the rise. Today, asked if he was to return to politics, the former Ukip leader told BBC Radio 4: “I’m not about to do that, no.” He added: “I’m now a champion and a crusader for men and women who’ve been closed down by the banks.” That is not a total denial, and the general election is probably still 18 months away. The NatWest affair has given Farage a media platform he could only dream of. He has been a dwindling figure since Brexit; a Poundshop Piers Morgan and with no real political party to lead. Now he has a springboard for a comeback as the head of a political movement which sees the banks, the government, the BBC and the “Remainer” civil service as part of an establishment plot and the “enemies of the people.”

For Farage, the NatWest controversy was perfect; it also embroiled the BBC as it broke the (incorrect) story that he was de-banked solely on commercial grounds. Although the BBC was misled by Rose, a delighted Farage managed a hit on two enemies with one stone. It’s a bad look for the BBC when it is desperate to reassure viewers’ trust and show it still upholds impartiality. Perhaps the haste to be rid of Rose had something to do with a virtual summit today at which City minister Andrew Griffiths will raise with six banks the government’s wider concerns about de-banking following the Farage affair. Rose would have been an uncomfortable attendee. Her departure was more like that of a beleaguered government minister than a respected business figure. As Boris Johnson described it on the day he resigned as prime minister, “when the herd moves, it moves.”

But why did the government trample ruthlessly over Rose as if she were a fellow minister who had to die to save the team, in what some on the left saw as a witch hunt against a very good CEO led by the former Ukip leader they still love to hate? Darren Jones, Labour chair of the Commons business select committee, noted the government’s unusual conversion to intervening in business. Nick Thomas-Symonds, a shadow cabinet member, highlighted the contrast between Rose’s speedy exit and the long goodbyes of ministers who resigned after trying to hang on — such as Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi and Dominic Raab.

Ministers could point to the state’s remaining 39 per cent stake in NatWest, a legacy of the 2008 financial crisis.  Yet I suspect this government would have intervened before breakfast today if another bank had been involved. The Farage affair did raise genuine questions about free speech: whatever we think of his views or his pivotal role in taking the UK out of the EU, his latest fight was boosted significantly when he obtained an internal NatWest report saying that while commercial reasons played a part in its decision, his “views” did not align with its values “as an inclusive organisation.”

His dropping by NatWest appears to be the tip of an iceberg. There are many stories doing the rounds at Westminster of politicians and members of their families having trouble getting or retaining bank accounts because they are “politically exposed persons.” So ministers are doubtless fretting that they might be in for the same treatment, especially as their “views” might be out of fashion if Labour wins next year’s general election. Rose’s initial error was a colossal one, and broke the banks’ tablet of stone of client confidentiality. Yet, as is often the case in ministerial resignations, plenty if “what if?” questions hang in the air. She might have survived if she had fessed up earlier to being the source of the BBC story saying Farage fell below the financial threshold needed to hold an account at Coutts, and made a grovelling apology.

Instead, she opted for days of obfuscation. She and her advisers should have remembered the lesson of Watergate: it’s the cover-up that gets you, not the crime. They should also have realised Farage was not someone who was going to give up and go away. His de-banking rightly became a mainstream story, not merely an obsession for his remaining fan club. Now the wind is in Farage’s sails and he is not done with the banking system yet. He wants the entire NatWest board to resign too. He is demanding legislation to prevent accounts being closed without good reason and “cultural change” in banking.

Today it seems that ministers have already lost their sudden appetite for such intervention. Their apparent mission to kill Rose’s career accomplished, the line to take today is that de-banking can be sorted by new rules in a sector that is already heavily regulated. A shame the Tories have reverted to type: legislation might have brought benefits and safeguards for a much wider group of customers than those who bank at Coutts.

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