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Debunking the Debanking Scandal: Is Farage Being Helped by Figures Inside the Conservative Party?

Chris Blackhurst unpacks the NatWest scandal that toppled the first woman to head a High Street bank.

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At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Rishi Sunak was put on the spot by Sir Keir Starmer. He was asked if he would welcome Nigel Farage back into the Tory fold, 30 years after he quit the Conservative Party over John Major’s decision to sign up to the Maastricht Treaty which promised deeper EU integration.

An angry Sunak avoided a direct answer. He is busy trying to persuade Lee Anderson, a former Tory deputy chairman, not to defect to the party Farage now supports, Reform. Tory moderates want Anderson, accused of Islamophobia, to go.

Farage meanwhile, ever the mischief-maker, is keeping his powder dry: he may emerge as the head of Reform and challenge the Tories at the coming election or he may not. If he does, then the likelihood of a major split on the right, with a divided vote, threatens the Tories’ very existence. It’s that serious.

Or the Tories could eat humble pie and welcome him back – better to have him on the inside than out. But that would be tantamount to a takeover by the right, the One Nation rump would be left high and dry. They could quit en masse.

Farage, entrant terrible, stirrer of anti-Tory, anti-Sunak unrest is enjoying every minute. Sunak, it seems, can trust no one. It appears even his ministerial colleagues, those he has promoted, are in private touch with his enemy. Look at Andrew Griffith, who was Economic Secretary to the Treasury – the City Minister responsible for financial services – and played a key role in the demise of the first woman to head a High Street bank.


Alison Rose and the NatWest Non-Scandal

On 18 July last year, Dame Alison Rose was in Downing Street for the launch of the Prime Minister’s new Business Council. The chief executive of NatWest Group, she was one of Britain’s most senior bankers, and a member of the Business Council, the newly created group of 14 British business leaders who would meet with Sunak to help “turbocharge economic growth”. She was photographed, laughing and joking with Sunak in the Number Ten garden at the unveiling.

Rose was already well-known and fondly regarded in Government circles – she was also co-chair of the government’s Energy Efficiency Taskforce and a member of the Net Zero Council.

Yet a week later, Rose was gone, forced to resign for unwittingly confirming to BBC journalist Simon Jack that Farage was a client of Coutts, the private bank owned by NatWest.

Farage had previously gone public, claiming he had been ‘debanked’ by a private bank because of his political views. Suspicion immediately landed on Coutts – the leading private bank was named in the media and on social media – but there was no official confirmation.

Rose was asked repeatedly at a dinner by Jack about Farage’s claim that “the bank says it was a commercial decision, I say it was political.” Rose said it was commercial, not political. In so doing, she acknowledged Farage was a Coutts customer and broke the banking code of confidentiality.

It was a genuine slip. Her board retained confidence in her.


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The Government Shareholder Steps In

The Government was NatWest’s biggest shareholder. Griffith, then City Minister, had his officials call the NatWest Chair, Sir Howard Davies, and say the Government wanted her out for having discussed a client’s financial affairs with a BBC journalist.

Rose was a popular, highly-rated CEO, with an impressive track record. This was a first mistake, an inadvertent error. Nevertheless, after the call from Griffith’s office, Davies had to tell Rose: the largest shareholder, with 38.6% of the shares, wanted her out, in which case she was effectively toast.

The whole affair was hugely wounding for Rose. It was highly damaging for NatWest which had to find a successor. It raised questions about Coutts and the bank’s policies. The cause of advancing women in the City was knocked back. Sunak’s prestige Business Council was undermined before it had got off first base.

Griffith, it transpires, was in secret contact with Farage and had known for several weeks what the maverick politician was planning.

Farage privately lobbied Griffith for assistance with his debanking complaint against Coutts, asking the minister for advice “before I go public”.

WhatsApp messages disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act show Farage contacted Griffith, to discuss Coutts’ closure of his accounts because of his politics.

A message sent by Farage shortly before 1 am on 28 April 2023 said: “Thanks for making contact. Yes, a chat would be useful”. A further message sent just before noon the same day read: “Dear Andrew, when you have 5 minutes do let me know.”

Twelve days later Farage got in touch again, saying: “Be keen to discuss my legal position with you before I go public on this.”

The Treasury confirmed that a telephone conversation between Farage and Griffith had subsequently taken place with a civil servant present.

Griffith’s WhatsApp replies to Farage were not available since the minister used the app’s ‘disappearing messages’ function to ensure they were erased.

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An independent review by lawyers for NatWest later found that Coutts had a “contractual right” to shut Farage’s accounts and did so because the bank was losing money by keeping him on as a client. It was a business decision, based on his banking activity and not his politics. The lawyers identified “serious failings” but added that it had not discriminated against him.

Soon after Rose’s departure was announced, Griffith sent an early morning WhatsApp to selected members of the media with the message: “I hope the whole financial sector learns from this incident.”

It was reported that to some journalists he claimed, “V for victory”, although this was denied.

Debunking the Debank

Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, accused Farage and Griffith of secretly plotting together before the launch of the former Ukip leader’s debanking campaign.

“No one who has been following British politics for the last three decades will be remotely surprised to see this Tory government secretly conspiring behind the scenes with Nigel Farage to support each other’s campaigns and attacks,” she said.

Yes, but it surely raises further serious questions. Why did Farage single out Griffith? Did the successful businessman turned Boris Johnson supporter and former chair of the advisory board of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies, inform his boss, Sunak, as to what was going on? What else was Farage in the habit of contacting him about? Is Farage in private touch with other Tory ministers?

Crucially, why did Griffith not alert Rose as to what was occurring? He clearly had insight of Farage’s plans. Rose and her team could have been better prepared; her conversation with the BBC might have been avoided. Her job and her position on the Prime Minister’s Business Council would have been saved.

Griffith, don’t forget, was not just a minister he was representing the largest shareholder in NatWest. The bank, and with it the taxpayers’ investment, suffered as a result of Rose’s going. Talking to Farage, knowing what was coming and doing nothing – it seemed an odd way for a shareholder to behave.

He was able to witness the launch of the Business Council, and was aware of the value attached to Rose by Sunak and the government yet did absolutely nothing to assist her.

His loyalty is questionable. It must beg the question as to who really calls the shots in this Conservative administration. Is it the beleaguered Sunak, the Prime Minister and official leader, or is there another, in waiting?    

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