26 July 2023

Labour questions Downing Street pressure over NatWest boss’s resignation

26 July 2023

Senior Labour MPs have questioned Downing Street’s “astonishing” move to heap pressure on to demands for the resignation of NatWest’s Dame Alison Rose in the row over Nigel Farage.

Dame Alison resigned as chief executive after acknowledging a “serious error of judgment” by discussing with a BBC journalist Mr Farage’s relationship with private bank Coutts.

The “significant concerns” from Downing Street and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt about her remaining in the post had been made public in the hours before she stood down.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was clear that he believed NatWest was in the “wrong” and that Dame Alison had no choice but to resign.

But earlier, shadow trade secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds had argued Dame Alison’s position was a “matter for NatWest” rather than for the Government to intervene.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves also hit out at some of the “bullying attitudes” towards Dame Alison in a defence ahead of her resignation.

With a 38.6% stake, the Government remains the biggest shareholder in NatWest after the taxpayer bailed out the bank during the 2008 financial crisis.

But Mr Thomas-Symonds questioned why No 10 and the Treasury heaped pressure on Dame Alison when they were “slow to act” in pushing out scandal-hit ministers.

He told Sky News: “It’s astonishing, isn’t it, to see last night the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister under pressure from outside weighing in so quickly against a business leader like Dame Alison Rose.

“When you think about the situations we’ve had in Government, whether it’s with Nadhim Zahawi, whether it’s with Gavin Williamson, whether it’s with Dominic Raab, when the Government certainly hasn’t been holding itself to that same standard.

“When it comes to dealing decisively with colleagues in Government, the Prime Minister has invariably been slow to act but when it came to this situation last night with a business leader they moved straight in.

“If only the Government would hold itself to the same standards of speed, I’m sure we’d be in a much better position generally.”

He added: “It was a matter between Dame Alison Rose and the NatWest board. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister never showed such a desire to intervene when they had their own problems.”

Darren Jones, who chairs the Commons Business and Trade Committee, argued that the intervention was because of the “power Farage seems to have over the Tories”.

The Labour MP said he does not question that Dame Alison “did something wrong” but asked why “the PM got involved”.

He acknowledged the public stake in NatWest, but also referred to the Government’s complete ownership of the Post Office.

Mr Jones tweeted: “Has the PM told the CEO to pay back bonuses based on false accounts? Or asked him to resign? No. Spot the difference?”

Though not asked his opinion on the Government intervention, Sir Keir was clear that NatWest had failed.

The Labour leader told BBC Radio 5 Live: “NatWest got this one wrong. And that’s why Alison Rose had to resign.”

Asked if he felt sorry for Mr Farage, he said: “Yeah, he shouldn’t have had his personal details revealed like that.

“As a broad principle, nobody should be refused banking because of their political views.”

But the day before Dame Alison’s resignation, Sir Keir’s key ally Ms Reeves was making a defence in an interview with Channel 4 News.

“I don’t like some of the, frankly, what I see as bullying attitudes towards her,” the shadow chancellor said.

“She’s the first female chief executive of NatWest. She took over at a time when that bank had real big problems. It seems to me that Alison Rose has done a good job turning that bank around.

“If I was in the Treasury at the moment, rather than Jeremy Hunt and his Conservative ministers, I’d be spending my time this summer trying to ensure that families in Scarborough, like the ones I’ve spoken to today, are properly protected during this cost-of-living crisis rather than picking a fight with banks on behalf of Nigel Farage.”

A No 10 source said Dame Alison “has done the right thing in resigning”, saying the Prime Minister “was concerned about the unfolding situation”.

“Everyone would expect people in public life – whether that’s in a business leadership role or otherwise – to act responsibly and with integrity,” they added.

Tory ministers including Energy Secretary Grant Shapps also welcomed Dame Alison’s resignation.

City minister Andrew Griffith rejected the suggestion that there had been an undue focus by the Government on the issue.

“The reason you’re covering this story is the same reason that I’ve been involved, which is that there’s a core fundamental principle at stake in a democratic society,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme.

“I spend a great deal of my time working with the banks and the broader financial services industry on issues of how customers can get good redress, how they can be compensated and how we can prevent misselling or fraud in the first place.

“I understand that this issue, quite rightly in my view, has attracted a lot of interest. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that there’s not a great deal of concern and activity that goes into protecting consumers each and every day.”

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