Last night, the board of NatWest announced that it had ‘full confidence’ in Dame Alison Rose as its chief executive. But just after 2 a.m. it announced she was leaving by mutual consent. Rose had admitted she was the source of the inaccurate briefing to the BBC about Nigel Farage’s Coutts account and she apologised. The NatWest board had thought this would be enough for her to cling on. But in a matter of hours, and just after midnight, they thought otherwise.
So what changed? There seems to be a difference of views between NatWest – which thought her apology would be enough – and the government, which thinks the Farage/Coutts debacle exposes a culture of deep politicisation in NatWest. This was a culture where the whole lot of them thought it was quite okay to de-bank Farage after drawing up a 40-page account of what one minister this morning described as ‘his lawful political beliefs’. Rishi Sunak has said Dame Alison was right to resign (and, ergo, wrong to try to cling on – and the NatWest board was wrong to have let her).
The view in No. 10 and the Treasury is that the problem was that people can be ‘de-banked’ for their political views – and, even worse, after a formal political process which Coutts, owned by NatWest, seemed to think entirely appropriate. This suggests this problem is pretty widespread. So the scandal was not about a briefing to a journalist but about the culture deep within Coutts and NatWest itself.
Normally, the opinions of government would have no bearing on the governance of a bank. But when the government owns 39 per cent of the bank (as has been the case with NatWest since the taxpayer bailed it out in the banking crisis) then it matters a lot more.