On 29 June Nigel Farage stated on GB News that his Coutts bank account had been closed because of “prejudice” and because he had “pushed a Brexit campaign”. Within less than a month, this unevidenced and unsupported statement cost the, highly regarded, chief executive of NatWest Alison Rose and the CEO of Coutts, Peter Flavel their jobs, knocked £800mn off NatWest’s share price, and prompted legislative change to the banking sector.
The speed with which ministers intervened to support Farage and accuse the bank of political prejudice, without having first appraised themselves of the facts (and, seemingly disinterested in doing so) must be of concern to us all.
In the GB News clip, Farage stated that the bank had closed his account without giving him a reason. His supporters, many of whom are fellow GB News presenters, alleged it was for political reasons, part of a ‘remainer plot’ to punish and deny Farage ‘freedom of speech’.
While careful not to make this accusation himself he has enabled these lies to percolate. The assertions were accepted by the prime minister Rishi Sunak and the home secretary, Suella Braverman (and other Conservative MPs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Davis) as facts without checking the truth of the claims. Very swiftly, No 10 pressured the bank to sack Rose and committed to legislating to ensure people are not denied banking facilities because of their ‘political views’.
Conducting thorough due diligence
The Coutts 40-page dossier – which Farage made public and led to the wealth reputational risk committee deciding, on 17 November 2022, to close his Coutts account when his mortgage was paid up in July 2023 – is in the public domain.
The document summarises Farage’s current banking status, explores the reputational risk he poses to Coutts should he continue as a customer, identifies transition points in his status (i.e., when is mortgage ends), and considers whether Farage should continue as a Coutts client. The financial information is redacted and the non-financial information in the dossier is copied from publicly available information such as newspaper reports.
Farage is classified as a politically exposed person (PEP) and so his account required greater scrutiny than that of ordinary customers. He had been downgraded from higher to lower risk following his reduction in political activities and it was expected that, if he continued with his lower political profile, he would de-classified at the next review, a year later.
The report, as it would as part of due diligence for all PEPs, addresses potentially illegal activities (money laundering, support for a criminal regime) or support for illegal activities (racial or sexual hatred, sexual abuse or harassment). Some people may consider that these views should be protected as ‘freedom of speech’, but as they are also indicative of risk, they are appropriately explored for a PEP. Similarly, while climate activists are considered ‘extremists’ by the government, climate views of PEP customers also fall within legitimate checks.
Nowhere in the document is there a Coutts commentary about Brexit or Farage’s Brexit views.
Account closed for commercial reasons
The picture the dossier paints of Farage is an unpleasant one. “At best he is seen as xenophobic and pandering to racists, and at worst, he is seen as xenophobic and racist. He is considered by many to be a disingenuous grifter and is regularly (almost constantly) the subject of adverse media”. The report is also clear however, that, while Farage’s views may be “distasteful” or “not aligned with wider society” and are not shared by the bank, they are “likely to be the same for a number of the bank’s customers”. The report’s conclusions and recommendations regarding his account carefully stick to legitimate concerns.
The assessment gives attention to the counter-risk arguments (‘mitigations’) and emphasises the lack of regulatory or legal censure, the historicity of some of the older claims and the cessation of worrying behaviour (e.g., working for Russia Today). It also states that, whatever his views, “his engagement with us is in line with what we expect – professional polite and respectful”.
There can be no doubt (in the report) that Farage’s loss of his Coutts’ account was for commercial reasons.
“I wanted to make you aware of a commercial exit decision we have made on the account of Nigel Farage. The relationship has been below commercial criteria for some time and upon review of Nigel’s past public profile and connections, the perceived risks for the future weighed against the benefit of retention the decision was taken to exit upon repayment of an existing mortgage.”
This is in line with Coutts’ terms of engagement. The account was kept open while his mortgage was extant, and he was advised that he would lose his account two months prior to its anticipated closure. Crucially, he was offered an ordinary NatWest account and so was not de-banked.
The report includes a number of press cuttings in which Farage expresses views considered by many to be racist and misogynist as well as hostility toward climate action. The bank was concerned about how these might impact on the bank’s reputation as well as the potential risk of illegal activity. However, there is nothing in the report to indicate that Farage’s views per se impacted on the decision. Only a review and an exploration of other discussions (if they occurred) within the bank could lead to a reliable conclusion. That review has yet to be undertaken.
Unwarranted political interference
Rose has acknowledged that she was the source of information that led to the BBC publicly disclosing that Farage had lost his account due to financial reasons. She said that she believed it was public knowledge that Farage was a Coutts customer (it was) and that he had been offered a NatWest account (this was not in the public domain).
She also said that, when questioned about general eligibility criteria, she told journalist Simon Jack that “the guidance on both [accounts] was publicly available on their websites. In doing so, I recognise that I left Mr Jack with the impression that the decision to close Mr Farage’s accounts was solely a commercial one”.
It may be that Rose should have been dismissed for an error of judgement at this disclosure, even allowing for her exemplary banking career. But it should not have led to the prime minister intervening with her employer to demand she be sacked. As in any case of work misconduct, due (employment) processes should have been followed and the prime minister should have reserved his judgement until the full facts of the case were known. As the UK government is a shareholder, he is entitled to have a view and to seek assurances about how matters are being handled.
Absurd double standards
The denial of banking services has been a long-standing problem in the UK, especially for Muslims, and the checks immigrants face before they can access an account are onerous. Reports, such as the one on Farage, are likely to be found on many other people in the public eye. For example, support for Palestine or the Uighurs or being a political active Muslim is likely to lead to similarly extensive trawls through the media to collate what is known about an individual. These activities are often, erroneously, associated with terrorism and accounts refused.
The government has not rushed to the aid of those impacted in this way despite many requests to do so. News outlets have also been largely silent and the Telegraph refused to publish findings of their own investigations into Muslim de-banking. Yet, within days of Farage’s complaint, UK news outlets have given Farage a platform from which to air his grievances and demanded reform of the banking system. The Telegraph has offered no explanation as to why it silenced the complaints of Muslims but amplified those of Farage.
Farage and his acolytes accused Coutts senior management of being unreconstructed ‘remainers’, driven by “prejudice”. This constitutes sufficient evidence, in their view, to justify a defenestration campaign, irrespective of Brexit’s relevance or the facts in this case. They have made it clear that they still have Camilla Stowell (head of private clients at Coutts), Howard Davies, (chair of Coutts) and Chris Hale (the lawyer just appointed to undertake the NatWest review) within their sights and will not stop until they too are forced out (or findings discredited).
Who’s governing Britain, Farage or Sunak?
The Coutts debacle shows just how deeply beholden Sunak is to Farage for his continued survival. He capitulated to Farage’s demands that Rose be pressured into stepping down, and for banking ‘reform’. The speed of his public condemnation of and intervention with Coutts and repetition of Farage’s assertion that the loss of the Coutts account was ‘de-banking’ for political opinions was staggering.
There was no appraisal of the evidence, no review undertaken, not even the facts checked by analysis of the dossier. Sunak waded in to support Farage and condemn the bank – all on Farage’s and his media cheer-leaders say-so. This is not the behaviour of a government, but a supplicant.
No unelected and unaccountable commentator and his foreign-owned media company backers (GB News) should have this level of power over an institution or government. The government’s cowardly collusion with Farage and failure to uphold due process and respect for evidence means no one can now feel safe from persecution if they have a expressed a view contrary to that of Brexiters (or other right-wing campaigners).