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February 5, 2013 5:58 pm
Seven months after Bob Diamond’s glorious kamikaze performance in front of a parliamentary committee, his successors in control of Barclays returned to the scene of the entertainment.
The question, in a nutshell, is whether Barclays has learnt from past failings. And the answer is that it has. The new masters did not turn up looking and acting as if they had just cleaned up on the high rollers’ table in Vegas.
Antony Jenkins, Diamond’s successor as chief executive, and his chairman, Sir David Walker, did a reasonable impersonation of what commercial bankers used to be like in the sunny long ago: overtly dull, with a hint of underlying menace.
Their antagonists, members of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, matched them menace for menace. But not for dullness. For a start, there was among their ranks Lord Lawson, the former chancellor who was wearing, above a three-piece suit (do they still make such things?) a hairstyle that would have suited the more florid kind of orchestral conductor.
And two seats away from him there was someone bearing a remarkable resemblance to the new archbishop of Canterbury. Which is precisely who it was. It was Justin Welby’s first morning as archbishop after his appointment was formally announced on Monday. Instead of spending it in his new office, purging recalcitrant elements of the old regime, he chose to spend it here, in a meeting that lasted nearly three hours, a tiny fraction of which required his direct participation.
His presence on the committee is important in all kinds of ways and gives the Church of England an unprecedented role in the secular life of the nation. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable decision given that he has to run a business at least as big, complex and troubled as Barclays, if nowhere near as self-righteous.
However, he can do the understated menace so well that it is hard to imagine the ecclesiastical bureaucracy giving him much trouble. After he probed Mr Jenkins about the issue of pay in banking, he responded: “I’m not entirely convinced your two statements are entirely coherent”, which I think is arch-episcopal speak for “complete codswallop”.
Mr Jenkins certainly represents a change of culture. His suit might have been chosen for its M&S-yness (possibly it was what Sir Stuart Rose called “the first court-appearance suit”). Meet him in the street and you might guess he was a chemistry teacher. Meanwhile, Sir David, an old Treasury hand, exuded world-weary Sir Humphreyness.
This was not a crash to match Mr Diamond’s. Nor was it a non-meeting of minds to match the remuneration committee chairman Sir John Sunderland’s “Diamond-deserved-some-recognition” evidence last week to explain away the bonuses.
On this occasion you had to listen carefully to grasp the mutual contempt. It broke through most overtly at the very end when Andrew Tyrie, the commission chairman, invited Barclays’ chairman to get rid of Sir John (edited extract follows).
“I find it extraordinary,” replied Sir David, his ennui slowly morphing into anger, “that in this forum it should be supposed that even if people make mistakes they were not mistakes that they could learn from . . . He’s doing a very good job for us.”
Mr Tyrie: “The problem we have is that he didn’t think he had made a mistake. Even in retrospect.”
Sir David: “Chairman, I have nothing to say beyond inviting you to trust my judgment.”
Mr Tyrie: “Well, um. We’ll see. We’ve heard a lot of good intentions. What we want is some concrete evidence.”
“I have other accountabilities and I think I’m discharging them,” replied Sir David tartly. Which I think is arch-banker speak for “Go to blazes”.
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