Rachel Reeves made a mistake in attributing Alison Rose’s fate to misogyny. The government had a right to get involved in the Coutts saga, but Reeves was out of tune in her intervention, writes Eliot Wilson
If the great South African golfer Gary Player had been entirely right when he observed that the harder he practised, the luckier he got, then the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, would be the most fortunate of current senior frontbenchers. But the diligent MP for Leeds West, who has worked at the Bank of England, the UK Embassy in Washington and the Bank of Scotland, is discovering that judgement and timing can be equally important. Last week, she waded into the row over Nigel Farage and the suspension of his services by prestigious wealth managers Coutts & Co, and the results have not been universally acclaimed.
The downfall of Dame Alison Rose, chief executive of Coutts’s parent Natwest, in the early hours of last Wednesday, happened at great speed, and many were caught off-guard. Reeves was unlucky that an interview she gave to Channel 4 News on the issue was pre-recorded, at the mercy of events. It was filmed not only before Rose resigned but also before she admitted that she had disclosed information about Farage’s relationship with NatWest to the BBC’s business editor, Simon Jack. Nevertheless, the political judgement she exercised in analysing the story has been clumsy.
Reeves perceived the story, and especially the involvement of senior ministers, as reflecting an explicit, misogynist culture of bullying and what she saw as the distorted priorities of Rishi Sunak’s administration. “I don’t like… what I see as bullying attitudes towards her,” she told Channel 4. Implicitly in defence of Rose, she went on, “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.
Another Labour MP, Angela Eagle, also said the banking boss had been “thoroughly cancelled” after the Farage furore.
It is true that Rose was one of only nine female CEOs at FTSE 100 companies, and that progress on closing the gender gap at that level has been disappointingly slow; a government-approved target set in 2022 said that boards should be at least 40 per cent female, but half of FTSE 100 companies are still not meeting that, and more than 90 per cent of female directors are non-executive. The glass ceiling may have substantial cracks in it, but it is made of toughened glass and shows no sign of shattering.
Nevertheless, Reeves’s apparent unqualified defence of Rose on grounds of her sex seemed like special pleading. Even before the revelations which led directly to her resignation, Rose had not handled the Farage crisis with great skill or deftness, allowing partial or inaccurate information to gain currency, and her organisation had let the bareknuckle populist frame the narrative on his victimised, freedom-of-speech grounds.
Her swing at ministers did not wholly connect either. “If I was in the Treasury at the moment… I’d be spending my time this summer trying to ensure that families… are properly protected during this cost of living crisis rather than picking a fight with banks on behalf of Nigel Farage.” However, Conservatives were entitled to observe that Natwest is 39 per cent owned by the taxpayer, and there was a growing sense, particularly but not only among Conservative voters, that Natwest had got this wrong, seeming to want to “de-bank” public figures because it disliked their views, rather than for financial or administrative reasons.
There is growing fatigue at the automatic injection of identity politics into every issue in the media. The treatment of Dame Alison is not unprecedented: last year, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, called for the resignation of Peter Hebblethwaite, CEO of P&O Ferries over the unlawful dismissal of 800 employees without consultation. Shapps may be a smaller fish than Hunt or Sunak, but the government had the right, if only as shareholders, to express a view on Coutts and Farage.
Reeves was finally undermined when the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, acknowledged that Natwest had “got this one wrong, and that’s why Alison Rose had to resign”. He even expressed muted sympathy for Nigel Farage.
Inevitably Reeves was guilty of bad political judgement and a victim of bad luck; she could not have foreseen the speed at which Rose’s position would unravel, but she made a misjudgement in choosing her line of attack and choosing to go in hard. Nigel Farage vs a female-led, partially public-owned bank must have seemed an obvious choice for the shadow chancellor, but she forgot a cardinal rule of politics. Sometimes your friends screw up and hand the advantage to your enemy. You have to fight the battle you are in, not the one you want.