Outlook: Barclays poser

BARCLAYS' chairman-in-waiting, Sir Peter Middleton, is negotiating a continuing role with the bank for the present chairman Andrew Buxton. Mr Buxton had been expected to sever all connections with the bank after the annual general meeting later this month, but now some kind of ongoing role as an adviser on client relationships in the Middle East is foreseen.

Mr Buxton is a nice enough chap and his knowledge of the bank, as well as his family's long association with it, going back several generations, might seem to justify something short of complete disassociation. This is very much the kind way of looking at what Sir Peter is doing, however.

A crueller one would be to regard it as typical of Barclays' inability to turn its back on the past and look to the future. It is never a good idea for executives to continue hanging around after they are meant to be gone; all they do is get in the way of and compromise the new.

This is the case even with chairmen who have proved themselves outstanding leaders. When Lord MacLaurin retired from Tesco at the age of 60, he made a clean break with the company. Rarely was a life presidency more deserved, but he rightly took the view he wouldn't be needed. The same is anticipated for Sir Richard Greenbury when he bows out at Marks & Spencer later this year.

By contrast, Mr Buxton has proved himself less than top notch. While managing director, he was intimately involved in some of the big property loans that put Barclays into loss in the early Nineties. That didn't stop him ascending to the position of executive chairman. It wasn't his fault that while he held this position the board was at sixes and sevens, culminating ultimately in the petulant walk out of the chief executive, Martin Taylor, but preventing this kind of a shambles is rather what a chairman is there for.

If Sir Peter is already compromising on Mr Buxton's position, what hope does he have of carrying out the urgent root-and-branch reform necessary to modernise the bank in preparation for the digital age? Presumably Mike O'Neill, the new chief executive, is made of sterner stuff. If he ever arrives, that is. When was he meant to join? Late March was the assigned date. So where is he? He had flu, and then there were some loose ends to tie up. He'll be at his desk by Monday at the latest, Barclays insists. Let's hope so.

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