‘An accident waiting to happen’: the mystery of how Paul Flowers’ career flourished

A week ago he was a member of the great and the good. Today he is a broken, disgraced figure. But, as Peter Popham discovers from those who know him, there was a sense of inevitability about this ending

Paul Flowers should be grateful that his church is big on forgiveness. His life of scandal culminated in his arrest on Thursday night on drug allegations, but it now emerges that it began at least 32 years ago, when he admitted gross indecency with another man in a public toilet in Hampshire and was fined £75 with £35 costs. Yet the Methodist Church in which he was already a minister forgave him. “It was decided he could continue as a minister,” a Methodist ministry spokesman said. “It did not preclude him from his activities in the church. He was very contrite.”

The pattern was set for a lifetime.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, reduced Christianity to the bare bones, stripping it of finery and aesthetic pretension. “Redemption by faith alone” was his message. And Reverend Flowers, though apparently sincere in his contrition, kept on sinning, confident of redemption.

Some of his offences were relatively trivial, like a drink-driving bust in 1990. Two years later he became chairman of the trustees of the Lifeline Project, a charity involved in helping young people with drug and alcohol problems. In 2004 he was suspended by the charity as it investigated allegedly false expenses claims amounting to tens of thousands of pounds. Ian Wardle, Lifeline’s chief executive, this week confirmed that the Charity Commission had been informed of Lifeline’s findings, which concerned “a significant sum” and required what he described as “a lengthy and thorough investigation”.

“There were a variety of claims and some of them were clearly legitimate,” he said, “but there was quite a lot of travel, quite a lot of dining, quite a lot of hotels.” Mr Wardle confirmed that Flowers did not provide “satisfactory” answers to many of the trustees’ questions – and then he quit Lifeline before the investigation was concluded.

Flowers’ friends were aware of his frailties. Leslie Griffiths, now the Labour life peer Lord Griffiths of Burry Port and the Minister at the Wesley Methodist chapel in central London – one-time home of the denomination’s founder – said: “He’s done one silly thing after another all his life.” Yet until this week, that life was a charmed one. He left Lifeline under a cloud, but remained a Bradford councillor, as he had been since 2001.

Not everyone there was a Flowers fan. His plummy Southern vowels – he was born in Portsmouth – must have grated on some Yorkshire ears. One former councillor said: “Flowers was an insufferable and pompous man who threw his not inconsiderable weight around. He always made it plain he was the most educated person in the room.”

He remained a councillor for 10 years, while rumours about his private life – the time when, according to one source, he arrived at his council office having had just an hour’s sleep, after partying all night with rent boys in a luxury hotel – began to swirl perilously. Towards the end of that decade in office he handed his council computer to the information technology department to be serviced. When IT workers found a stash of porn on it, council officials confronted Flowers, who resigned immediately.

But although Labour party officials were aware of the true reason for his resignation, they agreed to the pretence that he was leaving because of the pressure of his job as chairman of the Co-operative Bank. Once again the reluctance of Flowers’s colleagues to publicly admit the unsavoury truth about him allowed him to carry on. Indeed, Ian Greenwood, council leader at the time of his resignation, sent him on his way with an outrageously disingenuous tribute.

“Paul is a tremendously gifted and committed individual,” he gushed, “who has made a significant and lasting contribution to the community in Great Horton [Flowers’s Bradford ward], to the council and to the Labour group. I will be sad to see him go but I fully understand the reasoning behind Paul’s decision.”

And so, thanks to the baffling but invaluable omerta of a succession of public officials, the stage was set for the Reverend Flowers’s catastrophic week, with the film of him handing over £300 in £20 notes to allegedly buy crack cocaine, crystal meth and ketamine, and the revelations, this time backed up by the testimony of Ciaron Dodd, professional escort, about his nights in hotels with rent boys. With his habitual fleet footwork, he had resigned from the bank he so incompetently chaired back in April, but this time a speedy exit failed to save him from the disastrous repercussions that saw him flee his Bradford home for an unknown destination in Merseyside before he was arrested.

The cascade of revelations going back decades has left those who know him appalled – yet hardly surprised. Lord Griffiths, one of the most senior figures in the Methodist Church as well as a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, is one of them. “He has abundant persuasive charm, a sense of conscience and public service,” he said in his office adjacent to the Wesley Chapel, “but he does not have a mature set of skills of self-restraint.

“I’ve known Paul for 40 years and I have been charmed by him in conversation but I can’t begin to imagine how he could possibly have become chairman of a bank. If someone had asked me about it in 2010, I’d have said, ‘You’re mad’. What they are doing now is kicking a very flawed man. Being gay, in those early years he led a double life. Putting him in charge of the bank, he lived with terrible pressure. It was an accident waiting to happen.”

The temptations which Flowers found so hard to resist were a consequence, Griffiths says, of the nature of the Methodist ministry. “Frequently Methodist ministers are put in positions where they interact with the world outside the church. You are the representative of the body of the church, of the people in the world. People like Paul find themselves in social situations they are not accustomed to – lots of booze, opportunities for social networking that you never had in your previous life.”

John Wesley was flawed in similar ways. In his biography of Wesley, A Brand from the Burning, Roy Hattersley wrote, “The quality which enabled [Wesley] to lead the Second Reformation was charisma – ‘divinely conferred power or talent, capacity to inspire followers with devotion and enthusiasm.’ That characteristic made him irresistible to religiously inclined women, and he was as susceptible to them as they were attracted to him…Women were his weakness.”

Paul Flowers clings to his church role, and even reportedly hopes to lead the Christmas Day service at Wibsey Methodist Chapel in Bradford. One source there said: “He does not seem to be aware of the enormity of what he has done. Yet he was so popular with the parishioners, he may come back. The ladies love him ...”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions