‘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 ...”

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