Until this weekend it looked like things couldn’t get any worse for the Co-operative Bank. Earlier this year it was forced to pull the plug on its ambitious plans to buy some 630 branches from Lloyds. Shortly after, the bank revealed a catastrophic £1.5bn black hole in its balance sheet. Then this month the parent company, the Co-op Group mutual, admitted defeat in its fight to retain control of the bank and was forced to deliver the lender into the hands of a group of US hedge funds.
Now comes the revelation that its former chairman – a Methodist preacher no less – was buying cocaine and other hard drugs just days after being questioned by Parliament about the bank’s near collapse. The despoliation of the reputation of the once-respected institution, founded in 1872, is now surely complete.
Leave aside the Reverend Paul Flowers’ drug abuse for a moment. God knows enough of that goes on within the City of London. What was truly indefensible about Flowers’ position as chairman of the bank was that he knew so little about finance. That was made painfully clear at the Treasury Select Committee. Questioned by MPs over the size of his former institution’s balance sheet he replied £3bn. The true figure is, in fact, £47bn. No wonder the Co-Op got into such trouble with oversight of that calibre.
Spectacularly badly run, there are also questions over its professed morality even without the former chairman’s problems. It famously refuses to lend to arms traders and tobacco firms, but at the same time sold hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of unnecessary “payment protection insurance” to customers, for which it has received swingeing regulatory fines.
The Co-op Group seems to have believed that appointing a man of the cloth to head the board of its bank reinforced the mutual’s ethical brand values.
But morality needs to be more than an advertising slogan or a carefully cultivated image. It must be observable at all times in behaviour. If nothing else, the hapless Reverend Flowers has reminded us of that fact this weekend.
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