Farage affair is ‘a monumental PR disaster’ for exclusive bank Coutts

Farage affair is ‘a monumental PR disaster’ for exclusive bank Coutts

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For 331 years Coutts’s reputation for guaranteeing the utmost discretion made it the bank of choice for the rich and famous – including King Charles and every member of the royal family since George IV.

Now Coutts finds itself a very high-profile target in the latest UK culture war, following a decision to cut ties with its former customer Nigel Farage, after a review by its wealth reputational risk committee decided thath his views “did not align with [the bank’s] purpose and values”. The affair, say crisis management experts, risks “destroying Coutts’s reputation, if not its entire business”.

“It is a monumental PR disaster – entirely of the bank’s own making – that will go down in history,” said Justin Doherty, chair of the reputation risk advisory firm Hemington. “This once cherished national institution that rich and powerful people relied upon has been caught with its pants down.”

Doherty said the bank had been exposed by none other than its own boss. Alison Rose, chief executive of Coutts’s parent company, NatWest Group, had briefed the BBC that Farage was being put on a “glide path” from his Coutts accounts to a generic NatWest account because he no longer met the criteria to qualify for Coutts’s exclusive services.

However, Farage revealed, via a subject access request, that the bank had compiled a secret 40-page dossier accusing him of being a “disingenuous grifter” who promoted “xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist views”.

Farage, who has vowed to “fight all the way” against Coutts, said that while his battle with the bank was personal, the public needed to realise that “if they can cancel me, they can cancel you”.

On Thursday, after interventions from the prime minister and senior cabinet members, Rose issued a public apology to Farage, saying the comments made in Coutts internal papers had been “deeply inappropriate”, and vowing process reviews and better communication with customers. She has not, however, offered to reinstate her former client’s accounts. Rose has repeated the offer of a standard NatWest account, which Farage has yet to take up.

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Doherty said: “They clearly panicked when Farage went public saying he had been unbanked, and their spin doctors thought they could be clever and say the only reason that they were taking action against Farage was because of his finances. They clearly hadn’t thought about a subject access request, and now all this is out there for the public to see.”

The reputation committee report accused Farage of being “seen as xenophobic and racist” and of making remarks that are “distasteful and appear increasingly out of touch with wider society”.

Doherty said: “Farage isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, of course he’s not. But you can’t ban someone from your bank because they’re not woke enough for you.”

The most ironic element to the ever evolving story, Doherty said, was that “it’s Coutts’s reputation risk committee that has destroyed its own centuries-held reputation”.

Founded in 1692, Coutts has served some of the most famous and influential people throughout history, including Lord Byron, Frédéric Chopin, the Duke of Wellington, Charles Dickens, Lord Nelson and the Beatles.

The bank is even mentioned in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera The Gondoliers: “The aristocrat who banks with Coutts / The aristocrat who hunts and shoots / The aristocrats who cleans our boots / They all shall equal be.”

While most of its customers are from an older generation, the bank has in recent years made a big effort to attract a younger clientele. Among them are the rapper Stormzy, Harry Potter star Emma Watson, and several Premier League footballers.

The windows of its headquarters on the Strand in London have been used as a billboard to advertise the new brand values, with a giant image of Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford to mark Black History Month and rainbow graphics for the Pride parade.

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It is the royal family, though, with which Coutts is most associated. The queen mother, at one point, amassed a £4m overdraft, leading Queen Elizabeth II to reportedly joke: “Coutts would have folded long ago but for Mummy’s overdraft.”

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There is even a Coutts-operated cash machine in the basement of Buckingham Palace, which was revealed in the 2019 Channel 5 TV series Secrets of the Royal Palaces.

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For many, the attraction of Coutts lies in showing off their bank card, but it also offers a wide range of perks, including fancy networking events with other rich people and exclusive dinners in the roof garden atop its headquarters. Customers are given access to its concierge service, which promises that it can secure tables at booked-out Michelin-starred restaurants or tickets for sold-out concerts and gigs.

Ed Clare, a Coutts customer and property developer, said the bank helped him organise a four-day stag party in Barcelona after he mentioned it in an “informal chat”. He also used the concierge to secure six tickets for a sold-out Adele concert. “I use them [the concierge service] for everything,” Clare told the FT. “It does make me more loyal.”

The Coutts concierge manager has boasted that over the years the bank has arranged a wedding on Juliet’s balcony in Verona, sourced an elephant for another wedding reception, and arranged for a client’s daughter to play the organ in Notre Dame cathedral, Paris.

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Gordon Pell, a previous Coutts chief executive, has said that in order to get an account at the bank, you had to be “seriously special”. He said: “You could be exceptionally rich and we still might not want to give you an account.”

While the bank decided to cancel Farage’s account, it was reportedly prepared to receive €3m in cash, handed to the then Prince Charles in a suitcase and Fortnum & Mason carrier bags by Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, a former prime minister of Qatar, in 2015.

Its more controversial customers have included the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the mafia leader Emilio Di Giovine, and it has hosted accounts allegedly linked to a vast Russian money-laundering operation.

“It’s arch hypocrisy that they were happy to take money like that, but are ditching Farage because he’s not woke enough,” Doherty said.

Dianne Hayter, who sits in the House of Lords, said last year: “It seems that genuine money launderers can bring in foreign money and buy up property with no disclosure of ownership, but we Peps [politically exposed persons] get this ridiculous six-page questionnaire …  wanting to know about my past employers, my family wealth.”

Mark Borkowski, a PR and branding expert, said Coutts had fallen into “the depths of the woke wars” and it would be hard to dig its way out.

“They’re trying to attract younger clients with virtue signalling, but they’ve massively got this wrong, and imagine how their established older clients are going to be feeling about all this,” he said. “They should have put a blanket on the fire when it first ignited. Instead they’ve thrown petrol on it.”

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