Home Business A Brexit Champion’s Feud With His Elite Bank Brings a C.E.O. Down

A Brexit Champion’s Feud With His Elite Bank Brings a C.E.O. Down

A Brexit Champion’s Feud With His Elite Bank Brings a C.E.O. Down

When Nigel Farage campaigned for a fellow populist, Donald J. Trump, in Arizona in 2020, he seemed like a faded star seeking the spotlight abroad after it had swung past him at home. Having helped mobilize the pro-Brexit vote in 2016, Mr. Farage was marginalized in Britain, then consumed by the pandemic.

No longer: For three weeks, Mr. Farage, has been back on the front pages of British papers, with an attention-grabbing claim that his exclusive private bank, Coutts, dropped him as a customer because of his polarizing politics.

Early on Wednesday, after Mr. Farage’s allegations were largely vindicated, the chief executive of his bank’s parent, NatWest Group, resigned after she admitted improperly discussing his bank account with a BBC journalist. The chief executive, Alison Rose, said she was guilty of a “serious error of judgment.”

For Mr. Farage, who expertly stoked the dispute on social media and with appearances on the TV network GB News, the drama catapulted him back into the limelight. It was a striking turn of events for a political insurgent who became, for many, a reviled symbol of Brexit, and later, a culture warrior on right-wing television.

Now, facing expulsion from Coutts, a bank founded in 1692 that serves members of the British royal family, Mr. Farage suddenly began getting expressions of sympathy from some improbable places.

“He shouldn’t have had his personal details revealed like that,” Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party said on the BBC Radio 5 Live show. “It doesn’t matter who you are; that’s a general rule,” Mr. Starmer said, adding that Ms. Rose’s departure was warranted by her mishandling of the case.

Among Mr. Farage’s stoutest defenders was Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who said on Twitter, “No one should be barred from using basic services for their political views. Free speech is the cornerstone of our democracy.”

Pressure from Mr. Sunak and the chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, hastened Ms. Rose’s downfall after she confessed to being the source for the BBC report, which claimed, erroneously, that Mr. Farage had been dropped because he did not have enough money in his accounts. The government owns 39 percent of NatWest, which in turn owns Coutts.

The episode, analysts said, underscores the power that Mr. Farage, a former head of the U.K. Independence Party, still wields over the Conservatives. The Tories have long feared losing the votes of Brexiteers, who were critical to their electoral landslide in 2019, to whatever populist party is currently identified with Mr. Farage.

Though Mr. Farage, 59, stepped down in 2021 as head of his latest party, Reform U.K., he is the host of a GB News talk show and remains an outspoken voice on issues like asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats. Prodded partly by Mr. Farage’s commentary, Mr. Sunak has made curbing the influx of small boats one of the five major goals of his government.

“They’re very aware they need to hold on to the Farage-friendly voters they picked up in 2019,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “They’re being driven in that direction, too, by the right-wing print media. This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened — and it won’t be the last.”

Mr. Farage isn’t satisfied yet. He is demanding the ouster of NatWest’s chairman, Howard Davies, and the chief executive of Coutts, Peter Flavel. And he says he will fight on behalf of thousands of other people whose accounts he says have been unfairly closed.

“You can’t live or survive in the modern world without a bank account — you become a nonperson,” Mr. Farage said on GB News on Wednesday. “The whole banking industry culture has gone wrong. We need big changes in the law.”

What exactly Mr. Farage has in mind is not clear. But his campaign plays into a fervid political climate in Britain, which suggests that his critique might gain traction. The Conservatives, trailing Labour in opinion polls by double digits, are seizing on social and culture issues to try to galvanize their voters.

Mr. Sunak asserted this week that the Labour Party was in league with criminal gangs and unscrupulous lawyers in promoting the flow of asylum seekers across the channel. He presented himself as the bulwark against this illegal immigration, the kind of claim Mr. Farage might have made when he was in politics.

“If Farage is smart, he will use this as a runway to some kind of political comeback,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent whose recent book, “Values, Voice and Virtue,” claims that Britain is ruled by an out-of-touch elite that is well to the left of the broader population.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Mr. Goodwin said. “The institutions, like the banks, are dominated by people who lean much further to the cultural left than many voters and who often do not even realize they are being political.”

Such sweeping assertions are open to debate, of course. In the United States, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has had mixed results going after what he calls the “woke” policies of corporate giants like the Walt Disney Company.

What makes Mr. Farage’s story striking is that he turned out to be right on the facts of the banking case — and some bastions of the British banking and media establishment turned out to be wrong.

In late June, Mr. Farage said on social media that his bank told him it planned to close his account in July. Seven other banks, he said, turned him down when he tried to open a new account. He said he believed he had been flagged as a “politically exposed person,” meaning he was vulnerable to bribery by foreign governments, and therefore a risk to the bank.

In early July, the BBC reported that the bank, now identified as Coutts, dropped Mr. Farage because he was not maintaining adequate account balances — and that his politics had nothing to do with it. But on July 18, Mr. Farage made public a 40-page document he obtained from the bank, which painted a different picture.

Mr. Farage, the report said, is “considered by many to be a disingenuous grifter,” often criticized for racist or xenophobic statements. Such statements, it said, put Mr. Farage at odds with the bank’s goal of being an “inclusive organization.” The report also noted that he is an ally of Mr. Trump’s and a fan of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, though the bank’s risk committee found no evidence of “direct links” between him and the Russian government.

“There are significant reputational risks to the bank in being associated with him,” the report concluded, recommending that Coutts wind down its relationship with Mr. Farage after the expiration of a mortgage

The BBC’s economics editor, Simon Jack, and the chief executive of BBC News, Deborah Turness, apologized to Mr. Farage — as did Ms. Rose, who confirmed that she was the source for its report. She expressed regret for discussing his account, as well as for “the deeply inappropriate language contained in those papers.”

For Mr. Farage, who has sometimes seemed adrift since Britain left the European Union, it seemed the springboard to a new cause, if not a return to politics.

“It signals a big campaign on behalf of the huge number of ordinary people who’ve been de-banked and have had no one to speak up for them,” Mr. Farage said through a spokeswoman at GB News.

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