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Wednesday, November 20, 2013 

The Paul Flowers pops.

At times, political machinations utterly perplex me.  Take the case this week of Paul Flowers, the former chairman of the Co-op Bank, who was pictured on the front page of the Mail on Sunday allegedly buying an assortment of Class As.  The secretly recorded video was incidentally "provided" (i.e. sold) to the paper by a "friend" (a 26-year-old Flowers met via the Grindr app) disgusted at Flowers' "hypocrisy".  Don't we all wish for friends like that?

Quite why the story was deemed front page material is still unclear.  Flowers left his position at the Co-op Bank back in June; he was only brought back into something resembling the limelight after he appeared before the Treasury select committee at the beginning of the month, around the time it's claimed he was exchanging texts with and buying drugs in the presence of Stuart Davies.  As yet, there hasn't been any suggestion Flowers was taking drugs during his time as chairman of the bank, although obviously that's the implication.  Flowers was however also a Bradford councillor up until 2011, when he resigned after his computer was found to have "inappropriate material" (i.e. porn) on it when handed in for a service.  Again, quite why accessing material that's perfectly legal, even on a computer provided by the state, should be a resignation issue escapes me (we're not seriously suggesting such devices should be solely for professional rather than personal use, are we?) but this misdemeanour apparently should have tipped off both the Co-op and the Labour party as to the fact he was a bit of a wrong'un, or at least should have done had they been informed.

The nub of the issue clearly has relatively little to do with how Flowers was clearly not suited to his role as bank chairman, and instead much to do with Flowers' and the Co-op group's involvement with Labour.  There is the matter of how Flowers was given the OK to become chairman despite having an extremely rudimentary knowledge of banking, with the defunct Financial Services Authority ticking the relevant boxes, Robert Peston pointing out that Graeme Hardie, now a non-executive director on the Co-op board was one of those who interviewed Flowers back then, but it's not exactly a surprise that the FSA wasn't onerous in asking questions, even after the crash.  No, this is as David Cameron made clear at prime minister's questions, all about Flowers' relationship with Labour, his position on the party's finance and industry board, and the various loans and arrangements the Co-op has in place with the party, both through the bank and the business proper.  Flowers "broke the bank", and he was on one of Labour's policy boards.  Who wouldn't shoot towards such an open goal?

There are then to be two separate independent inquiries into the near collapse of the bank, neither of which it seems would have happened without the MoS discovering Flowers was/is a drug hoover (allegedly).  To row back on the cynicism for just a minute, it most likely will be useful to see if any individual's behaviour was more responsible than that of the others, or if there are any wider lessons to be learned from the bank having to raise funds via hedge funds to stay afloat, but let's not kid ourselves here.  The Tories are attacking Labour on every possible front just now, such is the apparent desperation at the failure to make any great headway into the opposition's poll lead.  The economy finally recovering was meant to lead to a feel good factor and a Tory bounce. Despite the lead narrowing over the summer and in the period up to the party conferences, Labour is now once again ahead by an average of 6 to 8 points.

Hence the constant bringing up of Unite, Len McCluskey and Miliband's supposed weakness, while everyone else yawns, knowing full well the biggest trade union's real influence on the leadership is negligible.  The continuing fallout from Falkirk could develop into something major, but for now it's just another talking point for those disenchanted with Miliband's leadership.  Going after Labour over Flowers perplexes as there is so obviously no scandal, unless businesses paying for party researchers becomes the issue it ought to be due to the potential for conflicts of interest.  As much as the coalition adores blaming the crash entirely on Labour and Gordon Brown, going over further FSA failures isn't going to achieve much.  Nor is flagging up Labour's relationship with Flowers particularly wise when he made clear at the Treasury select committee just how encouraging the former minister Mark Hoban had been of the bank's doomed attempt to take on 630 branches of Lloyds.

It's more that you can't really believe the chutzpah from Cameron in pointing the figure elsewhere when his former director of communications is on trial, in a case where three of those he worked alongside have already pleaded guilty to intercepting phone messages.  Miliband himself alluded to the trial in his response when he said "and they're just the people I can talk about in this house".  If crying scandal is meant to be a distraction, it isn't working.  More to the point, doing so just further encourages those who want to portray politics as being entirely venal and corrupt.  It takes something on the scale of the expenses scandal to really change minds.  Whatever was or wasn't known about Flowers, it doesn't so much as amount to a single "flipped" property.

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