ARMED with a Commons majority at last, the Tories weren’t shy to reward their wealthy banker friends in the 2015 birthday honours.
The “political service” knighthood for Tory treasurer and donor Henry Angest set the tone. Angest runs the private Arbuthnot Bank for rich people and Everyday Loans, a high-cost lender for not-rich people.
Then there was the CBE for Jeremy Isaacs, the £298,000 donor who in 2010 was named in the official report into the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Until 2008 he had been its chief executive for Europe, the Middle East and Asia as the bank over-extended itself with ever riskier investments.
The report cites emails showing how Isaacs pretended things were ok even as the black hole was growing. In August 2008, when Lehman was in secret talks to fill the hole by selling 50 percent of its shares to Korean financiers, Ian Lowitt, chief financial officer, was deeply worried, but Isaacs reassured him: "Fingers crossed. Things usually work out for the best!!!” The sale failed.
A week before Lehmann collapsed, Isaacs said he was leaving. As the roof fell in its “remuneration committee” then authorised a $5m pay off for him. Isaacs’ honours citation is “for services to the NHS” – he has a minor job on the Imperial College NHS Trust board. NHS staff are no doubt delighted for him.
Sara Weller, CBE, is a director of Lloyds who also sits on the board of the Department for Communities and Local Government. She joined Lloyds in February 2012 and is, says the bank, “a strong advocate of customers”. Not strong enough to stop it being fined £117m for ripping off customers “when handling Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) complaints between March 2012 and May 2013” apparently.
There was a CBE too for Robin Budenburg, outgoing head of UK Financial Investments, which manages government shares in RBS. Budenburg designed the bail-out of RBS for Gordon Brown; and later told MPs that at UKFI he had overruled George Osborne when the chancellor wanted to limit big bonuses in publicly-owned banks. Low bonuses were not “commercially sustainable”, he said. Before UKFI he worked at UBS when it paid 426 of its senior bankers bonuses using a tricksy tax avoidance scheme and refused to tell the Eye whether his went through it. He has since left UKFI to join a “boutique bank”, where he still has an interest in keeping bonuses high.
Una O’Brien, Department of Health permanent secretary, was made a “Dame Commander”. In 2012 she was called before the Commons public accounts committee to explain why she had backed the disastrous private finance initiative and privatisation of Hinchingbrooke Hospital. She told MPs that PFIs were signed “at a point when NHS money was growing every year. People did not in any sense foresee what was to come”. So that’s her in the clear.
Rory Brooks, who has given £290,000 to the Conservatives, got a CBE for “charitable services”. He founded private equity firm MML Capital, which owns Vanguard, a private outfit that does operations for the NHS from the backs of lorries. In 2014 its contract for NHS eye operations in Somerset was suspended after patients reported complications. In March Vanguard then won another £160m NHS contract to do more ops from the backs of lorries.
Melanie Leech, outgoing director-general of the Food and Drink Federation, got a CBE. As chief lobbyist for the food firms, one of her main jobs over the last decade has been to derail government attempts to fight obesity and undermine the drive for proper food labels and to limit junk food averts.
Nigel Whitehead, group managing director of BAE Systems, got a CBE for his part in supplying weapons to the UK and progressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia. Stephen Wadey, former boss of missile maker MBDA who is now CEO of arms tech firm QinetiQ, got an OBE. He helps run the government’s Defence Growth Partnership, which promotes arms exports.
There was a consolation knightood for Bernard Gray, brought in by the then defence secretary Liam Fox to run the UK’s £15bn defence procurement programme and who devised a plan to privatise it (Eyes passim) that was eventually scrapped with little to show except huge bills from management consultants. The Eye also exposed Gray’s lavish expenses, including £23,000 on hotels when working in London even though he lived just 60 miles away and had a driver and car.
The citation for the knighthood for Chelmsford’s long-serving Tory MP Simon Burns says the K was for “political and parliamentary service”. But everyone at Westminster knows it was given it because he is unpopular speaker John Bercow’s most sulphurous critic. When the Tories were in opposition, Burns was a whip and one of the MPs he was given responsibility for was Bercow. The two soon became sworn foes. When Bercow became speaker, Burns was among the first to fall out with him, calling him a “sanctimonious dwarf”.
The honours list did have one obvious sop to the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg’s former special adviser Neil Sherlock got a CBE. Sherlock now works for management consultancy PWC, helping run its lobbying and political business as “head of reputational strategy” at the firm that was recently described by the public accounts committee as orchestrating tax avoidance on “an industrial scale”.
Professor Gillian May Nicholls, deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Surrey, was awarded an OBE for services to higher education – just as the university scraps around 100 posts, mostly academic. Cutbacks are already known to be happening in bioscience, computing, music, languages and politics, although the university pulled back from closing its politics department entirely last month and agreed to make cuts through voluntary redundancy to head off a strike threat.
Robert Davis, Tory deputy leader of Westminster city council, scooped an MBE for “services to planning and local government” – his services to planning having led him to feature in the Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column.
In the curious case of the Crispy Duck Chinese restaurant in Soho (Eye 1165) with his solicitor’s hat on as a wealthy property lawyer, Davis tried to get the local residents association, the Soho Society, to drop its objections to the Crispy’s plan for increased seating and later drinking hours. Many thought this represented a conflict of interest for a man who was the council’s cabinet member for planning at the time.
The MBE will sit nicely on the mantelpiece of his spacious Maida Vale apartment (two adjoining flats worth some £2m each, knocked into one) beside the Rotten Boroughs “Two Fingers to the Poor” award 2013 (Eye 1357). In a talk to property PR types he spoke of his empathy with those struggling to get on the London housing ladder. “What we really need,” he said, “is affordable housing (for) people who are on their first job (who have) just got a basic, simple job on a salary of £50,000-£80,000 a year...”
The OBE for PR woman Julia Hobsbawm, perhaps best known for being the daughter of late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, was given for “services to public relations” but services to “remorseless self-publicity” might have been more fitting. Within hours of her gong being announced, she had amended the front page of her personal website and inserted a mention of it into the very first line.