Paul Flowers: the banker vicar with no experience of banking and a taste for crack cocaine

The Reverend Paul Flowers, 63, found himself at the centre of one of most sensational “dirty vicar” stories in years, having been filmed buying £300 worth of crack cocaine, ketamine and crystal meth.


Ordinarily, the Reverend Paul Flowers, 63, would have been presiding over the 10.30am service at Bradford's Wibsey Methodist Church last Sunday, says The Mail on Sunday. Instead, he was at the centre of one of most sensational "dirty vicar" stories in years, having been filmed buying £300 worth of crack cocaine, ketamine and crystal meth for what he described in a series of incriminating texts as "a drug fuelled gay orgy!!!".

Flowers had been set up by Stuart Davies, whom he'd met on the gay dating website Grindr. Apparently "disgusted by the hypocrisy" of the name-dropping Labour councillor, Davies decided to expose him. The more liberal among us might have felt a sneaking sympathy with the Reverend for being grassed up by such "a shabby little chiseller", says the London Evening Standard. After all, "we positively celebrate this kind of behaviour" among celebrities. The big difference is that, until recently, Flowers was not just chairman of the "ethical" Co-op Bank, he was also responsible for "steering it around the U-bend".

Even before these revelations, Flowers was "struggling to defend himself against charges that he was not fit and proper to run a bank", said the FT. In a recent appearance before the Treasury Select Committee, "he seemed bemused by the most basic banking concepts". Asked how much the Co-op's assets were, he hazarded a guess at £3bn, when the actualnumber was £47bn. Perhaps this wasn't so surprising. As Flowers admitted to the committee, his only experience of banking prior to joining the Co-op board was a stint at NatWest as a school-leaver more than 40 years ago. "I would judge that experience is out of date in terms of the needs of contemporary banking," he told stunned MPs.

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Flowers was born in Portsmouth, but lived in the north for many years, sharing a modest Bradford house with his mother until her death last year. Apologising this week, he cited bereavement and the pressure of the Co-op blow-out for his descent into drug abuse.

But a reckless streak has been evident for some time, says The Times: he was forced out of Bradford City Council in 2011 after pornography was found on his work laptop. If Flowers was a foolhardy risk-taker, he was also ambitious, says the Daily Mail. Beginning his ascent up the Methodist church ladder soon after becoming a minister, he collected committees and chairmanships like trophies. Ironically, one was the drugs charity Lifeline.

Described by a former Bradford councillor as "pompous", Flowers often boasted of his connections in the Labour party. Given the blow his "tawdry tale" has inflicted on the political and regulatory establishment this week (see box), there must be a few members of the ShadowCabinet regretting their acquaintance with him.

How did a man of such "brazen unsuitability" get the job?

Flowers' involvement with the Co-op is a "story of incompetence at the highest level of British banking", says The Times. How on earth was a man of such "brazen unsuitability" put in charge of £36bn in deposits and nearly five million customers? The answer may boil down to a combination of politics and yet another "serious failure of financial regulation". The suspicion is that Labour kept quiet about Flower's "inappropriate behaviour" because the bank was a useful source of funds, bankrolling the constituency office of Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls alone to the tune of £50,000.

The explanation proffered by regulators for the FSA's "seemingly lackadaisical approach" to Flowers' appointment in 2010 is that his "political skills would be useful in coralling a large and unwieldy board", says Robert Peston on If so, it was to no good end. The ruinous 2009 Britannia merger took place before his elevation to chairman though he was on the board but he oversaw the failed attempt to purchase hundreds of branches from Lloyds. That deal revealed the £1.5bn capital black hole that led to the bank's effective takeover by a group of hedge funds. The Co-op group has now launched a "root and branch" review of its "democratic structure" a tacit admission that a governance system that allowed a small number of political activists "to control the group's commercial activities" was rotten.

About time, says Allister Heath in City AM. The links with Labour should cease now; politicians bear much responsibility for the bank's plight. Determined to create more competition in banking, they fell for the Co-op's hubris. You know how it goes with these gateway drugs, says Jonathan Guthrie in the FT. "Pamphlets from the Fabian society on socially responsible lending [lead] to the hard stuff Treasury consultations about challenger banks. Next, you're off your face on mutuality and you try to buy 632 branches of Lloyds you haven't a clue whether you can afford."