Art is one of Mr Townsley’s great passions. Another, apparently, is his desire for a peerage.
When a list of names recommended for elevation to the House of Lords was leaked recently, the inclusion of Mr Townsley, a 59-year- old stockbroker, caused bafflement and not a little dismay. There were allegations that honours were being awarded for donations and his name, especially, was singled out because apart from giving Pounds 6,000 to Labour, he has promised up to Pounds 1.5 million for one of Mr Blair’s pet projects, City Academies.
Mr Townsley’s proposed peerage, and that of another big Labour donor, Sir David Garrard, came in for special scrutiny by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The Commission wanted to know, understandably perhaps, what these men had done to warrant a seat in the House of Lords.
With new peerages due to be announced soon, there is still no word on whether the commission has received a satisfactory answer.
Yesterday, Downing Street refused to discuss the matter.
But, not unnaturally, the many people who know Mr Townsley are discussing it avidly. And it may interest him and his supporters to know that his proposed peerage has prompted derision across London. In the City there are dark murmurings about scandal once attaching to his name; in the north London social milieu in which he moves the idea of him becoming a peer is widely deplored.
It comes down to this question: what has he done to deserve it?
No one is saying he isn’t a jolly good chap, a family man who supports numerous causes, apart from New Labour. He dresses youthfully and occasionally zanily, although acquaintances say his conversation is anything but quirky. “He is not the most scintillating of people to sit next to at dinner,” said one. Another said he was inclined to be short-tempered, although “very generous”.
His gifts to the Labour Party don’t reflect this, at first sight. Records show he has given only Pounds 6,000, plus a Pounds 10,000 donation to Frank Dobson’s doomed mayoral campaign, which would probably count against him now. Some Labour supporters are believed to have made the party loans, but we can’t know if Mr Townsley falls into this category, because the party says loans are commercial transactions and it won’t identify lenders. His friend, Lord Bell, who speaks for him, told the Standard: “Any financial arrangements between Mr Townsley and the Labour Party that require publication have been published.”
MR TOWNSLEY could certainly afford substantial gifts. He sold his stockbroking firm for a reported Pounds 10 million a few years ago and has other holdings including a stake, said to be worth several millions, in the Stock Exchange itself. He dines at Daphne’s and Le Caprice, in which he has a shareholding; he owned a winning racehorse with his friend, ownertrainer Robert Waley-Cohen, and his City connections are excellent.
Nevertheless, the way this north London grammar school boy worked his way from pinstripe to ermine has raised questions about the entire honours system.
It is said of Barry Townsley that whatever his shortcomings may be, he is brilliant at picking his partners.
That was evident when, in November 1975, he married Laura Wolfson, daughter of Lord Wolfson of Marylebone. The Wolfson business dynasty was founded by Laura’s grandfather, Isaac, who started the GUS mail order giant.
The firm was one of Britain’s great success stories, but that was not the way anyone would describe Barry Townsley at the time of his marriage.
He was working at Astaire and Co, but the City was enduring one of the longest bear runs in memory and things were tough. At the same desk at Astaire was Ronnie Jacobson, another hungry young stockbroker.
“I was hardly making a living,” Mr Jacobson recalled. “In the spring of 1976 the market started to plummet.
Things were very tight.”
Not a time for taking risks, it might be thought, but Mr Townsley and his friend Jacobson quit their jobs and set up their own firm. City gossip had it that the newly married Barry Townsley had significant financial backing from his new wife’s family and when his firm began to thrive, rivals suggested it was because his father- in-law was putting valuable business his way.
“I won’t say the Wolfson connection wasn’t helpful, because it was,” Mr Jacobson said. “But it was more the perception of the connection than anything else. It helped when we had to borrow money, for example. The old man (Laura’s grandfather) gave us a few orders, but Leonard (her father) wasn’t interested in the stock market.”
Barry Townsley and Ronnie Jacobson made a good pairing. Ronnie — as he is universally known — is among the most affable of men, charming and proud of his record of never having fallen out with anyone. Not even Barry Townsley?
They split in 1991, when Mr Jacobson took his half of the firm and bowed out of frontline stockbroking.
There were rumours that the two friends had quarrelled irretrievably, but Mr Jacobson denied it. “It was a divorce,” he said. “He went his way, I went mine. I bumped into him in a restaurant the other day and we had a perfectly friendly chat. There was no big falling out.”
But their working relationship did come under strain. Jacobson Townsley earned a reputation as a firm for being, well, extremely eager. They chased the big corporate fees that went with bringing companies to the market and Barry Townsley was said to be adept at persuading brokers to favour his companies’ stock.
One of his clients was Sir Trevor Dawson, among the City’s most colourful characters. In 1981, as the Thatcher era was hitting its stride, Sir Trevor was an investment banker with legendary spending habits. He was chauffeured around London in a Cadillac — number plate TD 1 — often with an attractive young woman at his side. He adored horse racing and revelled in his soubriquet, the Galloping Major. He once challenged Lord Hesketh to a race over jumps.
Behind the glamorous screen of his private life, however, Sir Trevor was running a sleazy scam. He was buying shares for clients, then, if their value rose quickly, he would secretly move the short- term profits into accounts controlled by himself. One of the stockbroking firms he used was Jacobson Townsley and when he was eventually found out, Barry Townsley and Ronnie Jacobson were barred from the floor of the exchange for six months for “gross misconduct”.
Apart from the embarrassment to the Wolfson family — whose name was dragged into the scandal — the penalty was not severe. Neither partner worked on the Stock Exchange floor. For Sir Trevor it could not have been worse. He was exiled from the City and barely a year later, deep in debt and wholly without prospects, asphyxiated himself with a plastic bag.
It emerged that this last act had been a beau geste. He killed himself hours before a number of life insurance policies expired so that his widow, Caroline, would have money to care for their disabled son, Michael.
Sir Trevor died broke, but the 1980s were good to Barry Townsley. After Ronnie Jacobson’s departure, the firm continued to prosper and was sold in 1999 to a Dutch bank, Insinger de Beaufort. One report suggested Mr Townsley made Pounds 10 million from the deal. He was kept on to run the firm, then, three years ago, he found himself again enmeshed in a City controversy.
The Financial Services Authority launched an investigation after a mystery buyer bought 500,000 Railtrack shares just days before the then Transport Secretary Stephen Byers announced, in March 2002, that the Government had decided, after all, to bail out the firm.
The stock had been languishing but its price soared after the announcement and the purchase secured a profit of nearly Pounds 1 million for the buyer, who was not identified. The identity of the broker who placed the order for the shares was never in doubt, it was Insinger de Beaufort, whose chairman was Barry Townsley.
There was no suggestion he was involved in any irregularity or illegal activity and the FSA told the Standard that no action was taken following its inquiries. Mr Townsley said his firm simply acted for a client.
But the affair was annoying for him because it was reported in the context of him being a Labour donor. He has never sought to publicise his links to the Government, perhaps because they come through personal friends. Key among these is Martin Paisner, a highlyrespected solicitor who acts for the Blair family. Mr Townsley, his wife Laura and Mr Paisner have a film production company, Wisecroft, which appeared to have serious ambitions. Companies House records show its shares have a nominal value of more than Pounds 6 million.
WITH the Townsleys as executive producers, Wisecroft made a picture starring Sir Michael Caine and the Hollywood actor Martin Landau. The film, Shiner, was based on the downfall of a small-time crook in London’s underworld.
It came out five years ago when gritty gangster movies were in vogue, but apart from critical acclaim for Sir Michael’s performance, it achieved little. Wisecroft seems to have been quiet recently, perhaps because Mr Townsley and Mr Paisner have had other things on their minds.
Both men are ardent supporters of charities, especially those aimed at Jewish causes and Israel. Mr Paisner, Mr Townsley and Laura Townsley are trustees of the Wolfson Townsley Charitable Trust, a wealthy charity which last year made grants of Pounds 177,000. The largest donation — Pounds 45,000 — went to Imperial College for meningitis research, but significant sums went to other causes including Jewish Care, which received Pounds 10,000.
The Townsleys and Mr Paisner are staunch supporters of Jewish Care, which works to relieve suffering in the Jewish community. Their efforts for the charity brought them into close contact with Lord Levy, its president. Lord Levy is a member of Tony Blair’s inner circle.
Mr Paisner was asked by the Blairs to run the blind trust that handles their personal financial affairs. The trust was used to buy two flats in Bristol three years ago, in a deal negotiated by the Australian conman Peter Foster who was, at the time, the boyfriend of Carole Caplin, Cherie Blair’s health and style guru. It was an unfortunate episode for Tony Blair, not least because when Mr Paisner was identified as one of two people running the blind trust, it also emerged his law firm had been given more government work than any other.
According to one report, Berwin Leighton Paisner has won more than 100 government contracts, including a lucrative consultancy on the Millennium Dome project. Many familiar with London’s legal scene will scoff at suggestions that Mr Paisner’s firm secured this sort of work because of the connection to Mr Blair and Labour.
His company is enthusiastic about private finance initiatives, something in which Mr Blair has placed a lot of personal and political capital. An offshoot of PFI, of course, is the City Academy idea in which private money is invested in schools.
Enter Barry Townsley. We cannot know how the thought came to him, but Mr Townsley has decided to donate up to Pounds 1.5 million to a City Academy in Uxbridge. It is tempting to imagine that his friend Martin Paisner suggested this, or even Lord Levy. Perhaps it was his own idea.
Whichever is the case, few doubt that Mr Townsley’s friends have been keen to see that he earns recognition. But as much as Labour likes to reward those who help them, even among party loyalists this may be a peerage too far.
Source: The Evening Standard (London), 15th December, 2005
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