THE British bet on everything. Last week the bets were on minister for Europe Keith Vaz. Would he stay or would he go? The spotlight moved to Vaz after North Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson quit over the Hinduja passport affair. The press wanted another scalp, and they just went for Vaz.
The attack, though, wasn't confined to the passport affair. Where did Vaz find the money to buy a house worth $1.5 million? Why did he cancel the purchase when the media turned on the heat? Were there donations from his constituency that were unaccounted for? Why did he arrange a meeting at the foreign office between a restaurant owner and the manager of an insurance firm over unsettled claims worth a quarter million dollars? Why did the insurance firm pay up after refusing at first? Did he receive money through a solicitor that he failed to declare?
Goodbye, Mr Vaz, The Sunday Telegraph headlined its editorial on the beleaguered minister. He Vaz to Go, said The Sun. Just as everyone thought his resignation was imminent, Vaz seemed to pull back, yet again. Prime Minister Tony Blair defended him, then foreign secretary Robin Cook, and now Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has come to his defence. Cook said he found nothing but "innuendo" and "guilt by association" in the media campaign against Vaz. Other ministers, too, clamoured that Vaz, or "embattled minister for Europe" as the media has currently titled him, had done nothing wrong.
But that still didn't end the controversy. Blair gave a clean chit to Vaz "on the basis of the papers I have seen". Cook, though, said Vaz had done nothing wrong "as a minister", leaving room for speculation over donations from his constituency. (Vaz has faced a year-long inquiry on this issue.) Given Vaz's unpopularity, Blair was risking a good deal politically in backing him.
The most serious problem Vaz faces is a parliamentary inquiry into receipt of money and his alleged failure to declare it. Elizabeth Filkin, parliamentary commissioner for standards, has completed the inquiry, a spokeswoman for her office told Outlook. The standards and privileges committee of Parliament has already begun its inquiries following that report. Solicitor Sarosh Zaiwalla was called to give evidence before that committee on February 7. The 11 committee members, eight of whom are Labour MPs, are grilling witnesses in detail. The Times, which claims to have access to the report, says Filkin has cleared Vaz only partly. Any finding of impropriety here would be disastrous for Vaz. Pressure is mounting for the inquiry process to be completed before May, when the general election is expected to be held.
There seems no respite for Vaz. Across the spectrum of political leanings—The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Guardian, The Observer—the British media is out to get Vaz. Any defence of Vaz is dutifully mentioned, but without doubt he has emerged as the most unpopular figure in the Labour government.
Vaz has dubbed it a campaign fed by racism. Others in the government say he is being attacked because he is pro-Europe. (As minister for Europe what else could he be?) Foreign secretary Cook said in a bbc interview that "Keith Vaz has done an excellent job as Europe minister and indeed, let's be frank, that is why some of the papers are out to get him."
In his interview with The Times, Cook said: "Let's deal with the facts, not innuendo. Not a single fact has been produced which suggests Keith has behaved improperly as a minister or broken the ministerial code. " Cook urged the media to "bring the curtain down on this incessant hounding".
Surprisingly, Vaz has found few friends in the Asian community. Lord Meghnad Desai, a Labour peer, rubbished the racism angle and thought the British media would've gunned for him irrespective of the colour of his skin. Liberal Democrat president Lord Navneet Dholakia, too, thought the racist twist to the Vaz controversy was "nonsense". Worse, there was little sign of support for Vaz in his Indian-dominated Leicester East constituency.
Vaz now simultaneously faces the parliamentary inquiry and a second inquiry into the Hinduja passport business. He badly needs to clear both without a hint of doubt over him. And yet, he could survive all this. Lord Irvine, Vaz's former boss when he was junior minister in the Law Department, called him "the most incredible networker I've ever seen". And there has never been a time quite like this to test those skills.
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