Dear Mohamed

Paul Foot

  • Sleaze: The Corruption of Parliament by David Leigh and Ed Vulliamy
    Fourth Estate, 263 pp, £9.99, January 1997, ISBN 1 85702 694 2

Betty Boothroyd has called on the media to provide ‘fairer and better balanced coverage’ of the House of Commons. ‘Above all,’ she has warned, they ‘should not use the occasion for highly generalised and unsubstantiated comments against Members of the House as a whole and the Parliamentary system’. The ‘occasion’ to which she refers is the inquiry being conducted by a new officer of her House, Sir Gordon Downey, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Sir Gordon is investigating allegations of corruption made against certain MPs by the Guardian newspaper. The allegations referred to payments and relationships between MPs, lobbyists and businessmen dating back more than ten years: ten years in which the media now berated by the Speaker displayed an almost unanimous reluctance to refer in any way to these delicate matters.

An exception was The Cook Report, an investigative programme on commercial television, which in 1994 laid an elaborate trap. Using actors pretending to be businessmen, the programme-makers approached Sir Michael Grylls, long-standing Tory MP for North-West Surrey, and introduced themselves as agents for a firm which wanted to smuggle art treasures out of Russia. As a cover for their enterprise, they explained, they wanted to buy a government agency, preferably the Insolvency Agency, which was then part of the Department of Trade, and they needed help from willing politicians. To establish this ridiculous fiction the actors offered only a false address in the United States and posh premises in Park Lane equipped with an answering machine. Grylls was hooked at once. He recommended the legendary lobbyist Ian Greer, who was approached by the hoaxers and, like Grylls, immediately hoodwinked. Lured to the bogus Park Lane offices Greer and his associates were filmed as they boasted about their powerful contacts in the Tory Party and the Government. Greer even mentioned John Major as ‘a close friend’. The programme-makers arranged further such meetings, one in a Spanish castle, to which Greer was asked to invite his contacts.

Greer’s network of helpful politicians was about to be exposed when Central Television and its new owner Carlton pulled the plug. The booking for the Spanish castle was cancelled: there were to be no more meetings. No reason was given to the programme-makers for the sudden managerial order to stop everything and destroy the tapes of what had so far been recorded. Without public complaint from anyone in authority, and certainly not from Madam Speaker, the media censored their own astonishing revelations of Parliamentary sleaze.

Not long after the Cook Report fiasco, the Sunday Times revealed that two MPs had agreed to payments of £1000 to ask questions. The MPs were briefly suspended. The journalists who had made the discovery were subjected to savage criticism in Parliament. What had shocked the Members was not the evidence of corruption in the House, but the discovering and publishing of it.

The Cook Report team had not chosen the Insolvency Agency as their pretended target at random. The Minister of Trade in charge of the Agency was Neil Hamilton, the ambitious, dashing and very right-wing Tory MP for Tatton. For at least a year reporters at the Guardian had been trying to substantiate allegations by Mohamed Al Fayed, the proprietor of Harrods, that Hamilton had taken money, and accepted a week-long stay at the Ritz in Paris (the hotel belonged to Fayed), in exchange for fighting Fayed’s corner in Parliament. Hamilton was known as a close friend and associate of Ian Greer, and had asked questions favourable to Fayed in the latter’s interminable vendetta against the chairman of Lonrho, Tiny Rowland. Guardian journalists had approached Hamilton about his association with Fayed; and in October 1993, Hamilton wrote a long letter to the editor insisting that everything about that association was completely above-board and threatening libel if anything to the contrary appeared in print. Hamilton reminded the editor that he and a fellow Tory MP, Gerald Howarth, had won a libel action against the BBC in 1986 in connection with a Panorama programme, Maggie’s Militant Tendency. His letter worked wonders. For many months afterwards the Guardian kept quiet.

At last, on 20 October 1994, the paper published the story that Fayed had paid the MPs Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton to campaign on his behalf in the House of Commons. Smith, a former Tory Party Treasurer, admitted the payments and promptly resigned as a junior Northern Ireland Minister. Hamilton denied everything to everyone. He told Michael Heseltine that he had had no financial relationship with Greer – a lie direct. He clung to office for a few days and then resigned. But he and Greer issued a series of libel writs which threatened the Guardian with damages of several million pounds and unimaginable costs.

How did Betty Boothroyd’s scrupulous House of Commons deal with these new allegations? Did MPs seek to find out the real truth from the alleged paymaster Fayed and his alleged MP payee, Hamilton? The issue went to what was then called the Privileges Committee, whose Tory majority voted to refrain from asking whether Hamilton had had money from Fayed. He came under mild criticism for not declaring his expensive stay at the Ritz Hotel and there, to the fury of the Labour minority, the matter was left. The cover-up was carefully supervised by the Tory Whips office, in particular by two young MPs, David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts and Andrew Mitchell, whose father, David Mitchell, is also a Tory MP, and once chose Neil Hamilton to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

The Guardian had told a bit of the story. Parliament had uncovered none of it. And that might have been an end to it. Hamilton’s libel action was knocked out by the courts on the grounds that it would be a breach of Parliamentary privilege to examine the secret financial relationships of MPs. Summoning his allies, including Lady Thatcher and Lord Archer in the House of Lords, Hamilton inspired an amendment to the Defamation Act then going through Parliament. The amendment, which was drummed through both Houses by the Tory majority, who behaved exactly as if they were being whipped, gave MPs the right to waive Parliamentary privilege in order to sue for libel. The Constitution was changed with the single aim of allowing a backbench MP, who had already admitted grave charges against him, to sue a newspaper for libel.

The beauty of the story is that Hamilton was brought down entirely by his own conceit. So certain was he of victory, so reassured by the craven behaviour of the BBC in 1986 in conceding to him without a fight that he had not appreciated the scope of ‘discovery’ in the law of libel. It is a complete defence against libel to prove that the facts complained of are true. To establish truth, the law gives both sides wide powers of discovery – powers which invariably uncover facts and figures far beyond the scope or the dreams of the original journalistic inquiry. The Guardian lawyers demanded discovery of every relevant document from Ian Greer Associates, from 10 Downing Street, from the Department of Trade, from Harrods and from Hamilton’s personal papers. For the first time, the real facts began to emerge. As the case loomed and the documents flowed, Hamilton lost his nerve. No one knows what finally persuaded him to throw in the towel. Was it a row with Greer, who had different interests in the case? Was it a clash with his lawyers about what he was obliged to disclose, especially from his tax papers? Whatever the reason, the libel action was abandoned, Hamilton and Greer made a contribution to the Guardian’s costs – and Hamilton was described on the Guardian’s front page as ‘a liar and a cheat’.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, one of the Guardian’s main rivals, Stephen Glover, a journalist of rare perspicacity, sets out the familiar ‘one rotten apple’ view: ‘Mr Hamilton appears to me a rather obnoxious little man, but he is just that, a little man, surrounded by other little men who have also received money from Mr Greer or Mr Fayed,’ he writes, taking the authors of Sleaze to task for seeking ‘to smear the entire Tory Party and our Parliamentary system’. ‘Where,’ he asks, ‘is the evidence?’

There is plenty of evidence in Leigh and Vulliamy’s book that they are dealing with something more than a couple of obnoxious little men. One of these little men, Greer, had enormous influence in the modern Tory Party, an influence which extended to 10 Downing Street. The sheer scope of the Greer empire outlined in Sleaze is amazing. He took money from and lobbied for (to name but a few) the Midland Bank, Trafalgar House, the National Nuclear Corporation, British Gas, the security systems company ADT, the international tobacco industry, the international oil industry, several hospital trusts, the brewers, the Government of Serbia and the trade union ASTMS. These organisations paid him because he did things for them. If his clients wanted a reference to the Monopolies Commission, he helped secure that reference. If they didn’t want such a reference, he helped to block it. There used to be a postal monopoly on all deliveries worth more than £1. Greer successfully lobbied ministers to scrap it, thus transforming one of his clients, the courier company DHL, into a multi-million concern forever grateful to Ian Greer Associates. An entirely new culture grew up in the Eighties, in which Tory MPs were encouraged to forge many more direct links with business. If Stephen Glover wants further evidence, he need only look at the last twenty years of the register of MPs’ interests, a relatively small document when it first came out in 1975, now a massive catalogue of outside pressures on elected representatives. There are few Tory MPs nowadays who have no business interests or consultancies.

In 1988, some heroic and anonymous mole at the merchant bank Morgan Grenfell supplied me with a secret memorandum sent to his colleagues by a director of the bank, David Douglas-Home: ‘As you are all aware,’ Douglas-Home wrote,

Andrew MacKay MP advises us on our political strategy and it is no small credit to him that we have recovered our political acceptability in Westminster and Whitehall following the problems of early last year. I do not believe we are using his considerable talents sufficiently as far as our clients are concerned, many of whom are extremely naive as to how to work with and use their MPs to advantage. Many companies underestimate how much their MP can do for them and many companies don’t even know who their MP is.

The realisation that MPs can help ‘their’ paymaster companies explains the meteoric rise to influence and fortune of Ian Greer. This was not an isolated phenomenon, restricted to an obnoxious gang round Neil Hamilton. It was, and is, a growing menace which makes an increasing mockery of the representative process.

One of the demands of the Chartists 150 years ago, a demand which was not conceded for half a century, was that MPs should be paid. For a representative democracy to work, it was argued, Parliament should be open to all. The old days of part-time representatives who joined Parliament in the same way as they joined their gentlemen’s clubs were over. It is part of the same argument that representatives should be full-time workers, subject only to the pressures of the people they represent. If MPs are paid by commercial interests, their representation of their constituents is compromised. The Morgan Grenfell memo referred to companies and ‘their MPs’. Firms are inclined to regard the MPs they pay as their humble servants. ‘Dear Mohamed,’ Neil Hamilton wrote to Al Fayed in July 1987, ‘I have now been elected secretary of the Conservative Finance Committee and vice-chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee, all of which gives me a better position from which to act on your behalf.’ Fayed was a much richer paymaster than Parliament could ever be, and therefore likely to wield much more influence with the MP than any constituent.

A glance through the MPs’ register shows at once that marry Tory MPs are paid sums for consultancies and directorships which can be as much as, if not more than, their Parliamentary salaries. Former ministers seem to do the best. Patrick Nicholls, the argumentative MP for Teignbridge, who had to resign his junior ministerial office when he was found a little over the limit in his motor-car, declares two Parliamentary consultancies worth £25,000, one ordinary consultancy, and four Parliamentary ‘adviser-ships’, worth £50,000. Another Hamilton, Sir Archibald, a former minister for the Armed Forces, declares seven remunerated directorships and three remunerated consultancies. Douglas Hurd, former Foreign Secretary, has a job with the National Westminster Bank worth at least three times his Parliamentary salary, and David Mellor, former Heritage Secretary, has consultancies with, among others, four big arms companies, who pay him at the very least twice as much as he gets for being an MP.

There is one way to stop all this nonsense. MPs should not be allowed any paid work outside Parliament. Ministers are obliged to forsake all outside income, to resign their directorships and to place their shareholdings in blind trusts. Andrew MacKay, the subject of that memo, is now a minister and has given up his Morgan Grenfell consultancy. The rules for ministers were designed to prevent any possible conflict of interest between private gain and public duty. Why should the same rules not apply to MPs?

Leigh and Vulliamy have put together a masterly analysis at high speed, but for some incomprehensible reason, investigative reporters who write books feel obliged to add what they think is ‘colour’ but is usually fatuous padding. Leigh and Vulliamy’s last chapter begins: ‘The sweet evening light of the Tuscan sun was still stroking the valleys of Chianti-shire when the phone rang.’ Oh dear. There follow three excruciating pages describing how the handsome barrister Geoffrey Robertson and his lovely wife and his debonair host John Mortimer and his lovely wife and other famous guests like Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair and their lovely wives just happened to be in Tuscany when Robertson took a phone call and at once accepted the Guardian’s brief for the Hamilton libel action. Reporters, especially good ones like David Leigh, should hire colour-blind subs. More important, the authors fall victim, on occasion, to what should become known as the Fayed Factor. It is largely thanks to Mohamed Fayed that Hamilton has been proved to be ‘a liar and a cheat’. The obvious problem is that Fayed is also a liar and a cheat and is exposed as such in an unanswerable government report. It is clearly legitimate for journalists to take the word of one liar to expose another, provided the facts can be checked, as they have been in this book. It is not legitimate to appear to take the side of one liar against another, as these authors sometimes do. Fayed did not want the facts of his background and his take-over of Harrods to come out. He bribed politicians to try to ensure a cover-up. When that failed, and the damning DTI report was finally published, Fayed became angry because his bribes had not worked. To suggest that this man is a stalwart campaigner against corruption is absurd.