by BARNIE CHOUDHURY
Former BBC journalist
IT WAS 1996, and I had moved to Leicester where everyone was waxing lyrical about this dynamic, eloquent and change-making MP.
His name was Keith Vaz and his record was impressive. A first-class law degree from Cambridge. A successful solicitor who moved to the city in 1985 when he was selected as Labour’s Leicester East candidate. Here he set up a law centre-cum-practice in his adopted constituency.
Vaz’s reputation as a fixer and problem-solver grew, and in 1987, he won with a slim majority and took his seat among a handful of ethnic minority parliamentarians. At the time he was seen as a real pioneer and role model for south Asians.
The first time I met him was the following year, when I was investigating drug use among south Asians for Radio 4’s The World This Weekend show. He was the perfect ‘get’ – a south Asian, former Home Affairs Select Committee member and someone who could lift my report to real political prominence. We agreed to meet at Broadcasting House. He breezed in, asking just two questions – what was the topic? How long did I need? It confirmed my impression that this was a serious man, capable of giving hope and inspiration to a generation of south Asians. In under two minutes Vaz had left, giving me the perfect soundbite. Job done.
Time to move on. Only it was not. After our first meeting, I started hearing rumours
about his exploits, and I questioned whether they were based in fact or jealousy. When I dug deeper, I could never find anyone to go on the record, and these included senior Labour party members in the city at the time. One source warned me that Vaz knew everything that was going on in the city, and because he kept files on people, no one wanted to cross him. Hyperbole? Perhaps. What was clear was that I did not have the proof needed.
But the cracks, which afflict the powerful, soon became apparent. In 2001, Vaz collapsed during a TV interview while Europe minister. Remember, he was under investigation by Elizabeth Filkin, the parliamentary standards watchdog, at the time, and Radio 4’s Today programme asked me to track him down.
In December that year, Filkin would clear Vaz of failing to register payments to his wife’s law firm, but would accuse him of “deliberate collusion” during that investigation. A year later, Vaz would be suspended from parliament for a month for making false allegations about a former policewoman. By strange coincidence, I remember an impromptu conversation with Filkin that same year. She was still fuming that Vaz had used all his cunning to block a thorough probe into him.
But it was not all bad news. His campaigning against video game violence after the death of a 14-year old boy in 2004 deserves much praise. For his good works, effectiveness as a constituency MP and mastery at the despatch box – the way he dealt with difficult questions were political masterclasses – Vaz topped the GG2 Power List two years running.
But the stench of controversy has always dogged him. In 2008, he backed the 42-day detention without charge of terrorist suspects which, on the face of it, would show party loyalty. Only he became embroiled in an honours-for-favour scandal. Nothing has ever stuck, and senior party officials have always seemed to have his back.
But in politics three things can often bring down a player. Hubris, money and sex. It seems the latter may prove to be Vaz’s ultimate downfall. This week the MP starts what is supposed to be a six-month suspension for misleading the Commons watchdog after he was recorded in 2016 with male escorts and offering to buy cocaine. A charitable few will excuse this as a human frailty, except as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, he called for a tougher approach to tackling drug pushers.
Vaz is now citing amnesia and mental health problems for his lapse. If these were true, then we should offer him help. But after all that has happened over the past 30 years, few will have sympathy, and Vaz should look to his conscience.
In short, he has tarnished the good name of south Asians and made it harder for us not be tainted in his image. Labour’s shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, who entered parliament at the same time as Vaz, last week urged her friend to step down. But Labour needs to be braver and set an example by booting him out.
Surely, now is the time for all other parties in Leicester East to stand aside and let an independent candidate serve one term and stop parliament sinking even deeper into a morass. History has shown that the right person can make all the difference.