Monday, February 04, 2008

Conway takes the heat off Brown

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, 2 February 2008.


One of the most oft-repeated, and in my view most justified, complaints against New Labour that has been heard in the North-East over the past decade is that it has taken the region for granted.

Its reward for supplying the country with one Prime Minister and ten Cabinet ministers since 1997 was to have its demands for a fairer share of the UK funding cake routinely ignored.

Over the course of last autumn, anyone could have been forgiven for thinking that the region was taking some sort of poetic revenge on the government that had treated it so unjustly for so long.

It spawned a trio of crises in close succession – from Northern Rock, to “discgate,” to the dodgy donations affair, which between them came close to destroying the credibility of the Gordon Brown administration.

This week, however, it was almost as if the North-East was trying to display its undying loyalty to Labour after all by cooking-up an almighty great big scandal for the Tories instead.

Newcastle-born MP Derek Conway’s career has hit the buffers after it emerged that he paid his Newcastle University student son Freddie £25,970 a year for being a very part-time researcher.

Perhaps fortunately for the region, Mr Conway left these parts in search of national political glory more than a quarter of a century ago after a stint on Tyne and Wear Council and two failed attempts at Parliament.

Ironically, his great rival in the Conservative politics of the region in those days was Piers Merchant, who did manage to become a Newcastle MP but whose career similarly ended in disgrace.

So why is the story of how Derek Conway became Derek Gone-Away such a grade A embarrassment for the Tories and their leader David Cameron? Well, primarily, because of its timing.

A week ago, following the resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain, the Tories appeared to have Mr Brown’s government on the run over the issue of “sleaze.”

Not only was Mr Hain facing a police investigation over his failure to declare deputy leadership campaign donations, there were also question marks against several other senior Labour politicians.

Leader of the Commons Harriet Harman and Labour’s Scottish leader Wendy Alexander were already in the frame, and over the weekend, Health Secretary Alan Johnson found himself facing similar allegations.

Mr Conway’s misdemeanours have not only taken the focus of all of that, but they have also put the events surrounding Mr Hain’s Cabinet demise in their proper perspective.

For whereas Mr Hain was certainly guilty of incompetence – or, rather, “ain incompetence” as Mr Brown put it – there was no proof of any impropriety.

Mr Conway, on the other hand, was guilty of what the Standards and Privileges Committee called “at the least, an improper use of parliamentary allowances; at worst, a serious diversion of public funds".

In almost any other walk of life they would have had another word for it, one beginning with f.

Another very good reason why Mr Cameron could have done without all this right now is that it has reminded the voters that “sleaze” was once a Tory rather than Labour speciality.

Memories of Jonathan Aitken’s infamous “sword of truth” and Neil Hamilton’s brown envelopes from Mohammed al Fayed had started to fade after a dozen years, but now they are very much alive again.

Finally, the affair temporarily made Mr Cameron look like a ditherer – the very accusation he has been throwing at Mr Brown.

Although he eventually did withdraw the whip from Mr Conway, it was only after the extent of the public outcry – notably on conservative blogs – rendered his position untenable.

Indeed, such has been the level of outrage that there are now apparently serious calls for a ban on MPs employing family members at all.

Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee for Standards in Public Life, acknowledged it would be a “rather harsh” answer to the problem, but added that it "could be the right thing to do."

One senior North-East parliamentarian who would be affected by that is Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland. His wife, Brenda, is his parliamentary assistant, and indeed has been so since before she became Mrs Clelland.

There has however never been the slightest suggestion that she is anything other than a hard-working member of staff. Indeed having dealt with her on numerous occasions I can vouch for as much.

A much more high profile example is Margaret Beckett, who has formed an enduring political partnership with her husband and secretary Leo ever since they first got together in the mid-70s.

During Mrs Beckett’s stint as Foreign Secretary, during which he accompanied her on overseas trips, Leo was characterised by the right-wing press as a drain on public funds.

It was all grotesquely unfair. I have known the Becketts for more than 20 years and Leo has played an absolutely vital supporting role in the course of his wife’s long career.

Now, as a result of Mr Conway’s stupidity, they, too, may now find themselves having to make alternative arrangements.

But the really damage of the Conway affair is not so much to individual parties or MPs but to the political system as a whole, in that it encourages the widespread and mistaken view that all politicians are corrupt.

It may have given Mr Brown a temporary respite from his troubles this week, but ultimately episodes such as this only serve to damage the whole lot of them.

As for the fate of Mr Conway himself, well, the last time he was out of the Commons between 1997 and 2001, he found himself a job as chief executive of the Cats Protection League.

It was an unlikely role for someone whose reputation as a bruiser goes back to his Tyne and Wear Council days – but perhaps he has a softer side after all.

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Anonymous said...

Conways behaviour was certainly disgraceful but nothing new. I personally know a now retired Labour MP of 20 years standing who not only 'employed' his wife, son and daughter to do nothing but boasted about it. I knew him long before he became an MP and he was pround of his ability to get the most out of the system. All the constituency work was done by his very underpaid secretary. I expect there are a lot more out there, hence the silence from all sides. I just hope it will all be changed but, given Mr. Speaker is one of the greedy ones I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

If you want to keep up to date on the on going Discgate saga the Open Rights Group are keeping a running log of news stories.

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