Camp Keith was always as fishy as an old sardine: QUENTIN LETTS on Vaz’s sordid fall from grace after escort texts scandal
Unfortunately, it says much about the low expectations of our parliament that blatant greaser Keith Vaz – most twinkly of charmers yet palpably flawed – was allowed to become one of its ‘grandees’. How liberally we apportion high rank and squander our esteem.
For the past decade he has chaired the Commons committee which oversees vice, drugs and the police. The sainted Vaz! It was absurd. There were plenty of questions about Vaz’s personal conduct yet he took ostentatious delight in roasting Scotland Yard commanders and in ridiculing serious Whitehall mandarins. Only a few weeks ago he ordered one top official out of the room like a naughty schoolboy for failing to be sufficiently honest.
And Vaz attacked newspaper editors – yes, he enjoyed it. People with stuff to hide often do. Yet everyone I know at Westminster had doubts about Vaz. No one would describe him as a monk. The elite could have marginalised him but instead sat on its suspicions. Why trouble the little people (the electorate) with qualms about this most unprivy of counsellors?
I first came across Comrade Keith a quarter of a century ago when he announced his engagement to Maria Fernandes. This was, let us say, deemed enough of a surprise to merit inclusion in a diary column I was then editing. Camp Keith had by then been in the Commons for a few years, having replaced the lurid Tory Peter Bruinvels as MP for Leicester East.
Cambridge-educated, Vaz had a quick wit and spoke in a fastidiously posh accent. He was courtly in his ways, a monstrous flatterer, his voice swooping like a cut-price Lady Bracknell. He could be disarmingly salty about his fellow Labour MPs – we diarists found this useful – and he was patronising about his constituents.
He played minority issues for all they were worth, which went down well with Asians in his Leicester seat. That identification as a campaigner for minorities also bought him some political insurance, as did his frequent mentions that he suffered from diabetes. A little victimhood ain’t half a useful thing in modern politics.
Back in the early 1990s I put his flamboyant bitchiness and garrulous mateyness down to youthful excess and ambition. It is not unknown for MPs to be egotistical, after all, but most, when they enter Government, acquire a layer of seriousness. Vaz became Minister for Europe in Tony Blair’s first term. Despite that significant position, he remained giggly and silly. He was later dismissed.
Labour MP Keith Vaz, pictured at a party conference event, is well known for his flamboyant style and love of publicity
The Home Affairs committee chairmanship in 2007 gave Vaz his second chance. Here was one of the more sensitive jobs in our public life, bringing access to various secret documents and a supervisory duty over the police.
It also brought publicity, to which he seemed addicted, inviting high-profile witnesses to give evidence to his committee, even when they really had little to contribute. It was Vaz who turned Parliament into a circus when he got that idiot Russell Brand to give evidence to an anti-drugs inquiry.
Vaz sashayed round Westminster with Bollywood stars – Shilpa Shetty was one. Nobody, not least the delightful Shilpa herself, seemed entirely sure why she was there, but Vaz stuck to her side as though fixed by glue.
He held expensive dinners in Soho, when it was never quite clear who was paying. He seemed to have no shortage of money. He organised the annual ‘Diversity Nite’ dance evening at the Labour party conference when the main point of the exercise seemed to be photographing Keith Vaz with some pretty girl baring her belly-button.
Mr Vaz memorably invited comedian Russell Brand to give evidence to the committee
‘Sinister’ was not quite the word for Vaz. If you stood downwind of him you were more likely to catch a whiff of aftershave and some soapy unisex unguent. He used this absurd image as a disguise for something, we now see all too plainly, that was rather less fragrant.
Were the police scared of him? His conduct of that committee and his scrutiny of police behaviour was certainly highly political. It was Vaz who pioneered the modern aggression of select committees. His meetings became show trials and they ended people’s careers.
He deployed heavy sarcasm and insincere politeness. He would repeat questions needlessly, chasing meaningless apologies from slow-talking officials. He placed tremendous premium on honour and consistency.
Yet you only had to watch for a few minutes to realise that Vaz was himself as fishy as a rotting sardine.