Keith Vaz: The 'Teflon MP' who enjoys the limelight

He was on the news again this week, at Luton airport to greet a Romanian migrant. Despite suspicion and ridicule, there seems to be no stopping the rise of the MP for Leicester East

When Transylvanian construction worker Victor Spiresau, 30, flew in to Luton airport at 7.30am on 1 January, on his way to a job at a London car wash, he must have been surprised to be invited for coffee by a complete stranger in arrivals. Mr Spiresau had flown from Romania to take advantage of the lifting of UK labour market restrictions on New Year’s Day. He probably expected to be questioned by suspicious border guards. Instead, he was greeted by a smiling, well-to-do British Asian gentleman with a bald head and steel-frame spectacles.

It wasn’t immediately apparent why Keith Vaz was at Luton. Being a Labour MP, he wasn’t representing the Government; nor was he there to condemn coalition attempts to restrict immigrants’ access to welfare services. The only complaint he raised was about the Government’s lack of “robust estimates” of the numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians heading for the UK, and to suggest a referendum.

So was it just a publicity stunt from a man who loves to be in the public eye? (Cartoonist Matt pictured him standing on a sea-lashed cliff, arms akimbo, under the headline “Keith Vaz goes to Cornwall to meet incoming storm.”) Was the airport visit to emphasise that the Home Affairs Select Committee is keen to avoid a repetition of the blunders of a decade ago, when 10 states became new EU members and, with restrictions on immigration, the ensuing flood caused social tensions that reverberate today? Or was he there as a walking embodiment of successful immigration?

For he is one of the UK’s most glamorous and influential British Asians, and the longest-serving in Parliament. He’s been MP for Leicester East since 1987, a member of the Privy Council since 2006, chairman of the Home Affairs committee since 2007. And he has spent much of his 26 years in the corridors of power mired in near-scandals, actual scandals, watchdog scrutinies, leaks, accusations, investigations, complaints and a suspension. Vaz has glided through it all in his serene, elaborately polite way. He’s been christened “the Teflon MP” and “Keith Vazeline” for the way he seems to slide past trouble, lubricated against failure.

To the UK Asian community, he’s an unofficial chief. His sister, Valerie Vaz, is also an MP, for Walsall South. His wife, Maria Fernandes, runs a law firm. The family is enormously well connected. A journalist who was invited for dinner chez Vaz in 1999 reports: “It was amazing. All the elite of the London-Indian and London-Pakistani communities were there, together with the cast of Goodness Gracious Me.” Vaz can also boast about his closeness to non-Asian power. A party held at a Soho restaurant in July 2012 to celebrate his 25 years as an MP was attended by Tony Blair, Theresa May, Ed Milliband and police chief Bernard Hogan-Howe.

But for all his high-profile stances – especially strongly pro-EU – Vaz has often been accused of offering fast-track assistance to friends and associates. For all his high-minded campaigns – including one against violent video games – he has been vilified as a chronic self-publicist. No matter how much judicious chairmanship he can boast of at the Home Affairs Select Committee, he is best known for inviting Russell Brand along to talk about drugs and call him “mate”.

Nigel Keith Anthony Standish Vaz was born in Aden, in Yemen, in 1956. Both his parents were originally from Goa: the name Vaz is Goan-Portuguese. His father worked in the airline industry; his mother was a teacher. The family (he has two sisters) moved to England in 1965 and set up home in Twickenham. In 1970 his father killed himself, when Keith was 13. He did well at Latymer School, Hammersmith, and took a first-class degree in law at Cambridge University. In 1982, he joined the Labour Party and became a lawyer, working first for Richmond, then Islington borough councils. With remarkable precocity, he stood for Parliament as MP for Richmond and Barnes in 1983 while only 26, but lost his deposit. Two years later, he moved to Leicester to work as a solicitor, and in 1987 was elected MP for Leicester East with a majority of just under 2,000, at which point he gave up the law.

In his first five years he was a sitter on committees, including Home Affairs, where he has stayed for years. His first front-bench role was a shadow junior environment minister. After the 1997 Labour landslide, he was given his first government role as parliamentary private secretary to the Attorney General, and became minister for Europe in October 1999. But his success was blighted by a series of investigations into his financial dealings.

In 2001, he was accused of helping to process the British passport application of one of the Hinduja brothers, whose foundation had paid money into a company run by Vaz’s wife. After Vaz admitted he had “made representations” on behalf of the Hindujas and other British Asians, he left his post as minister for Europe on “health grounds”.  A report into the affair criticised Vaz for “deliberate collusion” with his wife in concealing facts about payments.

Another scandal broke a year later, when Vaz was accused of making false allegations about a retired policewoman who, he said, had upset his elderly mother in a phone call. The ex-PC had a friend who had worked for Vaz’s wife, and who claimed in a letter that the couple had employed an illegal alien as a nanny and received gifts from Asian businessmen, including the Hindujas. No evidence was found to support the allegations, but the police concluded that the officer had never phoned Vaz’s mother.  Three complaints were upheld against him, though, and he was suspended from the Commons for a month.

Since 2001, he has played more public roles in the area of race: as a patron of the Labour Party Race Action Group, as chairman of the Ethnic Minority Taskforce, as vice-chair of the Labour Party’s Women, Race and Equality Committee. He has also been embroiled in inquiries and suspicions. It was revealed that he helped a business associate, the Anglo-Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi, to avoid extradition to France where he was facing investigation for his alleged role in a fraud scandal. Many were outraged when, after revelations that a group of Asian men had systematically “groomed” young white girls in northern cities, Vaz blamed the BNP for spreading the story. The MPs’ expenses scandal revealed he had “flipped” his designated second home from his London flat to his Leicester constituency office, and, although this was not illegal, he was asked to pay back a four-figure sum.

It’s a quite a rap sheet, but Vaz has never stayed out of politics – or the limelight – for long. There’s a suavity about him that lets him sail through allegations of misconduct, murmurs of outrage from colleagues and disapproval from commentators. With race and immigration dominant in parliamentary debate, the major parties are happy – or resigned – to have such an accomplished political operator at the helm of the Home Affairs committee, even if he has steered his own career towards so many dangerous rocks.

Life in brief

Born: Nigel Keith Anthony Standish Vaz, 26 November 1956, Aden, Yemen.

Family: Parents originally from Goa, India. Family moved to England in 1965. Father worked in the airline industry, mother was a teacher. Two sisters: Valerie (MP for Walsall South), Penny (lawyer). Lives with his wife Maria Fernandes and their two children.

Education: Latymer Upper School, Hammersmith; Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Career: Solicitor to Richmond Borough Council; senior solicitor to Islington Council; solicitor at the Highfields and Belgrave Law Centre in Leicester; elected to Parliament in 1982.

He says: “My finances were discussed by every newspaper in the country for a period of three years and were the subject of extensive examination.”

They say: “The most dangerous place in Britain? Between Keith Vaz and a camera.” Kevin Maguire, political commentator

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