My friend George is not the man you think he is

Or so Christopher Silvester reckons. Here the writer reveals how his friend is coping with the 'Big Brother' backlash and a new SFO investigation
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Indy Politics

There was a moment at the height of the Romanian revolution when the penny dropped with dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. His people had turned against him. My friend George Galloway had just such a "Timisoara moment" on Wednesday night when he was evicted from the Celebrity Big Brother house to boos and hoots of derision. There was a glimmer of dread in George's eyes. The full extent of what he had done was hitting him for the first time.

This is a man used to pressure, which is just as well. On top of the drama of his Big Brother eviction, that evening he was to be given two other pieces of news, each of which would take most of us a month or two to digest. The first - the good news - was that The Daily Telegraph had lost its appeal against George's £150,000 libel win. The second - the bad news - was that the Serious Fraud Office is to investigate whether he received monies from Saddam Hussein's regime through the UN oil-for-food programme. On top of this, his busy week was also to include the Sun printing a new picture of George in the company of Saddam's brutal son, the late Uday.

I've known George long enough to know that he would come out fighting and smiling, but his discomfiture was still evident. George, for all the self-confidence, is as sensitive to popular disdain as anyone.

We first met in 1983 when I was a young journalist working for Private Eye and Channel 4's Diverse Reports and George was a thrusting trade unionist and Labour activist. We had an immediate and enduring affinity, despite my Tory politics. I have sometimes questioned his judgement, but I have never doubted his commitment to his avowed fundamental principles. Nor, crucially, do I believe that he is corrupt. As a friend of George, I found parts of Celebrity Big Brother uncomfortable viewing. But the Sun's description of George on Thursday as "Britain's most hated man" is patently absurd. Even in that paper's perfervid and immature mind he surely can't have supplanted Soham murderer Ian Huntley?

Even his opponents - or many of them - must have applauded his robust performance last year in front of a US Senate committee in Washington, and by appearing on Celebrity Big Brother he has unwittingly squandered their goodwill. But George is too compelling a personality to be dismissed. I defy anyone to come away from his travelling one-man show feeling short-changed or scornful of either his abilities or his sincerity.

I have holidayed with him three times in Portugal's Algarve, and we have even sunbathed nude together on one of the beaches (cue tabloid indignation!). I attended his second wedding and also the christening of his grandson. I can't begin to count the many convivial evenings we have enjoyed.

George's indignation at being accused of corruption by The Daily Telegraph was no confection. He was genuinely affronted, as was I, on his behalf. "MP in Saddam's pay defends himself from £250,000 villa in the Algarve," declared one of the paper's libellous headlines, with the innuendo being obvious to anyone. I have visited that home several times and know it to be a modest, three-bedroom villa, which cost him £80,000 at the time of purchase in the early 1990s and was anyway heavily mortgaged. Irony of ironies, he had been able to afford the deposit and the cost of various improvements because he had won £150,000 in damages and costs from the Daily Mirror in an earlier libel action. George has been an assiduous and lucky libel litigant over the years and has made more than half a million tax-free pounds in this way.

Typical of the untruths that are directed at George was an allegation made in 2003 by his sacked driver, Roberto Sinatra, that "Galloway had on one occasion thrown a party at a Lebanese restaurant and paid the bill with £2,100 in cash". Those italics were presumably intended to suggest that there was something improper about the transaction. The whole story is untrue. I know because I was at that party, which followed the christening of George's grandson, Sean. The hospitality could hardly be described as lavish. It was just a normal celebration for family and friends, albeit with a belly dancer to entertain us. And here's the rub: the bill was paid for by credit card, not by George but by Sean's godfather, a Scottish businessman.

Then there is the myth of "Gorgeous George" the lothario. In his teens George met one girlfriend when they were both playing in the school orchestra and he cheekily lifted her skirt with the bow of his double bass. But apart from his two marriages, and one other long relationship, he has enjoyed a handful of dalliances over the years, including a tryst with pop chanteuse Sinead O'Connor, whom he met at an Irish nationalist rally.

His divorce from Dr Amineh Abu-Zayyad is in its final stages in the courts and a financial settlement has been reached. However, they are not in touch except through lawyers. His friendships in Parliament have always crossed party lines and some of his best friends there are Tories. In private - and Celebrity Big Brother is hardly that - he is not the left-wing firebrand of the rally platform, but instead his company is to be savoured for the soft-spoken burr of his voice, his witty turn of phrase, his love of gossip and his insights into international affairs.

Westminster is peopled by a vast army of drudges, sycophants, and hiders behind the parapet. For all his frailties, George does not belong to their number. All the blather about him neglecting his constituency duties is so much humbug. Indeed, those who criticise his attendance record at divisions in the Commons misunderstand his motivation. George is no shirker.

The "crucial" Crossrail vote he missed while in the Big Brother house was nothing of the sort, but he was one of 24 MPs to vote against Crossrail in an earlier vote. With the exception of private member's Bills, all parliamentary votes derive either from the Prime Minister's motion or the Leader of the Opposition's amendment. Since George rarely agrees with either, he abstains, but there is no mechanism for registering abstentions other than absence.

Instead, he believes that his first duty to his constituents is to deal with their day-to-day concerns. To that end, he has a larger-than-usual constituency office, in which no fewer than six people (uniquely for an MP, I believe) were working over the past three weeks while he was otherwise engaged. He pays for them, not only out of his parliamentary allowance, but also out of his media and other earnings.

What is more, by donating his Big Brother fee of £150,000 to the Palestinian charity Interpal he has helped a cause that he says is supported by all Bangladeshis in his constituency, where, incidentally, he typically addresses more public meetings in one month than his predecessor Oona King did in a year. Before last year's election, George said that he would sit as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow for one term only, and nothing has happened to make him change his mind.

As for his cat impersonation and his dance in a leotard, he points out that media professionals do similarly ludicrous things for charities such as Children in Need and are cheered as good sports. If he had refused to go along with the role-play games, he'd have been accused of haughtiness.

George comes from a hard school. His maternal grandparents were Irish immigrants who arrived off the boat at Anderston Quay, Glasgow and walked the 80 miles to Dundee to work in the textile mills there. He was blooded in the trade union movement and the Scottish Labour Party. He is not remotely concerned by the Serious Fraud Office investigation (there is nothing to find, and if there was, wouldn't the US Senate have found it?) and he gambled everything when he sued The Daily Telegraph.

He has spoken at 1,894 meetings since 9/11, which he believes is a world record, and he has a speaking engagement every night but one next month. The phrase "bloody but unbowed" might have been made for him, but he is also a boon companion and a kind man who keeps his friends close.

THE QUESTIONS STILL HANGING OVER GALLOWAY

The Serious Fraud Office and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner are studying documents from American investigators working for the former chairman of the US central bank, Paul Volcker. He led an exhaustive UN investigation into corruption in its $67bn "oil for food" programme, designed to alleviate the effect of sanctions in Iraq, which ran from 1996 to 2003. His final report raised a number of concerns about George Galloway. Here we examine five of the key questions - with the MP's public response to them.

1 Why, according to Volcker, were 18 million barrels of oil allocated by Saddam Hussein's regime for sale in the names of Mr Galloway and his business associate, Fawaz Zureikat?

Mr Galloway says he has no idea whether oil was allocated in his name and, if it was, denies that he had anything to do with its sale. "I have never asked anyone to act for me, as Fawaz Zureikat, who is alleged to be my intermediary, has said repeatedly. This is all a tissue of lies, and a lie doesn't become a truth through repetition."

2 Did Mr Zureikat sell oil allocated in the name of George Galloway?

Mr Galloway insists: "I had nothing to do with any oil deals done by Mr Fawaz Zureikat or anyone else. He and any other company involved were trading on their own behalf and not on mine. It follows I have no responsibility for any of these transactions."

3 Who profited from the 12 million barrels of oil that are alleged to have been sold?

The MP says: "How many times must I repeat this: I've never had a penny through oil deals, and no one has produced a shred of evidence that I have."

4 Were "oil for food" payments made to the bank accounts of Mr Galloway's now estranged Palestinian wife, Dr Amineh Abu-Zayyad?

"I cannot speak on her behalf - the divorce proceedings are under way, and she is now undergoing treatment for cancer," Mr Galloway says. Dr Abu-Zayyad denies receiving any Iraqi oil money, saying: "I have never solicited or received from Iraq or anyone else any proceeds of any oil deals, either for myself or for my former husband."

5 Were donations of $445,000 from Iraqi oil sales channelled by Mr Galloway's friend Fawaz Zureikat into the "Mariam Appeal", set up by the MP for Iraqi leukaemia victims, which became a platform for a campaign against sanctions?

Apart from rejecting allegations that he profited personally, Mr Galloway has always denied that funds from the sale of Iraqi oil were funnelled through the Mariam Appeal.

Paul Lashmar

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