Sometimes those in public life are so lacking in self-knowledge that we can only behold them in slack-jawed amazement; or, if we enjoy the human circus, laugh out loud.
Those of us in the latter camp were delighted last week by the government’s preposterously-named “social mobility czar” James Caan ( I mean the job title, not the fact that he changed his name to that of a Hollywood film star): Caan’s strictures against those giving an employment leg-up to family members were succeeded within hours by the revelation that he had taken on his own daughter.
Marvellous. But at the weekend we were even more richly rewarded. The investigative journalist David Rose revealed that Tim Yeo, the chairman of the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, had complained that Lord Deben, who chairs the government-appointed Committee on Climate Change, was vulnerable to the charge of having financial interests incompatible with his official position.
To explain: Deben – better known as John Gummer, the man who publicly fed a hamburger to his daughter during the BSE crisis – is chairman of a company called Veolia, which (among other things) connects windfarms to the national grid. Yeo, it now emerges, wrote to the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, complaining: “It is clear that [Veolia] has a significant role in the field of energy.” This, Yeo portentously protested, “has caused ongoing media criticism… the reassurances you have given are not sufficient to effectively address the perception of conflict of interest.”
What can one do but howl with laughter? Yeo – as this column noted only last week – manages happily to combine chairmanship of the Energy and Climate Change committee with taking six-figure payments each year from a variety of “green” energy companies. He also has substantial share options in some of these firms, options whose value would naturally increase if Parliament were to pass laws mandating the greatest possible reductions in CO2 emissions: an amendment to the Energy Bill in Yeo’s name, demanding a 90 per cent reduction, was only narrowly defeated last week.
It is true that Yeo has properly declared all his many interests: we know on which side the Honourable Member’s bread is buttered. Yet how can he, of all people, complain that Gummer’s credibility is tainted by a “perception of conflict of interest” by combining the role of chairing a committee on climate change with business activities in the same field? In this case, political satirists can only put down their pens, defeated by an inability to say anything that could improve upon mere recitation of the facts.
However, there is always the possibility of encouraging a fee-hungry MP to go further still, which is what The Sunday Times has just attempted with Yeo. Reporters from the newspaper last week masqueraded as executives of a solar energy firm anxious for the Energy and Climate Change Committee chairman to add them to his panoply of clients – for a fee of £7,000 a day. When the journalists in disguise mentioned this extraordinary day rate to Yeo, he allegedly replied that this was “in the right ball park… If you’re getting value and I know you’re getting value then we’ll negotiate”.
According to the published extract from this secretly recorded meeting, Yeo gave as an example of his value the fact that he had been able to offer advice to someone from a firm with which he had a relationship, who was scheduled to appear in front of his own committee: “I could not ask this guy any questions in public because it would look as though I might be biased about that. But what I do for him in private is another matter, obviously.” Asked to elaborate by the undercover reporters, Yeo allegedly responded: “I was able to tell him in advance what to say. Ha ha!”
We should record that Yeo, who has offered to stand down while the Sunday Times’s claims are investigated by the Commons authorities, put out a statement saying “I totally reject these allegations”, adding that he had “at no stage agreed or offered to work for the fictitious company these undercover reporters claimed to be representing” and that it was “totally untrue” he had coached a client for an appearance before his committee.
The point, however, is that Yeo – exactly as he notes in respect of his Tory colleague in the Lords, John Gummer – brings his role as chairman of a supposedly impartial committee into question because of his declared real business relationships. The fact that these are all legitimate and undisguised does not and cannot eradicate the impression that voters will form of a pronounced conflict of interest with Yeo’s duties as an independent legislative interrogator in a field of enormous financial significance.
The genuinely honourable Paul Goodman, who resigned his safe Tory seat four years ago in despair at the backwash of the Commons expenses scandal, yesterday used his platform as editor of the ConservativeHome website to demand that “those who chair Select Committees should be barred from having any outside interests that can reasonably be seen to conflict with their role as chairmen”.
Previously, Goodman had stuck by the traditional distinction between ministers (who can have no concurrent business activities) and backbenchers, who have always been allowed to maintain so-called “outside interests”; indeed, when resigning as an MP, Goodman had declared that it was better for members of the legislature to have outside interests than to be full-time politicians dependent entirely for their welfare on the party machine. Yet when, as in the case of Panorama’s sting on Patrick Mercer, an MP’s “interests” can seem merely an exploitation of his privileged role as a legislator, the public will take a less amiable view of his “independence”.
Perhaps I could suggest a different solution to the present predicament. Let chairman Yeo keep his joint role as adviser to sundry “green” companies – on the condition that he receives neither fees nor share options from them. Then, at least, we can be reassured that he is motivated solely by the virtues of their case. On the other hand, that would rather reduce his comedic value.