A test for Charles Wardle, a question for Mohamed Fayed

Click to follow
The Independent Online

How can one explain the strange decision by a Conservative MP, Charles Wardle, to accept £120,000 per annum to work part-time for Mohamed Al Fayed as a non-executive director at Harrods? After all, it was Mr Fayed who bribed some of Mr Wardle's fellow Tories to ask questions in Parliament on his behalf. It was Mr Fayed whom a government report described as having "dishonestly represented his origins, wealth, business interests and resources" and whose application for a British passport has always been refused - even by Mr Wardle himself when he was a Home Office minister.

I have seen tycoons put people on to their boards in order to humiliate them. They judge their victims carefully, paying them enough to make sure that they stick around to take their punishment. The late Tiny Rowland, who went to a minor public school, always had a chip on his shoulder and filled his board with Old Etonians. He loved to see them kow-towing. Robert Maxwell did the same. He gave directorships to former Buckingham Palace officials and even chose the estimable Peter Jay, a former ambassador to Washington, as a sort of superior personal assistant. Here, it was said, Maxwell was getting even with Peter's father, Douglas Jay, a Labour Cabinet Minister in the 1960s who, he believed, had grievously snubbed him.

Taking on Mr Wardle looks like Mr Fayed's revenge. The tycoon has commented that the Tory party is "like the Mafia, like organised crime". Having said that for the record, he must see with satisfaction that even now a former Tory minister will bow the knee for £120,000.

Mr Wardle was first approached last summer. Two years earlier, immediately after the general election, he had recanted his decision not to grant Mr Fayed a passport. He made a speech in the House of Commons which gave a detailed account of what he believed were the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in an official report. Then in June last year he delivered a second speech which Mr Fayed must also have found pleasing: it raised the question whether the security services had had something to do with the death of Princess Diana. Mr Wardle asked whether the Princess's driver on the fateful evening, Henri Paul, had been employed by MI6. And he went on: "are there assassination plans on file at MI6?"

Mr Wardle can see that his subsequent acceptance of a juicy contract with Harrods must raise the suspicion that he has been bought. To scotch any such suggestion he has taken some precautions. He immediately told the Parliamentary commissioner for standards of Mr Fayed's approach and she asked to be kept informed. Mr Wardle signed his lucrative deal on 1 March. The next day, the deed done, he sent a copy to the Parliamentary commissioner.

This contract stipulates that Mr Wardle will not be required to promote, or ask questions, or make speeches, or lobby or represent in Parliament any Fayed interest. Mr Wardle is rather proud of this, even though it prohibits what it would be quite improper for him to do in any event. Did he feel he would be unable to resist Mr Fayed without the clause? Possibly, but more likely he is trying to protect himself in case Mr Fayed should come to wonder whether he is really worth £120,000 a year. Lack of Parliamentary activity could not be grounds for dismissal. And he is saying to the world - this is simply a commercial deal, no more, no less.

Look, argues Mr Wardle, I am a properly trained businessman. I went to the Harvard Business School. I have run a sizeable public company. I have served on the council of the CBI. As for Mr Fayed, he runs an excellent business. I can tell you that the management of the Knightsbridge store is first class. Moreover I have been given a proper job. I shall work for Harrods as well as in five areas of overseas business - oil and gas and mining in Asia, e-commerce and satellite mapping in the US and international banking. Why should I be put off by the shoddy behaviour of a few parliamentary colleagues?

There is an unspoken assumption here, too, which respectable businessmen and bankers often make when entering into transactions with controversial companies run by dominating personalities. It is this. That unlike many others, they themselves are sufficiently smart, insightful and robust to handle the tycoon in question. Such people are self-confident, even arrogant. And this is Mr Wardle's reputation. One letter to the press last week said that Mr Wardle gave the impression he considered himself too grand to be the victim of adverse press and public comment. And another from a constituent said: "His performance at our village hall before elections has on occasions been nothing short of arrogant." Likewise Mr Wardle himself, in an angry letter to the Daily Telegraph, demanded that the newspaper "not lecture me about Parliamentary privilege."

Perhaps blinded by arrogance, Mr Wardle seems to have miscalculated. For on Saturday, this newspaper published a letter from Alistair Birrell, who was chairman of Mr Wardle's constituency association until he stepped down on 24 March, having completed his three-year term. He wrote that he and his colleagues were presented with a fait accompli by Mr Wardle in early March. At an earlier meeting in January, when Mr Wardle was re-adopted as prospective parliamentary candidate, the MP had said nothing of his talks with Mr Fayed. So Mr Birrrel argues that the re-adoption resolution should be withdrawn and reconsidered in light of subsequent events.

Here was a test for Mr Wardle. Would he re-submit himself again for adoption as the prospective candidate for his constituency now that the pros and cons of his actions have been well-aired? It appears not - yesterday it was reported that he has decided to stand down as an MP. This suggests he is no longer so sure of the rightness of his decision as he was at first.

There is a second test, this one for Mr Fayed. Will he see any point in continuing to employ Mr Wardle once he has left parliament?