Matthew Norman: Every party donor is entitled to be titled

Dr Patel paid his dough, and has nothing to show. Where's the justice in that?
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The Independent Online

Dr Chai Patel, purveyor of choice mental health to the stars, is beside himself with rage, and who in their right mind can blame him? What has driven him to the edge of apoplexy is the decision of the House of Lords Appointments Commission to block his peerage (along with those of two other men of commerce). He feels entitled to be entitled, and since no one disputes that he has donated generously to the Labour Party, it's impossible to disagree. I mean, what does a guy have to do to get an ermine robe round here?

The facetious commentator on matters honorific would take a laid-back view of this matter, advising Dr Patel to check into his own Priory clinic for a residential course of anger management. A couple of weeks of intensive group therapy, this flippant argument would go, making macramé pot-plant holders and undergoing the occasional rebirthing procedure, and he might well be able to see the funny side.

To me, on the other hand, there is no funny side. Far from being a seemly matter for mirth, this is a full-frontal assault not merely on Dr Patel's sensibilities, but on the splendid principles that have shaped our honours system for a century, since the trailblazing fund-raising work of David Lloyd George.

Lest anyone has missed the sheer lunacy of it, let me spell it out again. A man who gave our governing party undisclosed sums - something over £10,000, but presumably at least the traditional £100,000 - has been denied his peerage. He paid his dough, and has nothing to show. Where's the justice in that?

Far be it from me to offer legal advice, but Dr Patel must consider suing New Labour for breach of contract. The only requirements for a binding contract are 1) a promise by one side to provide goods or services (ermine), and 2) provision by the other of "consideration" (dosh). An implicit promise can be just as binding in principal as an explicit one and, although generally harder to prove in court, that shouldn't be a problem in this case.

All Dr Patel's brief needs to show a High Court judge is a previous pattern of contractual behaviour that would have justified a reasonable man in the belief he had struck a deal for goods (ermine) with Mr Tony Blair. To this end, the QC need merely establish the fact that every single donor to the Labour Party of £1m and more, and 17 of the 23 who have given £100,000 plus, has received a peerage or a knighthood.

Doubtless there are sound reasons why the other six in the latter category didn't get their dues. For example, Mr Lakshmi Mittal wasn't a British citizen, but that didn't prevent the Prime Minister from giving his personal help to secure a fabulous steel plant deal in Romania. As for Mr Richard Desmond, Mr Blair would have dreaded the publicity had the noble Lord Desmond of Big Jugs been duly created, but the takeover of Express Newspapers was soon followed by a £125,000 donation.

Should further evidence be needed, Dr Patel's QC could adduce the presence as government ministers of Lord Drayson, who picked up a useful smallpox vaccine contract, and all-time champion Labour donor (two million quid a year) Lord Sainsbury. By now, even the most obtuse judge must accept that anyone who signed a six-figure cheque was entitled to assume that Mr Blair would execute his side of the bargain. The defendant might argue caveat emptor - that it's the purchaser's look out, not the vendor's, if the PM was stymied by some prying, prissy old twits on a peerage commission. Even so, my money would be firmly on the plaintiff.

So much for this case of tomorrow, and back to one of yesterday - last year's General Medical Council hearing of serious professional misconduct charges against Dr Patel over allegations that elderly patients in a nursing home he runs were treated very poorly. Had these claims been upheld, one would begin to sniff a credible reason for denying Dr Patel the title he craves. Would you want someone notorious for maltreating the old, bemused and infirm anywhere near the House of Lords?

In the event, however, Dr Patel was cleared; though undeniably the boss of Westminster Health Care, which managed the home, he himself had no doctor-patient relationship with the old folk involved. Two independent reports found that residents of Lynde House were sorely neglected.

Sticklers may wonder whether the good doctor - or rather, in this case, the good non-doctor - was morally responsible for these old folk's wellbeing; if so, whether this incident reflected well on him as an adviser to the Government on the care of the elderly; and whether he should therefore be precluded from piously holding forth on the matter from the red benches.

Let no one, however, cynical and sneery, doubt the depth of Dr Patel's stated commitment to public service. In his outraged letter to the commission, curiously leaked to the BBC, he mentions not only the "enormous responsibility" of being a peer (of course, of course), but also "my deep sense of public service".

How true this is. Having been trained by the NHS, to whom he is now such a profitable sub-contractor, Dr Patel practised as a GP for just six years before leaving in the mid-1980s to become - wait for it, wait for it - a merchant banker! It's the old, old story. Only by working for Merryl Lynch did he feel he could he give something back. When the chance later came to move into the highly lucrative field of managing old people's care homes on behalf of the state, he gladly took it. So in a sense Dr Patel was a courageous outrider for the semi-privatisation of the NHS - or "public-private partnership" - that seems a tremendous success this week more than ever. As such, he should most certainly be in the Lords.

Instead, this selfless wannabe public servant is the Bisto Kid of parliamentary democracy, nose pressed up against the House of Lords windows, feeling dishonoured and "traduced" by the blocking of his honour. Not that it will have occurred to him, but the humiliation could even damage his business. Celebrities, even those in grave need of therapy, are shallow types who may go off the Priory if they perceive its owner as a loser.

So if and when Dr Patel does sue Mr Tony Blair for breach of contract, I hope he demands not only his money back, but also compensation for future loss of earnings. "I am utterly mystified by this," wails the man who inadvertently did the seemingly impossible, and gave the Labour Party money for nothing. If it's any comfort, love, so am I. It makes no sense at all.