Leading Article: Keeping a watch on Michael Mates

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MICHAEL MATES may be an MP and a minister, but he is a silly man. The charges against Asil Nadir, the bankrupted businessman, were no joking matter: they included charges of theft and false accounting running to about pounds 30m, and Mr Nadir was accused of ruining many investors in his Polly Peck empire. It was one thing to raise legitimate questions about legal process; but unless Mr Mates was convinced that the accusations made against the businessman were utterly groundless - which he was not - he should have been careful not to identify himself as Mr Nadir's unpaid apologist.

Yet that was exactly what he did by sending Mr Nadir as a birthday present a watch engraved on the back with the fateful words, 'Don't let the buggers get you down,' after police took from Mr Nadir's house not only his own watch, but also papers necessary to preparing his defence in court. It was a foolish and generous gesture - just the kind of thing one might expect from a bluff lieutenant-colonel in the Guards. But it was not the thing to be expected from a minister of the Crown, and Mr Mates therefore had only himself to blame when Mr Nadir later jumped bail, leaving forfeit behind him not only the bail of pounds 3.5m but also the reputation of a disinterested friend.

In one sense, Mr Mates's actions have shown him to be unfit for high office: acting in support of such unpopular causes as Mr Nadir's is not the sort of thing that helps a politician reach the top of the greasy pole. But to say that Mr Mates lacks political adeptness is not news. He demonstrated as much in 1990 when he was shown to have failed to disclosed fully his relations with a prominent supplier to the RAF while serving as chairman of the Commons' defence select committee.

The inscribed watch apart, Mr Mates has not acted in a less than ministerial way. The information that has come out so far suggests that he took up the tycoon's case 18 months ago at the prompting of one of his constituents. He went to the Attorney General to raise concerns about the way that the Serious Fraud Office was conducting its case against the financier, and followed up the meeting with a letter. Once he became a minister, he received official clearance before intervening again on Mr Nadir's behalf.

What exactly those concerns were, Mr Mates cannot reveal - he has evidently been told to keep quiet if he is to have any hope at all of holding on to his job - and Mr Nadir's former counsel, Anthony Scrivener QC, will not tell. But they evidently centre on the sweeping powers given to those who investigate fraud cases to force defendants to answer prosecutors' questions not only while they are under investigation, but also after their trials have begun. Mr Scrivener describes these provisions, which in effect render nugatory the accused's right to silence, as giving the Serious Fraud Office the widest powers of 'any British institution since the Star Chamber'. Mr Mates was right to raise the matter, and if the affair of the watch encourages a wider public debate, his discomfort will not have been in vain.

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