Saturday, 13 August 2016

What Noble Fellows They Are

Peter Oborne writes:

What a humiliating week it has been for former Cabinet minister Peter Mandelson.

On Wednesday, he went on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme to discuss one of the most serious issues facing Britain.

Lord Mandelson warned of dire consequences to our trade with China if we pull out of the Chinese-backed Hinkley Point nuclear power station project. 

He went on to ridicule security concerns surrounding Chinese involvement.

Yet within 24 hours of his intervention, it emerged that China General Nuclear Power Company — Britain’s prospective partner at Hinkley Point — faces very serious accusations from the FBI that it has been conspiring to steal U.S. nuclear secrets for the past 20 years.

If that were not embarrassing enough for the oh-so-self-confident Mandy, later it emerged that the Australian government stopped a Chinese bidder from attempting to buy a controlling stake in the country’s largest electricity network, on the grounds that because of intense security concerns it would be ‘contrary to the national interest’.

So it was that within 72 hours of Lord Mandelson’s endorsement of the Hinkley Point deal, his words were proved to be deeply misguided after two of Britain’s closest allies signalled the danger of doing business with China.

Most unfortunately, his BBC interviewer, Sarah Montague, did not ask the obvious question: was Lord Mandelson being paid to continue George Osborne’s calamitous kow-towing to the Chinese, which resulted in the putative Hinkley Point deal?

The question is intensely relevant, and not just because (as Montague did mention) Mandelson was last year President of the Great Britain China Centre, which promotes trade between the two countries.

Since stepping down from government, this notorious wheeler-dealer has made a fortune from his public affairs consultancy, Global Counsel.

Disgracefully, he has kept the names of his clients secret — despite the fact that peers are generally obliged to make their clients public through their Register of Interests.

There is good reason for this rule. It enables the rest of us to judge who is in a position to influence our unelected legislators.

This is especially relevant in connection with influential figures, such as Lord Mandelson, who are able to gain regular access to British ministers and official diplomatic channels.

Mandelson, however, has successfully claimed that the clients belong to the company, rather than to him directly, so are not ‘personal’.

Here is a disturbing example: we learned recently that in February Mandelson flew to Zimbabwe, where he has no known connections, for a secret meeting with the finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa.

The meeting was arranged and attended by the British Ambassador, Catriona Laing.

This was in itself extraordinary.

Our missions overseas should not act as an introduction bureau, advocate or concierge for any passing politician or business leader, let alone a man who twice stepped down from Blair’s government because his word could not be trusted.

Our embassies are funded by the taxpayer, and their contacts, skills and resources should be used only in the national interest, for the diplomatic objectives set by elected ministers.

They should not be committed to serve any private interest.

This meeting had an especially sinister overtone because Lord Mandelson is paid by Lazard, a giant investment bank.

A few months later, it emerged that Mr Chinamasa was engaged in intense negotiations in an attempt to secure a $1.1 billion loan — from Lazard.

When Mandelson’s meeting and the subsequent negotiations were reported, they caused a storm of protest both here and in Zimbabwe.

Mandelson hurriedly denied that he had met Chinamasa on Lazard’s behalf.

As a general rule of modern politics, one should never believe anything about Peter Mandelson until he denies it himself.

However, our embassy in Harare and the Foreign Office have so far supported his claim to have visited Zimbabwe only for the selfless purpose of (to quote Mandelson’s spokesman) ‘meeting representatives of the business community and civil society to encourage them to continue the process of reform’.

What a noble fellow he is!

Why the Foreign Office should have decided that Lord Mandelson — who, as I say, was forced to resign twice, after lying about his mortgage, and after a row over attempts to secure a British passport for an Indian billionaire — should be entrusted with the duty of lecturing Zimbabwe about good governance is a mystery. 

As is why the BBC should constantly seek his views on anything connected to probity in public life.

The fact is that, like his friend Tony Blair, Mandelson has made a fortune since leaving office.

As with Blair, his business dealings have been clouded with secrecy. As with Blair, he has enjoyed special access to ministers, foreign embassies and the resources of the British state. 

What we do know is that Lord Mandelson’s paymasters include the Sapinda investment group — established by a German named Lars Windhorst, a survivor of two bankruptcies and a criminal conviction — as well as Russia’s Sistema Group.

Sistema includes a major defence contractor.

So, assuming that Mandelson adds any value to the group, he has been indirectly helping to arm Vladimir Putin for the past three years.

If Mandelson is representing any of these interests overseas, our diplomatic missions should have nothing to do with him.

As for his role at Lazard, it is hard to fathom.

Though he is described as chairman of Lazard International, his duties and achievements are so nebulous that they have never been reported in the bank’s annual accounts, regulatory filings or media releases.

Nor has his salary.

It is also worth noting that for the past six years, Mandelson (like Blair) has been operating with the tacit protection and approval of the Cameron government.

It is easy to see why that might be. Cameron and Osborne never made any secret of their admiration for New Labour.

Furthermore, both of them may well be calculating that they, too, can make a fortune now that they are out of office, by trading on the connections they made in government.

Indeed, Cameron indicated that this might have been on his mind when on leaving office he went to stay in the £17 million London town house of Alan Parker, a PR mogul.

As for George Osborne, he has shown himself to be entranced by ostentatious wealth, at least since he unwisely walked onto the superyacht belonging to billionaire Oleg Deripaska back in 2008 during a Mediterranean break.

The Russian was, as it happens, a social friend of Peter Mandelson, who also enjoyed his hospitality. Frankly, all of this stinks to high heaven.

Theresa May, who has already shown that she is determined to restore integrity to public administration, is well placed to sort out the problem.

She should conduct an immediate cull of all the special envoys, busybodies and other emissaries who ‘deliver messages’ or conduct diplomatic business on our behalf overseas.

At best, such people cause confusion; at worst, they undercut our embassies and make foreign powers believe that our government has a secret agenda.

Mrs May needs also to insist that parliamentarians like Lord Mandelson should reveal the identity of their private clients.

It is looking more and more likely that the Prime Minister will pull the plug on Hinkley Point.

If this means that she becomes the first premier in two decades to pull the plug on Peter Mandelson as well, then so much the better.


Sir Eric Pickles has been guilty of persistent hypocrisy ever since being appointed national anti-corruption champion last summer.

The former Cabinet minister has thrown himself vigorously into examining alleged electoral fraud by Muslims in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

Fair enough.

The problem is Pickles has shown no interest in examining the very serious evidence suggesting that the Tory Party broke election laws by overspending in key marginals ahead of the 2015 general election.

Without looking at the evidence, Eric Pickles supported the Tories’ denial of wrong-doing, declaring the party’s confidence that its expenses were ‘above board’ and that he has ‘complete confidence’ in Conservative organisers who submitted the controversial expenses.

There is a double standard at work here.

On the one hand, Sir Eric comes down like a ton of bricks on Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage Muslims who allegedly cheated at local elections.

Yet he appears to have cleared, without a second glance, the group of white, public-school educated Tory politicians caught up in the expenses scandal.

This is deeply unfair, and brings British national politics into disrepute.

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