Garlanded as the first Asian MP in modern times, when elected in 1987, Keith Vaz has often hit the headlines.
Vaz is the great survivor: his propensity for self-reinvention is notorious. From campaign group member to New Labour minister. From Eurosceptic to Euro-enthusiast. His chutzpah is legendary. Joining Muslim marchers opposing the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses back in 1990, he is even said to have offered words of support to the author too.
Starting as a Parliamentary bag barrier, when Labour came to power in 1997, he rose quickly, becoming a minister in the Lord Chancellor’s department before landing one of the plum jobs in government as minister for Europe in 1999.
By now a devout euro-enthusiast, Vaz held this position for two and a half years before resigning at the 2001 general election, citing ill health, caught up, as he was, in the Hinduja brothers’ passport scandal.
Various allegations made against Vaz during his career have filled pages of Private Eye. But it was the humiliation of being banned from the Commons for a month back in 2002, as punishment for his “serious” breaches of the member’s code of conduct, that made his decline and fall look absolute.
Those who predicted he would never rise to ministerial office again have been proved right. However this is not the end of the Keith Vaz story. His enduring significance in British politics is earned from what he has done since.
Vaz shows all of those bruised and broken former ministers who have left office at a time and manner not of their choosing that there are other options.
After falling off of his own ministerial perch, he changed direction and spent a couple of years on the constitutional affairs committee before ending up as chairman of the home affairs select committee in 2007.
Memorably described by the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart as “so grand he could patronise the Pope”, Vaz’s sometimes oleaginous and legalistic manner belies genuine political talent. His former boss, lord chancellor Derry Irvine, is said to have remarked that he was “the most incredible networker I have ever met”. His inquisitorial skills lend themselves to the pomp of select committee sessions, especially as he knows when to stop short of grandstanding.
Vaz recognises that his task is to punch above his committee’s weight. Select committees have limited formal powers and resources. But with a keen eye for a passing bandwagon, and by ensuring committee grillings are theatrical enough to get on the television news, they can put themselves at the centre of the political action.
As a result Keith Vaz is well positioned to have his two penneth’ worth on many of the most controversial issues of our time. His committee was quick off the mark in launching an inquiry into the cause of the recent riots. Earlier this month, he welcomed Amy Winehouse’s father, Mitch, to the Commons to discuss access to drug rehabilitation centres.
Although Mr Winehouse also met home office minister, James Brokenshire, the television pictures all showed Vaz coming out of Parliament to glad-hand Winehouse like an old friend.
He even has his own slice of the action on the phone-hacking saga. The appearance of Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, and assistant commissioner, John Yates, before Vaz’s committee was shortly followed by both men’s resignations. Not cause and effect, but evidence that Vaz and his committee are in the middle of the action.
Alas, the periodic calls for select committee chairmen to receive the pay and prestige of ministers usually comes to nothing, despite the best of them showing that there is a proper role in scrutinising government effectively.
For Keith Vaz, the end of his ministerial career has been the making of him. His committee chairmanship plays to his strengths and limits the scope of his weaknesses. For his fellow politicians, especially those nursing thwarted careers, his abiding lesson is simple: if you know where to look, there are branches to break your fall.