Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Straw Would Be Wise to Sit on Mr Al Fayed for Now-On His Application, That Is

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Straw Would Be Wise to Sit on Mr Al Fayed for Now-On His Application, That Is

Article excerpt

The decision as to whether to give Mohamed Al Fayed a British passport has apparently been postponed for a few weeks. In fact, no final decision has been made. It certainly looks as though Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is minded to grant him his long-cherished wish of citizenship. But certain questions are still being asked of Mr Al Fayed's solicitors by Mr Straw to which answers have not yet been given. Things could still go against the wily Egyptian.

Lots of articles have been written in the past few weeks about Mr Al Fayed's application. Apart from a short leader in the Mirror, I don't believe any of them has argued that he should get his passport. One of the qualifications for citizenship is that the applicant should be of `good character'. Mr Al Fayed does not obviously clear that hurdle. The famous 1990 Department of Trade report into the takeover of Harrods (which inexplicably Mr Straw has decided to set aside) established that Mr Al Fayed and his brother Ali had lied about their origins, wealth and business interests.

But there is a further reason for denying Mr Al Fayed citizenship, at any rate for the time being, which has not been much discussed. Mr Al Fayed is being sued for libel by Neil Hamilton, the disgraced former Tory MP for Tatton, for comments he made in a Channel 4 documentary in January 1997. He had repeated the charge also shouted from the rooftops by the Guardian and seemingly believed by the whole world - that he bribed Mr Hamilton to ask parliamentary questions. Though he has admitted that he accepted a 'freebie' at the Paris Ritz from Mr Al Fayed, Mr Hamilton has steadfastly denied that he ever accepted brown envelopes stuffed full of cash.

If Mr Al Fayed is so sure of his evidence, one might expect that he would be happy to meet Mr Hamilton in court. Not so. He has argued that since the matter has already been considered by Sir Gordon Downey, then the parliamentary commissioner, it is not open to the libel courts to have another go. Last year Mr Justice Popplewell ruled against Mr Al Fayed and in favour of Mr Hamilton, saying that the libel case could proceed. Mr Al Fayed then applied to the Appeal Court, where the case was heard earlier this month. Bizarre though it may seem, Ross Cranston, the Solicitor-General, appeared for the Speaker and the 'authorities of the Commons' side by side with Mr Al Fayed, arguing that the courts should not try a case that had been heard by Parliament. Three judges, including the Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, will make their judgment this Friday.

Whoever wins, the case is likely to go to the House of Lords. The legal tactics of the mega-rich Al Fayed are having the effect of wearing down Mr Hamilton's meagre resources, but the former MP plainly has the bit between the teeth. His argument is that Sir Gordon Downey's conclusion that there was 'compelling' evidence that cash had passed hands did not amount to a definitive judgment. Even this finding was not endorsed by the select committee to which Sir Gordon reported. So how can Parliament be said to have settled the matter?

Natural justice demands the case be heard. Desmond Browne, QC, was right to argue that Mr Hamilton's libel action `is the only vehicle for salvaging his reputation'. I believe that one way or another Mr Hamilton will get justice in the end, even if he has to go to the European Court of Human Rights. Almost everyone who has studied the Downey report recognises what a flawed process it was. …

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