ConservativeHome website – 1 March 2009
Quite early on Friday morning, I looked out of my bedroom window in New Forest East and saw a photographer standing in the middle of the road taking picture after picture of the front of my home. This caused me concern.
For many years, both before and after becoming an MP, I have been involved in work against political extremists at home and abroad. As a basic security precaution, I have never publicly disclosed where I live, but have always registered to vote under a nom de plume, by arrangement with the relevant local councils. More recently, the Chief Constable of Hampshire has authorised the process of 'anonymous registration' – so that my name doesn't appear anywhere on the electoral register.
The photographer was from a local picture agency and, through them, I was directed to the picture-desk of the News of the World who, in turn, gave me the name of Jamie Lyons – a political reporter whom I understand to be accredited to the Commons press gallery. Eventually I succeeded in getting hold of him and we had a long conversation – initiated by me, and ended by him – in which it became clear that I was dealing with someone determined to write a hostile story.
Curiously, although the reporter had evidently been working on it for some time and could have sought to interview me easily in the Commons, he had made no approach to me at all until I discovered what he was up to and called him the day before his Saturday deadline. This did not bode well for a fair or objective piece of reporting.
The resultant concoction of half-truths and total distortions is published today, and I must say that being attacked – falsely – for sleaze by this particular tabloid does seem to me like a contradiction in terms.
About halfway down the story is the telltale sign that the libel lawyers have warned that the paper is at risk. It is the grudging admission that
'There is no suggestion [that] Lewis has broken any rules'.
So what, then, is the story all about?
First it suggests that I 'hardly visit' the home in New Forest East into which I moved in 1998. That is the headline, though the actuality is very different. As I explained to Mr Lyons, I am there every week but – like every MP who takes his job seriously – I stay in my Westminster flat four days a week when Parliament is sitting. This is unavoidable.
I repeatedly invited Jamie Lyons to visit my house so that he could inspect it and satisfy himself that it is my genuine home in New Forest East – in regular use by me. He said his diary would not permit this and he declined my offer to show any accredited member of his paper’s staff around in his stead. It is obvious that no-one from the newspaper has set foot in my constituency in order to research this ‘stitch-up’.
According to the NoW,
'neighbours say [that for] most of the week [I’m] not there'.
Even if any of my neighbours have said this, it is hardly a revelation that, when Parliament is in session, an MP – however assiduous – cannot be in Westminster and in his constituency simultaneously.
What the paper seems to be arguing is that no MP who puts in the normal time at Westminster should ever be allowed to nominate his constituency home as his main home and to claim the second home allowance on his London flat. This is patent nonsense and explains why all reference to the number of nights spent in one’s constituency and London homes is being dropped from the new edition of the ‘Green Book’ recently approved by Parliament.
Both my homes are genuine homes in normal use – in so far as an MP’s life, split between Westminster and the constituency in different proportions at different times of the year, can in any case be said to be ‘normal’. I have always checked very carefully with the House of Commons authorities whether I was entitled to nominate either my London flat or my constituency house as the 'main' one, so as to claim the allowance on the other one. I have always been assured that everything was absolutely correct and in order. And the News of the World knows perfectly well that this is the case.
Secondly, what seems to bother the paper is that I have managed to pay off the mortgage on my constituency home which, as the article admits, was a modestly-priced £125,000 when I bought it. I was able to do this for two main reasons:
(i) I live without extravagance and I don’t like borrowing money; for example, I have never owned a new car – my present one is 11 years-old, and the one before that was 23 years-old before it went to that great Cortina scrapyard in the sky.
(ii) I have fought and won two major libel actions: the first against a tabloid which made false allegations about my political activities and had to pay me £25,000; the second against the printers and distributors of a scurrilous publication which made false allegations about my private life. They had to pay me £39,500.
I could have invested this money and my other savings elsewhere; but I prefer to own a property outright, if possible. Indeed, that is what I have also done, up to now, with my buy-to-let flat in Southampton. (This is my only other asset – as anyone can check in the Register of Members’ interests).
To add insult to injury, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker is quoted apparently condemning me by implication on the say-so of that pillar of respectability and reliability, the News of the World. However, it appears that Norman’s claims on his second home are almost identical to mine so far as the second-home allowance is concerned; and he also has apparently claimed significant extra sums on this home – in respect of its role as his constituency office – from a separate Parliamentary allowance. No doubt this is all within the rules too; but I used to respect Norman rather more, 24 hours ago, than I do now after reading his quoted remarks in relation to me.
Thirdly, the newspaper suggests, falsely, that the Chief Constable of Hampshire has not authorised the anonymous registration of my home on security grounds. That he has done so can be confirmed by calling his Chief of Staff, Scott Johnson, at his headquarters in Winchester. Far from seeking to 'CENSOR this News of the World report', as Mr Lyons tendentiously claims, I only requested that photographs of where I live should not be published. I also sent the following request to the paper:
'Dear Editor/News Editor,
Security of my Home Address
One of your political reporters is, as you know, writing a story concerning my home.
Yesterday, he told me that he intends to publish a photograph of my home, though not its exact address.
On the authority of the Hampshire Chief Constable, my home address is withheld from the electoral register, on security grounds because of the work I have done in the past and may well do in the future against extremists at home and overseas.
I am writing formally to request that, if you do publish a picture of my home, you will do so in such a way as to make it difficult to identify the particular building – for example, by using a strap-line across the picture to obscure the house-number, which will otherwise be easily visible.
Taking such precautions will not in any way inhibit the story you wish to publish, so I trust you will acknowledge that this is a perfectly reasonable request by me for responsible behaviour by you.'
These requests are being deliberately misrepresented as a bid to block the story.
Finally, I can just envisage commentators on this blog complaining that I 'protest too much' etc. etc., but it is much easier to smear people in a few words than to disprove those smears concisely. For that reason, as for many others, I am grateful for the existence of ConservativeHome.com on which this rebuttal has been published.
(Dr) JULIAN LEWIS MP