SCOTTISH Tory grandee Malcolm Rifkind was last night fighting to save his political career after he was caught up in allegations that he was prepared to provide a bogus Chinese company with high-level political access in exchange for money.
The MP for Kensington and Chelsea, who from 1974 to 1997 represented an Edinburgh seat, and still lives in Scotland’s capital, was caught on film apparently offering “useful access” to all the UK’s ambassadors.
The scandal has led to calls for Sir Malcolm to step down from his influential post as chairman of the powerful intelligence and security committee (ISC), the watchdog of Britain’s security services.
The sting, by the Daily Telegraph and Channel 4’s Despatches programme, due to be aired last night, also caught up Labour veteran Jack Straw, who, like Sir Malcolm, is a former foreign secretary.
Both senior MPs have referred themselves to the parliamentary watchdog and have been suspended by their parliamentary parties, with the whip being withdrawn.
The extraordinary revelations saw Sir Malcolm, who was also Scottish secretary, transport secretary and defence secretary in a glittering career, hold two meetings with a fictional Chinese company.
Undercover reporters met Sir Malcolm at the fictional firm’s office in London’s Mayfair in January, where he is said to have told them he could meet “any ambassador that I wish to see” in the capital.
“They’ll all see me personally,” he said. “That provides access in a way that is, is useful.”
In a second meeting, Sir Malcolm was said to have suggested that he would be willing to write to ministers on behalf of the company without declaring the name of the firm.
During the meetings, Sir Malcolm is said to have described himself as being “self-employed”, saying “nobody pays me a salary”, ignoring his £67,000 MP’s pay plus expenses.
He is said to have discussed his usual fee for his services as being “somewhere in the region of £5,000 to £8,000” for a half a day’s work.
The exposé immediately led to calls for Sir Malcolm to quit as ISC chairman, with Labour’s John Mann tweeting: “Rifkind’s arrogance is breathtaking. And he has not learned the Parliamentary rules as he is not ‘self employed’.”
Ukip leader Nigel Farage said it was “very questionable” whether Sir Malcolm should continue in his ISC role.
“I’m not surprised he has been suspended and I would have thought it very questionable whether he can hang on to any other senior positions at all,” Mr Farage said.
But in a furious defence, Sir Malcolm dismissed allegations of wrongdoing as “unfounded” and vowed to fight them “with all my strength” and vowed to stay on as committee chairman.
He said: “Many ex-ministers, former chancellors, home secretaries, prime ministers, have served on advisory boards. This is something which Parliament has said is acceptable.”
Sir Malcolm claimed he had offered to appear on the Channel 4 programme to answer the allegations but “they refused to allow me”.
Asked if he would be embarrassed watching the programme, he replied: “No, I’m going to be hugely irritated and angry because I have got nothing to be embarrassed about. Every single thing I said to these people I would have been willing to say on television or to you if you had put the same questions to me at the time.”
Sir Malcolm added that he would “certainly not” stand down as ISC chairman.
He said: “None of the matters, even that the Telegraph are alleging, or complaining about, are remotely to do with intelligence and security.”
Mr Straw met undercover reporters at his office in the Commons – a potential breach of Commons rules – and is said to have explained how he helped ED&F Man – a commodities company with a sugar refinery in Ukraine – change an EU regulation by meeting officials in Brussels for “under-the-radar” talks.
He was quoted saying he used “charm and menace” to convince the then Ukrainian prime minister to change laws on behalf of the same firm.
The veteran MP – who is stepping down in May after 36 years representing Blackburn – reportedly explained that he normally charges a fee of £5,000 a day for his work. He made clear he would not take on the role while he remained an MP, but is said to have suggested that he could be more helpful to the company if he became a peer, as different rules apply.
Mr Straw said he had agreed to suspend himself from the Parliamentary Labour Party and refer himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner despite insisting he has done nothing wrong “because of the way this appears”.
He said: “I’m mortified by the fact that I fell into this trap. Inevitably, if you have what you think is a private conversation where you trust the person you are talking to, you use language not that’s necessarily wrong but could be taken out of context.”
Prime Minister David Cameron declined to say whether he believed Sir Malcolm should stand down from his ISC position during his suspension from the Parliamentary Conservative Party, stressing that the chairman was selected by the committee’s members.
“I can’t interfere with that – it is a matter for the committee and the House of Commons,” said the Prime Minister.
Mr Cameron described the allegations as “very serious matters” and said it was “right” that both MPs had referred themselves to the Standards Commissioner.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the cash-for-access claims felt like “Groundhog Day – this keeps coming round”.
He said that “whether there is individual wrongdoing or not, the cumulative effect is to deepen public scepticism about how politics operates and that’s a great shame for anyone who believes in our democracy”.
Labour leader Ed Miliband vowed to change the rules. He said: “In the next election, Labour candidates will be banned from paid directorships or consultancies.”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS