Could A Leicester East By-Election Mean The Return Of Keith Vaz?

Local party politics are already at play in a candidate selection process some suspect the former disgraced MP may be involved in.
Keith Vaz stood down from politics in the 2019 general election following a series of scandals.
Keith Vaz stood down from politics in the 2019 general election following a series of scandals.
OLI SCARFF via Getty Images

In the parliamentary seat of Leicester East, weary residents are gearing up for a by-election triggered by the possible departure of sitting MP Claudia Webbe.

In an embarrassing and untimely case for the Labour party, Webbe faces a potential jail sentence for harassing a woman by threatening to use acid and distribute naked pictures of her. Webbe will remain as the independent MP while she appeals the decision, with her sentencing set for Thursday.

Unfortunately for the residents of Leicester East, the drama around the city is only about to intensify.

Already local Labour party politics is playing out through a candidate selection process that — in the event Webbe faces a recall petition — some suspect disgraced former MP Keith Vaz may be involved in.

Sources have told HuffPost UK there is a fear in the party that Vaz, who chairs the local Leicester East constituency Labour party (CLP), could run as an independent if neither he nor a family member receives the Labour nomination for the seat.

A source close to Vaz, however, dismissed the speculation as “tittle tattle”.

Vaz stood down as Leicester East MP in 2019 following a newspaper sting that accused him of paying male prostitutes for sex and offering to pay for cocaine.

One source said Vaz was campaigning and delivering leaflets about boundary changes that would affect the constituency. “He’s acting just like a parliamentary candidate,” one source said. “He’s everywhere.”

Others believe Vaz is more inclined to bide his time and have a family member fill the post as a stop gap before any further future bid to return to the Commons.

Vaz already has a sister in the Commons — the MP for Walsall South since 2010, Valerie Vaz.

Attention has focused on his daughter, Anjali, and his sister Penny McConnell, who liaised with parliament’s independent expert panel on behalf of Vaz in its investigation into bullying and harassment claims against him earlier this year.

Both McConnell and Anjali Vaz were approached for comment.

“The tricky question for Labour is if they don’t give Vaz some of what he wants, does he stand as an independent? He could cause quite a bit of damage in the seat,” a Labour insider said.

Vaz’s influence in the selection process seemed all but guaranteed in the wake of a rule change agreed at Labour’s conference in Brighton, in which CLPs would be given a greater say over candidates in elections.

But a recent development, first reported by LabourList, has seen the party fail to enact the rule change in Bexley and Sidcup, where a by-election has also been triggered following the death of James Brokenshire.

In a move that has angered some party activists, Labour’s ruling body, the national executive committee, said that on receiving legal advice it had clarified the process. There will now be a greater number of NEC representatives drawing up the shortlist than the rule change envisioned.

This may well diminish Vaz’s ability to control events and could increase the risk that he runs as an independent, which represents a danger for Keir Starmer following the damaging loss of Hartlepool earlier in the year.

Labour now only holds Leicester by a majority of 6,000 votes — down from 22,428 at the 2017 general election.

Party insiders believe Vaz, a Catholic whose family originates from Goa, has the ability to appeal to a broad section of the electorate — and the potential to take vast chunks of it with him if he were to stand against the Labour party.

“Rumour has it the party locally hasn’t a clue how to win it without him on side,” said one Labour source with a focus on the party away from Westminster.

“Anything less than Keith’s total support with this would just harm the Labour party and allow the Tories to come through the middle,” another added.

At the same time, Starmer has staked his reputation on cleaning up the party’s image and one of Labour’s main attack lines against the Tories is that it is guilty of cronyism and nepotism.

“The Tories will no doubt be licking their lips,” a Labour source said.

Another spanner in the works comes if disruptor George Galloway, who has a strong following among some in the Muslim community, chooses to stand as he did in Batley and Spen.

So far Galloway has hinted at but not yet confirmed whether he would stand in any Leicester East by-election.

An issue that proved a headache for Labour in Batley and Spen was the ongoing dispute between India and Kashmir. A leaflet showing Boris Johnson alongside India’s prime minister Narendra Modi was strongly criticised for stoking racial divisions within the community, and there is the fear such tensions could boil over again.

Leicester East has a large Hindu population and in this respect Vaz may be seen as a potential peace broker between the community and the Labour party, with whom relations are fractured.

So where does the intrigue around Labour’s selection process leave the Tories? Is their approach just to sit back, and let history do the talking?

It might not be so clear cut.

Andrew Bridgen, the Tory MP for North West Leicestershire, claimed it would be a “disaster for Leicester East if Vaz or any of his family were elected” but that it may represent a political opportunity for his party.

“We haven’t sorted out the legacy of his last term,” he said.

“I fear that some people in my party are relaxed about Vaz possibly being elected for Leicester East again, because it’s big political capital for the Conservatives that Vaz could possibly be a candidate in an election.”

HuffPost UK approached Vaz for comment for this article but did not receive a response.

In a recent statement to the Guardian, he said he would not consider standing as an MP in future elections but that he remained involved in local politics.

“I and family members have lived in Leicester for 34 years,” he said.

“As a private citizen I am happy to support local and national causes I feel passionate about. My various interests are well known. I write letters. I sign petitions. I have retired, I am not dead.”

The Labour party has also been approached for comment.