Spiral Notebook: The mayor, the Murk and an embarrassment of riches

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COMMENT

By Giles Broadbent

Sometimes the presentational contortions required to keep Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman on the road are so convoluted, you wonder why it's worth the effort.

You can imagine his back room team, the Thunk-Tank, writing Big Ideas on small Post-Its and then writhing around the shagpile in constipated knots agonising over the good, bad and ugly of their latest wheeze.

So it is with the Mayor's decision this week to announce with full-throated moral zeal that he is to dispense with his luxury Mercedes car (£42,000 a year to you lot) which nips out for his dry cleaning or, like two weeks back, takes him a nugget's throw from Town Hall to Mickey D's to switch on the Traffic Light Tree.

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Getting rid of The Murk would have been a great gesture at the beginning of its £120,000 three-year odyssey. (Think what that money could buy.)

But now? You've taken the hit, Mayor. You pinned your colours to the me-me-me mast many moons ago, little point in trying to look ever-so-'umble now. Probably better to shut up about the car altogether than park the old guzzler in the heat of the media spotlight.

But it gets worse (it always gets worse). The Mayor says his sudden conversion to Shanks's Pony is to underscore his passion for "transparency and probity".

Indeed, to drive all lingering nay from the naysayers, he states unequivocally: "Transparency is a top priority during the election period."

Doink! And, if I may be so bold - double doink!

This declaration, a week after he sat in the council chamber, in monkish silence - the Grand Opaqueness, the Inscrutable Reticence, the Hushmeister General - refusing to answer questions from councillors about his, er, probity.

"Transparency and probity?" Who do the foetal curls of the Thunk-Tank believe is swallowing this stuff?

It's so cynical it goes full circle. It's Naive 2.0.

Labour rival John Biggs says he suspects the Mayor has been forced to give up the car because "his lawyers have told him he cannot stretch his misuse of public funds into the election period".

Either that, or Mr Rahman, reaching for the Murk's sat nav, mistakenly grabbed the moral compass instead.

UPDATE

Having written the above post during the night with the devil on my shoulder, the angels of my better nature arrived with my porridge this morning and demanded I be a little nicer. After all, he is our democratically elected mayor. We asked him to do this job.

I remember a Q&A Lutfur gave to The Guardian during which he took on his critics. I recall the interview for a reason that I shall expand upon after he has his say.



Q. You have also been criticised for using taxis funded by public money and having a chauffeur driven car. How can you defend this as a good use of money?

A. I gave up a successful legal career to do this job. I don't do this job for the allowance. I do it because I love this job.

When I was leader of this council I took a 25% cut in my allowance and after I became elected mayor the allowance was reduced by £10,000 and I accepted that. I have back-to-back meetings and using my own transport or public transport doesn't work.

Sometimes we have five minutes between meetings and initially a taxi was used. When we saw that the taxi was very expensive, the council provided me - and other leaders and mayors have this - with a car.

This enables me to work efficiently and make sure every penny is value for money.



See, it's that first sentence that troubles me - "I gave up a successful legal career to do this job." As if the taxpayers of Tower Hamlets should pay title-holders compensation in direct correlation to the scale of their personal sacrifice.

And, of course, if such a thought were taken to its logical conclusion what would be the outcome? If a King or a City trader took on the role, would we be obliged to keep them in the manner to which they were accustomed - a Rolls for civic duties, a Baby Bentley for the dry cleaning, caviar in the ashtrays and handmaidens in the filing cabinets?

Or, the reverse, if a teacher, dustbin man, shop worker or any of the normal folk who pay for the council were rise to the top, what would be their fate? A subsidised Oyster card embossed with the words: Know Your Place perhaps.

I am sure the Mayor didn't mean to trigger such impish thoughts. It's not so very "One Tower Hamlets".

Follow Giles Broadbent on Twitter: @MediaGulch


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