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Unravelling the Lee Jasper affair
The resignation of Lee Jasper has been one of the most damaging episodes in Ken Livingstone's career – and the timing could not have been worse. Our political editor Tim Donovan assesses the fall-out and predicts what happens next.
It all started with emails, and it was emails which struck the final blow. A very modern demise, political death by Blackberry.
Over three months the character and mode of operation of the mayor's chief race adviser have been laid bare by what passed to and from his handheld.
In the end, it crossed over from the professional to the deeply personal – with the publication of intimate messages from Jasper to the woman who heads the mayor's London Equalities Commission.
But the more substantial punches had been landed long before.
A hasty exit strategy
It's clear that the emergence of a series of affectionate messages from Jasper to Karen Chouhan – trustee of the 1990 Trust which at the time was receiving a grant of £100,000 from the mayor's office - did present Jasper and the mayor himself - with the opportunity for a smart and hasty exit strategy after weeks of damage to the mayor's re-election chances.
Jasper resigned immediately for the sake, so he stressed, of his family, thereby avoiding an appearance the next day before the London Assembly.
Despite the limited effectiveness of the GLA scrutiny body it's hard to see how a two-hour eye-ball with the mayor's beleaguered race adviser would not have produced more damaging revelations, at least questions.
The email trail
The mayor says someone hacked into Lee Jasper's City Hall email account, and it's understood the police have been notified and have found evidence of this – a potentially criminal line of enquiry.
The origin of the emails does, of course, raise doubts about the validity of the mayor's claims that there has been a racist and politically-motivated campaign against him and his race adviser. At least at the outset. More obviously, the motivation does appear to be more that of a whistle-blower, eager to have a light shone on the chief race adviser's conduct.
The fact remains that the leaking of this material has raised serious questions about a public official who did maintain extremely close links with a small number of black community groups run mainly by long-established friends, or people with whom he had in the past – and in some cases still has – business links.
Patterns of behaviour
What may be particularly eloquent is that Jasper has not been shown to have demonstrated anything like the same level of interest or intervention in other groups in the same sector or similar sectors in the capital.
It should be said, too, that much of the leaked material covers the same limited period of several weeks starting just before the summer of 2006. Some believe that it displays a pattern which, if occurring consistently during the eight years Jasper has been in post, would raise yet more issues.
BBC London's Tim Donovan
They don't though expect any systematic enquiry to establish this.
But there's no doubt what the emails show a case to answer.
One moment here is Lee Jasper suggesting to senior officials at the 1990 Trust that they dismiss their chief executive – 'Sack da B***h', he writes. The next he's being updated on the campaign attacking Trevor Phillips record , ahead of his likely appointment as head of the government's new equalities body.
One moment, one email shows a dispute over unpaid rent and the lease on a south London office. The next there's one asking for an update on a computer project run by a former business associate.
Then there's his foreign travel.
In June 2006 he went on a curious excursion –for which no full explanation has been given. He flew to Chicago, then on to Jamaica and from there to New York, before flying back to Jamaica.
Entirely who paid for what is not yet established. But he didn't declare – as required – on City Hall's register of interests the free flights and hotels he received from a firm of US 'diversity' consultants.
However, being far from home didn't mean he neglected London business.
It was from Jamaica that he sent one of the most damaging emails, demanding a senior official from the London Development Agency halt eviction proceedings against Brixton Base, a project of which he is the patron and which is now at the centre of the police enquiry.
What prompted the urgent missive at this particular time is not clear, though it appears to have stemmed from conversations with Eroll Walters, director of Brixton Base.
Mr Walters, who describes himself as an accountant, has emerged as one of the central figures in the controversy. He was also at the time – and remains to this day – the 'interim' director of the Black Londoners Forum, a group receiving grants not just from the mayor's office but from the Association of London Government.
Both BLF and Brixton Base now find themselves without a home, having been forced to vacate their south London premises owned by the London Development Agency.
An independent lawyer
The mayor has – belatedly – said he'll appoint an independent lawyer to look at the non-criminal issues raised about Lee Jasper's role.
In the end, given the mayor has expressed confidence that Jasper will be cleared of any criminal allegations, it is this 'internal' review which will determine whether Jasper can be re-appointed –as the mayor says he intends.
The mayor has been asked to guarantee the lawyer reports back before the May 1 election, so that voters can have the full picture before they make a judgement on the mayor's handling of the crisis. It would seem unlikely.
The wider question now is how much damage the row has done to Ken Livingstone's bid to win a third term. Labour sources insist internal polling has not shown that this has been playing particularly badly 'on the doorstep.'
But the book-makers William Hill at the beginning of March put Boris Johnson narrowly ahead for the first time.
Before the Jasper controversy developed, the mayor had anticipated a campaign, standing proudly on a record of investment in transport and policing, contrasting his experience with that of a journalist who has 'never run anything.'
The failure to deal with this rumbling row with the appearance of authority and detached independence – even if necessary jettisoning one of his key aides – has been a gift beyond Boris Johnson’s wildest dreams.
last updated: 20/05/2008 at 14:52
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