After a week of vilification, defiant Derek Conway speaks out and says: 'I did nothing wrong'


Last updated at 23:38 02 February 2008

Scandal-hit Tory MP Derek Conway has hit back at critics who have accused him of using his Commons expenses to feather his family's nest and insisted: "I am not a crook."

In his first interview since being suspended as an MP after it was revealed that he put his son, Freddie, on the Commons payroll while he was at university, a defiant Mr Conway told The Mail on Sunday: "I still believe I have done nothing wrong."

And his wife, Colette, who is his Commons secretary, vowed to stand by the MP, declaring: "Our marriage will get us through this."

The couple were speaking at their London flat, under siege from the media pack camped on their doorstep since the story broke on Monday.

Until the row over his Commons expenses, Mr Conway was strongly tipped as a successor to Commons Speaker Michael Martin.

Now he is ruined and has been branded a real-life Alan B'stard, the fictitious sleazy MP portrayed on television by comedian Rik Mayall.

Conway, 54, defends himself in the blunt way you would expect from a secondary-modern schoolboy from a Gateshead council estate – a true working-class Tory.

"The public believe all politicians have their snouts in the trough," he shrugged.

"I understand why they believe that. I just have to cope with it."

But how could his son Freddie, 22, be a full-time student at Newcastle University and work for his dad at the Commons at the same time?

"Most universities sit for only 20 to 24 weeks a year," said Conway.

"Freddie's lecture commitments weren't that high. It's not like doing medicine. Freddie was doing geography,

"If you are at Oxford and Cambridge, you are probably working pretty hard, some of the other universities less so.

"A lot of students do part-time work. He was working for his father rather than working in McDonald's.

"He used to come home frequently. He would go up and down like a fiddler's elbow while he was away.

"There are MPs who commute greater distances than that on a weekly basis and some are three times Freddie's age.

"I don't think it was unusual, though at times we would say to him, 'You are back a bit often'.

"It's a two-hour and 50 minute journey, it's not the Outer Hebrides.

"Newcastle isn't a distant frozen village away from anywhere, a perverse perception of the Oxbridge elite."

Gardener's son Conway does not conceal his chippiness and is a rare Geordie twang on the Tory benches at Westminster.

He coined the term "the Notting Hell set" to mock David Cameron and his trendy, posh pals.

All the more curious, then, that scourge-of-the-toffs Conway should send his sons to Harrow and give them the perks and pretensions of the Hooray Henries.

He called his children Freddie, Henry and Claudia. You don't find many of those in Gateshead.

Conway faces a second investigation over his older son Henry, 25, who was also paid from his father's Commons expenses while a full-time student in London.

"He'd fillet post, scrutinise emails and stuff envelopes," said Conway.

"I am one of many MPs who employ family members. It doesn't mean there's not a job to be done or that they weren't doing it."

Conway is especially bitter at the way the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, run by Tory grandee Sir George Young, twisted the knife by saying Henry had been "all but invisible" at Westminster.

"That was pretty harsh," said Conway.

"Lots of MPs have family who work from home. I'm not unique at all."

He said the reason his sons seemed "invisible" at the Commons was because they worked from the Conways' London flat.

"Frankly it's more pleasant working from here than from my Commons office, particularly in the summer, because there's no air-conditioning and it's like the black hole of Calcutta," he said.

"At home I sometimes work in shorts, which might sound bizarre."

Had he really been victimised?

He said: "Labour was anxious to take the heat off itself because of pressure on Gordon Brown over Alan Johnson and Peter Hain.

"This was a golden opportunity – clearly supported by some Tories, some of whom may well have had their own agenda."

Conway won't be drawn on this, but it is no secret that Sir George Young was his main Tory rival to the Speaker's chair.

How does it feel to be called a crook?

"I am not a crook, though I understand why people put that interpretation on it," he said.

"They think MPs employ family members so they can stick more money in their back pockets."

Isn't that the case?

"For some MPs, maybe – they have never earned so much in their lives.

"I took a cut in salary when I came back to the House."

Conway lost his Shrewsbury seat in the 1997 Labour landslide and was the £80,000-a-year chief executive of the Cats Protection League charity until he succeeded Edward Heath as MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup in 2001.

"Had I remained with them, my salary would have been twice what it is," he said.

"I didn't become an MP to get my snout in the trough.

"I don't feel we have ripped people off. Colette is highly qualified and could have earned more outside."

It looks as though Conway has used his Commons expenses to pay for the trappings of an upwardly-mobile Tory – school fees and college included.

"I can see why that is a perception, but it isn't true," he said.

He is unrepentant about running his Westminster office as a family business and, unlike other MPs, at least he was open about it, he claimed.

Conway pointed out that Henry openly took his friends to Commons bars and Freddie played for the Parliamentary rugby team.

"Colette is listed in the Commons directory under her married name," he said.

"I know many MPs with family members who have different names registered so that they are not so obviously spotted. Some spouses work under maiden names."

Did other MPs cover it up?

"Yes," he said, before adding: "It might not be deliberate. We often came across people and we'd say, 'I didn't realise they were related'."

He dismissed further claims that he employed Michel Pratte, 23, because he was a friend of his sons, and halved the wages of his constituency secretary Lisa Rayson.

He said Pratte met his sons only after joining his office, and Ms Rayson had contacted him to disown Press reports about her wages.

He agreed that MPs' allowances must be reformed – but warned that it will come at a price.

"People say, 'Why can't an MP be treated like anyone else?'

"MPs would not have a problem with that if they were given the salary for the job.

"An MP is paid less than the sous chef at the Commons. Many people may think sixty grand is the right level for an MP – most MPs would not.

"You pays your money and takes your choice."

So how much should they be paid?

"Eighty to a hundred grand," he said candidly.

A pay rise of up to £40,000.

But all other expenses and staff costs would be dealt with by the Commons authorities.

"It would take MPs away from controversy, but it wouldn't cost taxpayers less, it would cost them a damned sight more," he said.

The extra pensions and bureaucratic costs would outweigh any other savings, he claimed.

"I don't know many MPs who end up in life richer than they would have been had they stayed in their original jobs," he said.

"They say it is a fabulous pension. I'll get £24,000 a year when I retire. I don't think that's fabulous.

"It's better than a kick in the eye, but I don't think I'm going to be running a yacht on it.

"That is after 28 years as an MP.

"It is portrayed as though every MP is going to retire on the sort of pension Blair gets. It doesn't work like that."

He cannot hide his sense of injustice. "If I had known what was going to happen, then every time I asked the boys to open the post I would have walked them through the Commons as they ripped it open, throwing papers at people," he said, sarcastically.

"You don't go into these things thinking 'I must leave a paper trail'."

And he cannot bring himself to say he was wrong.

"No. I genuinely don't think so," he said.

Conway insists Freddie's £12,000-a-year, part-time salary - equal to a full-time wage of £25,000 - was not excessive.

"If you are a pensioner living on State benefits, it's a phenomenal sum, but to most people working in London, it's not," he said.

Conway's party may have abandoned him, but his equally forthright wife and secretary Colette is standing by him.

"People say politics makes you either very close or very far apart, and it has made us closer," she said.

"Quite often if he's working late, I'll carry on working in the office and we'll catch a half-hour supper, then he'll go back and vote and we'll walk down the road together.

"I'll do business lunches for him in his office – a lot of PAs wouldn't do that.

"That is the way I was taught in the old days, when PAs would do all sorts of things.

"I know many secretaries who have been asked to pour the brandies and wash the glasses and won't do it.

"Derek is very demanding. He can't work a video, let alone a computer.

"I'm slowly bringing him into the 20th Century, never mind the 21st."

How has it felt seeing her family dragged through the mud?

"As a wife and mother, you come out supporting your chicks," she said.

"I am as fierce as anybody over my family."

Does she think they have done wrong?

"Not at all. No."

Conway's voice falters as he defends his son, Henry, who is gay.

"We have known that he has been gay for a long time," he said.

"We aren't ashamed of it. He's a lovely boy and we have always supported him.

"Yes, he runs a club night at the Mahiki nightclub in London. It is his job. He is earning a living.

"He goes out as normal people go to bed. It is portrayed as a gay lad bouncing round London; drink, drugs, whatever.

"It is hard to watch when you know he has committed no crime.

"One newspaper even tried to suggest that he'd had a sex-change on the NHS.

"It is complete rubbish. These homophobic clowns think every gay wants to be a woman.

"Why should he be pilloried for being gay? He's my son.

"If we didn't have a strong marriage, I'm not sure how we would cope.

"If you are in a wobbly personal situation, it must be hell. But our lot circle the wagons when things get tough.

"We have had 20 emails from people saying, 'Scum, go and kill yourself' – that's just from David Cameron's office. I joke," Conway laughs.

"But a lot of MPs, including some Labour MPs, have sent their support," he said.

Maybe they are thinking, "There but for the grace of God," I suggest.

"There'll be a lot of that going on, no doubt about that," he admitted.

Was Colette sure they would survive the shame?

"Oh yes, we can get through it," she said.

"When you get the ratpack going for you, you have to stand firm."

Conway reflected on his rise from a Gateshead council estate to Speaker-in-waiting, to a spectacular fall from grace.

"Maybe I should have known my place," he mused.

There is no longer a place for him in the House of Commons.

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