JACK STRAW has become embroiled in a row with a wealthy Muslim businessman who claims he was offered the prospect of a peerage not to contest the foreign secretary’s Blackburn seat.
The disputed conversation took place in Straw’s constituency flat during a private meeting in which the minister sought to dissuade Yousuf Bhailok from standing against him.
Straw was targeted by Bhailok, a former general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, because of his pivotal role alongside Tony Blair in the Iraq war.
Although Straw won a majority of 9,249 in 2001, he could be vulnerable to tactical voting in the coming general election. He is already being challenged by Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan.
According to census data, the Blackburn constituency has the third highest proportion of Muslim voters in the country, at almost 20%.
The meeting with Straw took place on September 10 last year on the eve of Bhailok’s appearance before a parliamentary assessment board, which would determine whether he would be placed on a Conservative list of approved election candidates.
This weekend he said Straw told him he would not be suited to the life of an MP, stating: “Yousuf, it will be a hard struggle to win against me. You aren’t the type of career politician that it is necessary to have in the House of Commons.”
Bhailok added: “There is no doubt about the fact that he [Straw] mooted the fact that I was a potential peerage candidate. It has been mentioned before but it was mentioned in that conversation, so it had its implications.”
Bhailok, who described Straw as a “friend” whom he has known for many years, admitted that Straw made no direct offer. “I don’t think he was [so] crude [as] to suggest, ‘Yousuf you step down and the peerage is yours’.
“Jack was subtle in the sense that he mentioned, ‘You have been in the top of the list for quite a while and these things take quite a while as you know’.”
Bhailok emphasised he did his best to win the Tory nomination, offering to spend more than ?100,000 of his own money on a pre-election publicity campaign.
However, he lost out to a younger man, Imtiaz Ameen, for the Blackburn nomination, despite having shared a platform with Michael Howard, the Tory leader, when he made a headline-grabbing speech attacking the British National party in Burnley.
A spokesman for Straw confirmed that he met Bhailok on September 10 to hear him outline his plans to unseat him. However, he said the meeting was held at Bhailok’s request and he denied any suggestion of any impropriety by the minister.
“Mr Bhailok raised the issue of the peerage and Mr Straw made clear that these things are subject to rules. On no occasion did he say that Mr Bhailok was in line for one. He was in no position to make any offers like that and nor did he do so.”
Sources said Bhailok sent Straw a text message on September 14 implying that the minister had dangled the prospect of a peerage.
One source said Straw, who was not particularly close to Bhailok, “smelt a rat” and replied by text message repeating what he had said at the meeting and emphasising that strict rules governed the granting of peerages. The source added: “He kept these texts because he thought it was a slightly odd thing which had been raised with him.”
Straw’s account is supported by Mohammed Khan, the Labour deputy leader of Blackburn with Darwen borough council, who arranged the meeting in the flat and was the sole witness.
Speaking from Pakistan, where he is on holiday, Khan said: “Jack told him, ‘It’s your democratic right [to stand] but I’ve been here for 25 years’. Yousuf mentioned the peerage but Jack said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t promise anything to anybody’.”
However, Joe Smith, who was Blackburn Conservative association chairman at the time, said Bhailok told him of the alleged offer on two occasions. “He said Jack Straw offered him a peerage in order to persuade him not to stand. It’s as straight as that.”
Bhailok is now considering whether to stand in the Blackburn seat as an independent candidate.