Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Cronyism row as Gordon Brown hands globetrotting role to former Scottish leader Jack McConnell

By Jason Lewis, Mail On Sunday Whitehall Editor
Last updated at 12:44 AM on 07th March 2010

Gordon Brown was facing accusations of cronyism last night after it was revealed that ex-Scottish Labour leader Jack McConnell spent nearly £70,000 of taxpayers’ money travelling the world as a Prime Ministerial envoy.

The little-known role was invented for Mr McConnell – a former maths teacher who has no diplomatic background – after Labour lost the Scottish elections to the SNP.

With the Prime Minister’s backing, he visited 15 countries in his first ten months in the job, travelling business class and staying in top hotels.

Gordon Brown
Jack McConnell

New role: Gordon Brown offered Mr McConnell the job to prevent a by-election that would have weakened Labour in Scotland

Last night, politicians attacked Mr Brown’s ‘judgment’ over the appointment, saying it came as the Government was cutting the number of British embassies.

The former Scottish First Minister is not paid for his role as ‘the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Conflict Resolution Mechanisms’, but he still draws his £57,000 salary as a member of the Scottish Parliament.

Mr McConnell had been due to step down as an MSP after Labour’s defeat in Scotland in 2007 to become Britain’s High Commissioner to Malawi.

But at the last minute Mr Brown offered him the new role to prevent a by-election that would have further weakened Labour in Scotland.

The Foreign Office said Mr McConnell was doing a good job and had helped improve ‘the effectiveness of the United Nations’ peace-building architecture’.

A spokesman added: ‘The role did not exist before Mr McConnell was given it. The role of special envoy tends to be unique to the person appointed, drawing on their experiences and skills.’

But his travels have yet to take him to Iraq and Afghanistan, despite Britain’s lengthy involvement there.

And intriguingly, the UN’s website mentions Mr McConnell only once – when he hosted a dinner for then Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005.

In contrast, the site mentions Mr Brown 841 times and Tony Blair 904 times. No10’s website also has no mention of Mr McConnell’s envoy status.

Despite his low profile, Mr McConnell spent £11,200 on trips to the United States, £8,650 for five nights in Brazil, £4,600 for three nights in Japan, £3,540 for three nights in Chile and £4,000 for two nights in Egypt. He has also visited Belgium, Bosnia and Ethiopia.

Last night the Foreign Office said the total cost of his trips between October 2008 and November 2009 was £69,060. However, it refused to reveal details of where Mr McConnell stayed on security grounds.

David Lidington, Tory foreign affairs spokesman, said: ‘This raises serious questions about Gordon Brown’s judgment. We know this role was a consolation prize when Labour ran scared of a by-election. But it is a very costly consolation prize for the taxpayer.’

Mr McConnell did not respond to requests for a comment last night.