One of the biggest supporters of the extremist-backed mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, had a little business setback the other week, I can reveal.
Shiraj Haque, king of the Brick Lane curry kings, suffered the indignity of police raiding his Clifton restaurant empire and carrying away large quantities of allegedly dodgy wine. His restaurants have, it is claimed, been passing off cheap plonk as good stuff – complete with fake labels – and selling it at inflated prices to unsuspecting tourists in search of that authentic Brick Lane experience.
I have called Mr Haque three times over the last four days to ask him about these allegations. Three times, he has refused to deny them – claiming he is “too busy” to discuss the matter. But rival restaurateurs have kindly shown me their CCTV footage of the rozzers turning up, then carting things off in a big van. Of course, it’s possible that the alleged scam may have been perpetrated by his staff, with Mr Haque in total ignorance of all that went on. Mr Haque refused to comment on that, too.
Mr Haque is a multi-millionaire who organised a campaign to turn Tower Hamlets from a conventional leader-and-council borough into one with a directly-elected mayor – a post to which Lutfur was then elected. Mr Haque has openly stated to this blog: “The campaign for a directly elected mayor was my initiative. Whatever expenses were required, I had to pay for it. Tower Hamlets politics was corrupt. I needed someone to fix it, so I thought let’s try him [Lutfur].”
Mr Haque denied bankrolling Lutfur’s personal campaign – which was notably better-resourced than that of any of the other candidates – even though several of Lutfur’s election leaflets were exactly identical in design and typeface to those produced by the campaign for a directly-elected mayor. “Many things look the same in the world,” Mr Haque told me. “It’s the computer age.”
But he has organised celebration feasts for Lutfur, been a vocal presence at the mayor’s side and has also been observed homophobically heckling Lutfur’s enemies at various council meetings recently. Ted Jeory, who witnessed it, has a selection of some of his choicer rhetoric here.
What’s in it for Shiraj, you may ask? Well, he was chair of something called the Baishakhi Mela Trust, which organised the massive annual Bengali festival of the same name in Tower Hamlets – second in London, by some accounts, only to the Notting Hill Carnival. In 2007, however, under the leadership of Lutfur’s predecessor, Tower Hamlets council – which funds the event – decided to sever relations with Mr Haque and send in the auditors. The move came after persistent allegations – denied by Mr Haque – that the event suffered from financial irregularities and was used as a front to bring in illegal immigrants posing as performers.
As Ted Jeory relates, the auditors, Deloitte, reported that they could ‘provide no assurance that the financial practices and controls adopted by the Baishakhi Mela Trust are sufficiently adequate and effective to enable robust financial management of the trust’s funds’. Since then, the festival has been organised directly by the council and continues to be highly successful. But Mr Haque has long dreamed of getting it back.
Now that Shiraj has got his man in as mayor, things at last seem to be going his way. Not long before his restaurants were raided, Mr Haque was appointed chair of the Baishakhi Mela advisory board. Never let it be said that in Lutfur Rahman’s Tower Hamlets, hard work and enterprise don’t pay off!