June 17, 2011 10:04 pm

Not above the law

Former minister David Laws talks expenses, politics and privacy

Finding David Laws is difficult. Deep in the Somerset countryside, where nature is starting to reclaim the tarmac, dark lanes head down through the encroaching hedgerows and eventually lead to a thatched cottage in a clearing. And there, in this rural bower, is Laws: in polished shoes, pressed white shirt, immaculate tie.

 
David Laws

In exile: Laws at his Somerset home

It is not exactly the gulag, but it is here that Laws is spending his period of internal exile. Booted out of the House of Commons for a week, his salary docked, Laws is serving his formal punishment after becoming the highest profile victim of the expenses scandal that ripped through Westminster.

The scandal destroyed reputations. Some MPs ended up in prison, many lost their Commons seats. David Laws was the only cabinet minister to lose his job, brought down in spectacular fashion after only 17 days as the Treasury’s chief secretary in 2010. But politics is only a small part of the story.

With his ruler-straight side-parting and blue suit, the 45-year-old MP standing at the door of his thatched cottage is the sober, seriously intellectual politician of popular perception. Except today David Laws is going to talk at length about himself: giving a rare glimpse of a man few – including his closest friends – really know.

At 11am on Friday May 28 last year, Laws’s life – a superstructure of secrecy and lies built around one big unspoken truth – collapsed, when he received a call from The Daily Telegraph about his parliamentary expenses, his private life and his sexuality. David Laws is gay. He had tried to hide the fact from his friends and family but now he was in big trouble: Laws had also concealed the truth from the Commons authorities, claiming for the rent he was paying on his “second home”, a flat he was sharing with his partner of 10 years, James Lundie, a lobbyist. It was strictly against the rules.

But while other MPs were hounded out of Westminster, Laws attracted an outpouring of sympathy. His calm and cerebral style had somehow struck a chord with the public, who seemed to accept his argument that the illicit expenses claims were part of a web he had constructed to try to protect his privacy, not an attempt at self-enrichment. David Cameron, the prime minister, called him “a good and honourable man”.

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Some Labour MPs believe Laws should be in prison but many at Westminster believe it is only a matter of time before the Liberal Democrat MP for Yeovil is restored to his place at the cabinet table. Writing to Laws to accept his resignation last year, Cameron spoke of his minister’s integrity and said: “I hope that, in time, you will be able to serve again as I think it is absolutely clear that you have a huge amount to offer our country.”

. . .

Laws looks back on the 44 years before May 28 2010 as if it was another life: “Your relationship with everybody – family and friends – develops on the basis of not being open,” he says. “It becomes more and more difficult over time to be open because you end up having to unravel a whole series of lies or dishonesty or half-truths about your ­personal life over a very, very long period of time.”

This accumulated personal agony was etched on his face as Laws made his ministerial resignation speech at the Treasury last May. “It has felt like quite a battering on my private life and on the expenses issue,” he says. “Dealing with those two issues and losing a job in cabinet has been a sort of triple bashing. I think it will take a bit of time to feel fully restored after that.”

Laws’s demise was especially painful politically, given that he gave up a millionaire’s lifestyle working in the City to join the Liberal Democrats, an apparently curious career choice given that the third party was seen as a refuge for eccentric lefties that had last tasted real power in the 1930s.

Laws was central to the project to realign the Lib Dems to the right and was part of the negotiating team that agreed the coalition with the Conservatives after last year’s hung parliament. His reward was a job in the Treasury, overseeing the rebuilding of Britain’s tattered public finances. “You wait 80 years for a government to come along…” His voice trails off.

So how did he get himself into this mess? Born in Surrey’s stockbroker belt in November 1965, he came from what he calls “a pretty comfortable” household, the son of a banker. A crucifix on his desk is a reminder of his Roman Catholic upbringing and education at a private school in Weybridge. His parents were “reasonably easygoing”, but he says they were traditional on issues of discipline and behaviour. “It certainly wasn’t some sort of Guardianista household,” he says, and coming out to his parents – or indeed anyone else – apparently seemed out of the question.

Did he accept he was gay? “Yes, from a very early age – I should think from the very early teenage years, which is when I would imagine everyone is aware of their sexuality.”

To say that he kept his sexuality under wraps is something of an understatement. He never discussed it with anyone until he started his relationship with James Lundie “10 years ago, or whenever it was”. Lundie is sometimes described in the media as the Most Handsome Liberal Democrat – a ­curiously uncoveted title. Veteran journalist Lynn Barber called the lobbyist “dazzlingly handsome, nay gorgeous”. Was this Laws’s first serious relationship? “Yes – the first. Full stop.”

But Britain in the 1980s was hardly Uganda; he was growing up in one of the west’s most tolerant societies and had political leanings towards a party that openly embraced diversity of every kind. Even if he felt unable to come out at school, surely it would have been possible at Cambridge University (where he secured a double first in economics with some of the highest marks recorded in the past 30 years)? “At university none of my friends were gay,” he says. It was just easier to say nothing.

From 1987 to 1994 he worked in the City, ­earning “an incredible amount of money for somebody of my age – and frankly for anybody” in senior positions at BZW and JPMorgan. Going to work for a then fringe political party was not the most obvious career choice. “I seem to remember I was in a bath at the top of a skyscraper in Hong Kong when we were there on a quarterly conference when I finally decided that if I didn’t make this move that year, I never would.” He does not regret the epiphany in the bath, but it was hardly a sound financial move.

His next job as a Lib Dem economic researcher earned him only £14,000, but his expertise was immediately seized upon by a party not blessed with first-hand experience of international finance. Working alongside impoverished young Lib Dem staffers, he was bound to stand out: few of his colleagues owned Hermès ties, let alone a large house in Clandon, an exclusive Surrey village. His social life was a mystery, apart from the strangely ­appropriate fact that he enjoyed visiting desert regions.

Living a City lifestyle on Lib Dem wages seems to have taken its toll on Laws’s finances. He borrowed more than £50,000 from his parents to pay back his wrongly claimed expenses and is now selling his Somerset cottage to move into a smaller place, using the equity to pay back the parental loan.

Why did he join the Lib Dems? He certainly looked and sounded like a Conservative, so much so that George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, was once despatched by Cameron to try to persuade him to defect. “I told him it was very flattering but they were not a party I supported.”

Some have speculated that Laws could not have joined the Tories because the party was not gay-friendly. “That was never the case at all,” he says. He admits the Conservatives’ policies on civil liberties were offputting, but he was more concerned about Margaret Thatcher’s apparent disregard for the social impact of her tough economic policies.

Laws made it his mission to reconnect the Lib Dems with their old liberal economic roots – a cause that marks him down as one his party’s most right-wing figures – and to stop it “lurching off to the left”. Shortly after joining the Lib Dems he read reports the party was planning a 60 per cent top rate of tax: “I nearly spat my Polo mint out in disgust.”

The former banker’s attempt to mix tough economics with socially liberal policies found its expression in the influential 2004 “Orange Book”, a series of essays that brought him together with the young Nick Clegg, a rising star in the European parliament and now deputy prime minister. It also paved the way for today’s coalition with David Cameron’s more centrist Conservatives.

Michael Gove, Conservative education secretary, says Laws’s leftish colleagues are completely wrong to think the Yeovil MP is “a closet Tory”. Gove says: “David has an old-fashioned English manner and he does look like a Tory, but he has an intellectual coherence that few human beings have.” Gove argues that it was David Laws who drove the Lib Dems’ flagship policy of “a pupil premium” to increase schools’ spending on poor children.

Nick Clegg came to rely on Laws’s judgment and supersized brain. “He’s like a giant calculating machine,” says one former ministerial colleague. “There is no doubt that David is Nick Clegg’s closest friend in politics.” But the clock was ticking on their political relationship the moment Laws walked through the Treasury door.

In 2009, Westminster was convulsed by the expenses scandal and Laws knew he was potentially in trouble. Since 2006 it had been against the rules to claim expenses for leasing a property from a partner; amid the welter of accusations made against other MPs at the time, Laws might just have got away with it had he simply repaid the wrongly claimed money. So why didn’t he?

“It would almost certainly have put the issue of the relationship into the public domain,” he says. “Everything I did for decades in my life was designed at a very high expense – not just financial expense but in terms of personal relationships, openness, every single thing – to keep that secret.” So he kept his head down. But when the Liberal Democrats entered government a year later, suddenly the party and its MPs were subject to renewed scrutiny: the link between Laws (who had given Lundie £99,000 to buy a new London property) and his landlord was now highly dangerous to the new minister.

“I suppose I should have been more worried than I was,” he says, a weary smile crinkling his hooded blue eyes. “But it was such an intense period of activity – the election, the negotiations, going into government – it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind.” He also thought “somewhat naively” that nobody would be that interested in him: after all he was only Osborne’s deputy at the Treasury.

The fact that Laws was responsible for finding £6bn of immediate cuts made it somewhat unlikely he could remain in the shadows. Alarmed by the spreading sovereign debt crisis and reassured by stronger-than-expected growth, Laws embraced the need for urgent action on Britain’s deficit. His local Yeovil Lib Dem party workers presented him with a knife with the entreaty: “Please cut with care.”

The calm rigour with which Laws went about his task unsettled some Liberal Democrat MPs but won plaudits in the press and from the Conservatives. “Can I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending, Gladstonian liberalism?” asked Edward Leigh, a Tory grandee. But after a mere 17 days, Laws’s ministerial career was over. That telephone call from The Daily Telegraph last May initially sparked a frenetic attempt to hold on to his job – he agreed to pay back £56,500 of taxpayers’ money – then total despair as his ­sexuality was exposed and he recognised his ­cabinet career was over.

He first telephoned Lundie. “I thank James for his patience, love and support,” he writes in the foreword to his book, 22 Days in May. Then he called Paddy Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader and his predecessor as Yeovil MP. In his mind, Laws had decided to quit politics altogether. It was Ashdown and local party workers who persuaded him that even if he left the cabinet, he should continue to serve his Somerset electors. By that stage his resignation statement had already been drafted. “That was in the first draft of my statement, but they leant on me very heavily, so I deleted it.”

Cameron and Clegg were “very supportive”, as he might have expected. More surprising to Laws was the reaction of the public – both locally and nationally – to his downfall, including a number of e-mails from “Conservatives who wanted it known they were not gay”.

He recalls one poignant note from a man who had gathered his children together to say that he had been moved by Laws’s story and that if any of them ever had “any issues like this” they must tell him. “He said he expected that to be the end of the conversation but one of his children burst into tears and said, ‘Well, actually…’ and described his sexuality. He said it had made a huge difference to them.”

How did his family react? “Totally relaxed and very supportive,” he says matter-of-factly. However, his enforced coming out has not persuaded him to become a campaigner on gay issues: “I’m still a fairly private person: I don’t necessarily instinctively leap at the idea, if I’m honest, that I should become a kind of national champion of gay rights.”

Later the conversation moves on to the Prince of Wales pub, perched on top of Ham Hill, source of the golden stone that built the glorious villages nearby. Cradling a pint of local bitter, Laws concedes that not everybody is satisfied that his punishment is sufficient: some Labour MPs believe he should be locked up in a prison cell rather than serving a week’s suspension in the Somerset countryside. After all Laws was found by the Commons standards commissioner to have committed a number of ­“serious” expenses breaches, relating to the designation of his Somerset home as his main residence, when plainly he was living with Lundie in London.

It would be hard to mistake Laws’s constituency base for his main home. His cupboards are bare – beer and coffee are the two main sources of ­sustenance – while the bookshelves are crammed with old copies of Hansard, the official report of Commons proceedings. Shiny black shoes sit on the kitchen counter where one might normally expect to find a toaster.

Laws has apologised to the Commons for his expenses claims, but his defence rests on the fact he could have made more from the taxpayer had he designated his Somerset cottage as his “second home” – a move that may have caused people to pry into his private life at his real main residence in London – and that he had not been motivated by personal gain. The parliamentary watchdog said he had “very great sympathy” with Laws but that he had made the wrong choice when trying to resolve the conflict between his “private interest in secrecy and the public interest in being open and honest in relation to expenses claims”.

. . .

Some of Laws’s opponents are in no mood to forgive. Kevin Davis, who stood for the Tories in Yeovil in 2010, says Laws “lied” to his voters, with extravagant claims in election literature that he was “whiter than white on expenses”. Former Labour MP Eric Illsley wondered why he had been jailed for expenses fraud. He said: “I should have been allowed to apologise to the House of Commons and get on with my career.”

Michael Gove defends Laws, claiming: “Some of what the Labour MPs have been saying is despicable. David is a victim of an injustice with this expenses thing. He’s someone who had a successful career in the City and he’s clearly gifted in a way that few of us in the House of Commons are. He joined the Liberal Democrats not because he saw it as an obvious route to riches but because he is a principled person. Labour MPs should recognise he went into public service for good reasons and his talents should be used again as soon as possible.”

David Cameron has made it plain he wants Laws back in the government after a decent interval, while Nick Clegg is anxious to have him at his side as soon as possible. The Yeovil MP looks out of the pub window across the fields and refuses to engage in “presumptuous” speculation about a return to the frontline. But he is plainly anticipating the call. “An invitation hasn’t been made yet,” he says.

Reflecting on a remarkable year he says he feels a burden has finally been lifted. Whatever his political travails, he says he can now at least go out with James Lundie and meet his partner’s family. “If we go out for a drink or to a restaurant I don’t have to worry about who might be sitting at the next table.”

He pauses for a moment. “Absurd as it seems, that was how I kind of lived my life for a long period of time.” It may seem absurd now, but that obsessive quest for privacy and secrecy almost cost the political career of one of Britain’s most promising politicians. “It’s frustrating,” Laws says. “But I’ve only myself to blame.”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor

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