The media has claimed its first scalp from Britain’s new government. The country is the loser. The departure of David Laws from the Treasury serves no one but the prurient.
David Cameron has been deprived of an able minister. Talented individuals who might otherwise contemplate a life in politics have been reminded once again that they would do better to direct their ambitions elsewhere.
Mr Laws’ resignation is a blow for the three-week-old coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. As the minister charged with cutting public spending, the chief secretary brought to the government considerable political and economic skills.
Treasury officials described him as a “natural” in the job. His place at the centre of economic decision-making provided both reassurance for Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, and political cover for George Osborne, the Tory chancellor. In this sense, Mr Laws was indeed a linchpin.
The government will get over it. Danny Alexander, who replaces Mr Laws at the Treasury, lacks his predecessor’s experience but is from the same tradition of small “l” liberals in Mr Clegg’s party. Yet the events of recent days have shown how quickly the much-vaunted “new politics” have lost their novelty.
Mr Laws might have survived the initial newspaper report that his parliamentary allowance claims had breached the rules. His career was over as soon as the BBC took up the story. These days, the nation’s public broadcaster sees its role as making the news rather than reporting it.
It was impossible, the presenter on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme informed the nation the morning after the story first broke, for the chief secretary to stay in his job. He could not impose harsh spending cuts on hard-working voters while his own probity was in question. Thus Mr Laws was charged, tried and convicted over the airwaves.
This, of course, was humbug – the sanctimonious “public interest” defence the media always deploys when it wants to throw mud at someone in the public eye. There was a time when the BBC concerned itself with dispassionate reporting and analysis of the facts. Now it runs at the front of the tabloid pack.
Mr Laws may well have broken the rules in paying his MP’s rent allowance to someone with whom he was in a long-term relationship. He should probably have arranged his finances differently, particularly after the rules changed in 2006.
That, though, is the extent of the charge sheet. I have heard no one suggest that Mr Laws was seeking personal financial gain by failing to mention that his landlord was also his partner. Instead, the aim was to shield Mr Laws’ private life – and in particular the fact that he is gay – from the public prints. Some will think that in our tolerant age it is curious that he thought it necessary to hide his sexuality. But where is the crime in this? Mr Laws’ claims were modest – well below the “going rate” at Westminster.
Common sense would have treated his behaviour as an oversight – the more so since many colleagues, including some in the cabinet, played faster and looser with the rules. Mr Laws’ misdemeanour might merit – we shall see after the investigation of the parliamentary standards office – a rap on the knuckles. But fraud?
The expenses scandal during the last parliament did expose some instances of financial malpractice. Newly elected MPs face as a consequence a much stricter regime.
Yet the default position of the media remains that the country is governed by thieves and charlatans. The standards of behaviour demanded of politicians deny the possibility of human frailty. The media has decided that it prefers to throw rocks at elected representatives than to listen to or report their endeavours.
Mr Laws’ resignation was his own decision. The controversy, he said, would have been a distraction from his work at the Treasury and he wanted time to repair relations with the family and friends from whom he had concealed his sexuality. In leaving, he demonstrated his integrity.
It would have been much better, though, if he had stood his ground and if the prime minister (who has repaid several thousand pounds of his own expenses) had been more outspoken in his support for the chief secretary. At some point the politicians must face down the mob. Mr Laws has lost his job. The country has nothing to celebrate.
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