The news that David Laws, the all-but Conservative Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has claimed £40,000 over 8 years to rent a room in his partner’s flat, puts paid to the notion that the ‘new politics’ was anything other than a figment of Nick Clegg’s imagination.
This will cause huge embarrassment to the the Lib-Dems. Remember those ‘Clegg gets a bit angry’ moments when he dismissed the ‘reds and the blues’ as ‘old politics’? Remember the oh-so-high ground he clambered to, expressing his deep, deep disappointment – as if he was one of us – about how politics had been messed up by greed? His holier-than-thou act will need toning down from now on (or will it? I’m not sure he’s capable!).
There is much that is wrong about what Laws has done. Where to start?
First up, why does a man with independent wealth not just pay his own rent? Even if he were entitled to every penny, why take money from the public purse unless you need it? He is not alone in this of course. But it’s still greedy and penny-pinching. The fact that he’s agreed to pay it back at the drop of a hat suggests he doesn’t exactly have to scrabble around for the cash. It sticks in the throat that a man with wealth can pocket so much money and then lead the charge to slash and burn public services (and believe me – he hadn’t even begun his dirty work).
Second, if a single penny of these expenses were used to pay off his partner’s mortgage then Laws should also return a share of the capital gains to the public purse (and, yes, at the new higher rate). The flat was sold by his partner with a £193,000 profit. Why should we help his partner make a few extra quid and leap up the property ladder when so many people are struggling to get on the first rung?
Third, as he was in a relationship with the flat-owner, should he have been claiming anything at all? Yes, an out of town MP needs a London-base. But, if your partner lives there, presumably a few quid (out of his own pocket) to cover the bills would have done the trick. His partner would have been paying council tax, heating, lighting and the rest – I don’t see what great expense would be incurred by his partner by this arrangement. Certainly nothing that amounts to £40,000.
But what strikes me as most bizarre about Laws-gate is that he chose to keep this quiet for so long. Even during the collective purge last year – when it seemed that nearly every MP was seizing the moment to get their dodgy deals and peculiar purchases out in the open – he kept schtum. Why did he not quickly – and relatively quietly – explain himself to the authorities and pay the money back last year? This would have given him a much better chance of keeping his relationship secret (or at least well away from the front pages), if that was what he wished to do. Either he made a bad call or he genuinely thought he could get away with it. His Guardian profile this week suggested he is a cool, clear-thinker – apparently, for David, things are either ‘good, bad, or mad’. Well this ain’t good, so that just leaves bad or mad.
So, the big question: will he survive or will he be the first casualty of the Lib-Con Government?
I thought the first departure would be a resignation brought on by a policy dispute between a left-leaning Lib and a right-leaning Con. But it looks like expenses just won’t go away. I sympathise with the ‘personal’ in all this and I know there will be plenty of people lining up to criticise him because of his sexuality. But this, for me, is about the money and the expectations for openness in the light of the expenses scandal – I think it will be very difficult to defend, particularly as Clegg (and Cameron) have made such a big deal of their new politics.
Either way, the ‘new politics’ will enter the political lexicon as one of those ideas that just didn’t really cut it, to be filed alongside ‘big society’, ‘stakeholder pension’ and ‘cones hotline’.