I was rather hoping that we’d heard the last about MPs expenses. The election, and the huge influx of new members, alongside the new mood of ‘new politics,’ was a good break point.
So as well as being personally and politically difficult for David Laws and David Cameron, the revelations of the chief secretary’s expenses payback is an early blow in the new Parliament to politics. ‘They’re all the same’ is back in vogue rather too quickly.
I have not really looked into the detail and unlike my Christian namesake Sir Alistair Graham, who seems to pop up any time he’s asked on the back of press allegation, I don’t like piling in without knowing if all is genuinely as it seems.
So though I had my fun with Mr Laws (absence of) on Question Time, part of me is hoping there is some kind of explanation that will deny the press an early scalp, though it is hard to see what it may be.
There will be some sympathy for the notion that he did not want to be outed as gay, an open secret at Westminster but possibly something he did not want, and was entitled not to want, more widely known.
I remember when former Labour minister Nick Brown was outed by the News of the World, when ‘telling my mum’ was clearly as worrying as the political fallout. Gay rights activists may feel that people like Laws and Brown should have been open and campaigning, but I think on these really personal issues it is hard to judge without being in their shoes.
I think where Laws is in difficulty stems first from the feeling there will be that if he has given the money back, he must feel deep down he did something wrong; and even more so from the public posturing of his Prime Minister, including and indeed especially during the election campaign.
It has been hilarious to watch TweedleDave lecturing others about opportunism. The man who started yesterday making ‘the most important speech yet’ about the economy, and ended it diving into the news-leading story on the crossbow cannibal case.
The man who said his government would not be driven by the 24 hour news culture and whose comms team think they can dictate the make up of TV panels.
And the man – let us not forget this one – who in the midst of court case coverage of Labour MPs in trouble over their expenses applying for legal aid, ordered his campaign battlebus to stop, leapt off to tell a makeshift crowd (mainly of journalists) what a scandal it was and how if anything like this happened on his watch, he would deal with it prontissimo. Let’s see.
So he has his first so-called ‘scandal’ to deal with. My hunch is that the ruthless streak will prevail, and that he won’t mind too much, provided he can find a decent replacement for Laws, if people see that ruthless streak and he can present himself as a strong and decisive leader. He will see all too clearly the difficulties of two parallel tracks – a running investigation into millionaire banker Laws’ expenses, alongside Laws telling the nation to tighten its belt. He will be hearing the mutterings of Tories not too keen on Liberals, and not too liberal on homosexuality, telling him this is what happens when you jump into bed too quickly with people you don’t know too well.
A serious point here. The coalition government was put together pretty quickly. Can Cameron possibly have been aware of all the potential skeletons rattling around Lib Dem cupboards? Did TweedleNick tell him all he knew, or were the two of them just so excited to be walking down the aisle to the Downing Street rose garden?
Another problem for Laws is that he has slightly done the ‘holier than thou’ on expenses in the past; and that he looked too much like he was enjoying the hatchet role when he stood alongside George Osborne last Monday. Amid all the personal angst, over which I genuinely do sympathise, because it is horrible when personal life becomes political ‘fairgame’ he will also be feeling political hatchets being sharpened all around him.
These Tories are not the nicest people on the planet. If they judge he is damaging to their interests, he is gone. And if that is where Cameron thinks it will end, he’d be better getting on with it.
*** I’ve not read the Guardian coverage of my book yet but I do wonder why they’ve put that nine-year old Bond vilain photo on the front. It’s the one taken on the day TB postponed the 2001 election and if the photograper gets a tenner for every time it has been used, he’ll be living in Monaco by now. I imagine it has been so popular with editors because they think it makes me look a bit mean and devious. But interestingly both Fiona and my mum, without a mean or devious bone in her elderly body, rate it as one of their favourite pictures of me. I think they are better judges than most journos.
Anyway, I hope those who read it enjoy the Guardian and even more that those who get the book enjoy it too. Prelude to Power, on Amazon now, in the shops Tuesday. So they say. And am doing a slot on the Politics Show about it tomorrow.
I don’t think Andy Coulson will be asking for me to get bounced this time.