But perhaps “Fleet Street” is too broad a term. The Times follows the Telegraph’s lead this morning by splashing on the story. But its very fine editorial scarcely touches her case at all: instead, it is a magisterial account of how the present expenses system is worse than the one it replaced. No other paper than these two splashes on the case. This is to the Culture Secretary’s advantage.
A complaint of the last few days is that David Cameron would treat the case differently if it involved not Miller, but a man. It is true that his handling of the original expenses scandal was rather arbitrary: friends at court tended to get off lighter than non-friends at court (or indeed those who weren’t either friends or at court at all). Many non-2010 intake Conservative MPs remember this well. The accusation seems to be correct.
Notice how quiet Labour are. Ed Miliband has finally issued a statement, at least three days after the Culture Secretary story began to gather steam. Cameron, it says, should have “stood up and said that what she did was wrong”. This is not a demand for Miller’s resignation. The party’s leadership is doubtless using Labour backbenchers to help push the story along, but its efforts look minimal.
This will be because there will be a gut sense among all three parties that none of them should help to re-ignite the broader expenses story. Most MPs will agree with the Times about the follies of the present system. However, it’s worth noting that the Miller case isn’t about that system, or even the reformed one it replaced, but the pre-reformed one in place in 2005, when the Culture Secretary entered the Commons.
This allowed MPs to claim for second homes that weren’t their real second homes, which is undoubtedly what Miller was doing. However, this was not the complaint made to the Standards Commissioner, doubtless because it was “within the rules” at the time. If Miller should resign because the inquiry into her affairs has reminded voters of that fact, then so should all other Ministers in the same position – pari passu.
The nub of the matter is that the Culture Secretary over-claimed amidst a system with chaotic rules. No-one who knows Miller believes that she was trying to cheat the system. That the rules were indeed chaotic is borne out by the dispute about how much she over-claimed by. The Standards Commissioner said $45,000. Miller said £5,800. She seems to have had a point.
The case must therefore leave a question mark hanging over the future of the Commissioner. The Culture Secretary got heavy and lawyerly with the Commissioner because she believed that, having dismissed the Labour MP John Mann’s original complaint about her parents living in the house she claimed for, it was arbitrary of the Commissioner to go wider.
The case thus keeps bringing one back to the wider expenses story. An important scandal of the pre-reform system – MPs “flipping” homes to make a profit – was never properly dealt with. As for the Commissioner’s role, she thinks she should range widely; MPs will argue that this could compromise natural justice But their view brings one back to a fact of life: ultimately, MPs are in charge – because of the fact that we elect them.
When all this smoke clears, what’s left is that Miller admits to having over-claimed. This doesn’t mean that Cameron should sack her or that she should have to go. But her options are now very limited. She can stay in post, and look to a future in Cabinet that will last for little more than a year. Or she can acknowledge the mistake by making “an honourable resignation” – which would now come too late to be fully effective.