Maria Miller was cleared of the original charge brought against her by John Mann. As John Rentoul has pointed out, she was also cleared over the suggestion that she over-claimed for her mortgage by £45,000. The Standards Commissioner eventually accepted the lower £5800 estimate. This has scarcely been reported amidst the piranha-like feeding frenzy. Since the over-claim was clearly accidental – the Culture Secretary simply overlooked a fall in interest rates – a repayment and apology should have sufficed after the Commissioner and the Standards Committee’s findings.
However, her case wasn’t simply about the formal investigation and the curt apology that followed. Miller became a poster girl for the expenses system of the expenses scandal. Under it, there was no safeguard against MPs declaring as second homes what were not really second homes, re-mortgaging at the taxpayers’ expense…and then re-designating their real second home as their second home, thus avoiding capital gains tax on any sale of the real first home they had originally claimed as their second home. The former Culture Secretary’s position on CGT from the sale of her first home isn’t clear, but in other respects she exploited this gap in the rules. In short, she “flipped”.
Even so, she should not have had to leave the Government – or, at least, not until or unless every Minister or Shadow Minister who had acted in the same way had also quit their respective front benches. What is good for the Miller goose is good for others’ gander.
To say so, however, is to apply logic to politics, and politics isn’t about logic. Voters are furious about flipping – still, five years or so on from the original scandal. Indeed, many believe that MPs shouldn’t have second homes at all. That Miller also represents a commuter seat left her vulnerable. John Mann was poised to visit it and stir trouble for the former Culture Secretary. UKIP stands waiting in the wings. And as Zac Goldsmith reminded readers on this site, the Government had proposed that the Standards Committee takes charge of recall proceedings – a recipe for trouble. Basingstoke would have become a circus. Indeed, Miller may now have trouble holding it next year, assuming that she stands again.
The Daily Telegraph led a big push on the former Culture Secretary’s flip on Monday. From that moment, her resignation was probably inevitable. But her troubles really began to gather speed last weekend, when Conservative MPs had to face local Association officers and members and, in particular, voters on the doorsteps. Their ears got a wigging.
2010 intake MPs, in particular, took this badly. Most take the view that the expenses scandal was nothing to do with them, thank you very much, and that it is unjust to visit the sins of pre-2010 MPs on their blameless heads. Some also contrasted Miller’s long drawn-out stay with the swiftness and decisiveness of Mark Harper’s recent resignation.
Even so, she might have held out if she had friends at Westminster who would go out to bat for her on TV and Twitter, and brief for her in the lobbies and corridors – as Grant Shapps’s did over the beer and bingo poster. I worked with the former Culture Secretary in opposition on childrens’ policy as a member of David Cameron’s front bench team. She was one of the best Tory MPs I worked with – unselfish, thoughtful, able, g.s.o.h. I don’t recognise some of the vicious descriptions of her during recent days. It has been like watching one of those nature documentaries in which members of an animal pack turn snarlingly and suddenly on a wounded member of it, and tear her to pieces. Westminster can be like that, as can other places. But it isn’t if you have friends. (Ask Nigel Evans, whose trial is coming to a conclusion.) And, as I say, the former Culture Secretary didn’t seem to have had many when it came to the crunch.
In particular, she doesn’t seem to have had George Osborne as a friend. Today’s Times (£) points out that the Chancellor mobilised his minions to defend Jeremy Hunt during the Sky row. In a piece of Sherlock-like sleuthing, it reads significance into criticism of Miller by Nicola Blackwood, the PPS to Matthew Hancock, one of Osborne’s consigliere. Is that a horse’s head in Miller’s bed? At any rate, the Chancellor clearly abandoned her long before the Prime Minister did, in a rare display of difference between the two men.
As I dutifully write each time round, the tentacles of the Octopus Chancellor are all over this reshuffle. Sajid Javid is his protege. So is Nicky Morgan, now promoted to Financial Secretary. And the appointment of Andrea Leadsom to replace Morgan as Economic Secretary has been crafted to send out a signal that the Boss can forgive. He must clearly be able to, since Leadsom once told him to f**k off.
It’s easy to criticise David Cameron for his attempt to hang on to his Culture Secretary. Loyalty to a colleague and an unwillingness to be pushed around by the media are virtues, not vices. But he evidently mis-read the Miller case – not grasping that the old expenses system, of which the investigation into her was perhaps the last gasp, is still a red rag to the voters’ bull.
And there was no proper operation to defend her. Having decided to do so, Downing Street needed to throw MPs at the TV studios, the airwaves, Twitter, the lobby. This simply didn’t happen once Osborne, like some recalcitrant bannerman in Game of Thrones, withdrew his support (or never gave it at all). It has all been another reminder of the fragility of Cameron’s position as a Prime Minister who didn’t win a majority in 2010, consequently lacks authority in his own Party and presides over a creaky political machine. The lonely task of patrolling the studios fell to Grant Shapps. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
It was even tougher for Mary Macleod, sent out belatedly to defend her Secretary of State. (She was Miller’s PPS.) There appears to have been no thought-out line for her to take: accusations of the harassment of the former Culture Secretary’s family had swiftly to be withdrawn. Macleod deserves a mention in dispatches for taking bullets for her boss. But she should never have had to go under fire. If a last-ditch defence is called for, you go on TV yourself in a Masochism Gambit. Miller should have done so, if determined to hang on.
Number 10 has also made a terrible old horlicks of the appointment of Nicky Morgan as Minister for Women, but not as Minister for Equalities, who was originally said to be reporting to Sajid Javid, who is a man, but is now reporting to David Cameron, who is also a man. The cause of all this tergiversation is that Morgan voted against same sex marriage, and thus apparently can’t be trusted with responsibility for matters affecting gay people. This brouhaha was forseeable – and unfair to Morgan, who is a Good Thing.
Sajid Javid is also a Good Thing. His new post will be a big test for him, since he is an economics-focused former banker with a record of achievement in the real world, but no known previous interest in the arts and sport. He must now face trial by a thousand radio quizzes.
Who will run Fresh Start now that Leadsom is a Minister? She brought determination, thoughfulness and persistence to its undertakings – and will thus be hard to replace. Fresh Start, with its careful support for Cameron’s approach to the EU, has come in very useful to him. Had Number 10 thought this appointment through?
By the way, the whole business marks another win for Graham Brady, who saw off the Prime Minister’s attempt to thwart his successful candidacy for chairmanship of the ’22 Executive at the start of this Parliament. He apparently told Cameron that Miller must go – and she duly went.
Talking of the ’22, claims that yesterday’s meeting would be “a bloodbath” or see “a riot” were, as usual, wrong. This happens again and again. The feral beast licks its licks, anticipating blood in Committee Room 14. Tory MPs determine that it won’t have its way. They meet. Nothing happens. The Prime Minister is cheered to the rafters.
Michael Fabricant is gone from his position as a Party Vice-Chairman, incidentally. Something to do with his hostility to HS2. Something to do with critical tweets about Miller. CCHQ’s loss is twanking’s gain. Who now will help to drive all those by-election campaigns? My answer: send for Greg Hands.
I compared Miller’s fate earlier to a beast torn apart by its fellows. It was perhaps the wrong comparison. It is more like watching a group of climbers attempting a mountainside. One falls screaming to her death. As she flashes past the others, they look on with a strange mix of schadenfreude, pity, and indifference. Then they cling to their ropes just a little more tightly.