Saturday, May 29, 2010

I fought the Laws

I have tremendous sympathy for the pain that David Laws is going through at the moment and there is no excuse for using his sexuality to attack him - it is irrelevant, although I can't help but suspect that the Telegraph salivated unpleasantly at the thought of outing him. As a country, we have come a long way in terms of gay rights over the past few years, but the fact that he felt he had to live a lie about an important part of his emotional life for fear of upsetting family and friends shows that for all the changes in society and the law, there is still a long way to go in changing individual prejudices. In that personal matter, I wish him well and I suspect and hope that his friends and family will prove more accepting and supportive than he might expect.

However, there is still the matter of the thousands of pounds claimed as expenses that should not have been claimed under the post-2006 rules and we do have to consider the job that he now holds as the keeper of the national purse strings and axe man in chief to the government.

Rather as forecast, the Laws defence is on the attack, arguing that this is motivated by homophobia, a blatant attempt to shut down the discussion. It certainly shouldn't be - the questions that need answering do not relate to his sexuality in any way and portraying the debate as such is spin of the first order.

While he has promised to repay the money, he has maintained a defence that he did nothing wrong as he was not technically partnered in terms that the rules allowed. Not only is this insulting to the person with whom he has had a nine year relationship, it takes the public for fools. One of the key tests for public behaviour devised by Lord Nolan was to ask what an ordinary person would think of a particular event and I don't think that there is anyone who would not consider that by 2006, the pair of them were living together in some form of unofficial partnership. As I point out below, they pass tests laid down in other areas of government and if it was a benefit claim, then Mr Laws would now be facing an interview under caution and I fail to see why different tests should apply in his case. Jail terms have been handed

Jeremy Browne and others have also been touring the media arguing that Laws could have claimed lots more, so his behaviour has actually saved money. This is analogous to the bank robber trying to mitigate his offence by asking the judge to look at the amount he didn't steal. It perhaps makes it worse that, by all opinion, Laws is one of the richest men in parliament (the Liberal Democrats do like their millionaires in parliament - Hemming, Featherstone, Huhne, Laws) so had no need of the money- it didn't matter to him. But, they say, he was entitled to have lots more - no, he was able to claim more, he was not entitled to it. I note also that his utility costs dropped precipitously once receipts were required in support. Perhaps even worse, he behaved hypocritically in trumpeting his clean bill of health from the expenses investigation, in the knowledge that he had not behaved with the utmost probity.

If he had admitted his error, explained his personal circumstances and repaid the overclaimed money, then there would have been an argument in defence, but to argue that he has done nothing wrong is ridiculous and unsustainable.

He might yet survive. The government could afford to expend the political capital and ride out this storm or Cameron could decide to flex his muscles in the name of the new politics and axe the axe man.

I think we'll know by Tuesday at the latest. If the story dies, then Laws survives.

But do remember, that if the story fails to find fresh legs, then it is the old politics of spin and media control that will have triumphed.

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