The last forty-eight hours have been pretty traumatic for the Government and in particular for David Laws, who was forced to resign last night from his post as Chief Secretary to the Treasury following newspaper revelations about his expenses and his living arrangements with his partner who seemed also to be his landlord.
It’s been difficult in the blizzard of partisan opinion and counter-opinion to get too close to the “facts” and it’s been fascinating to see those who have been “kind” to Laws (who have tended to be supporters of the Government) and those who have not (who have tended not to be friendly to the coalition).
I approach this from two angles – the first has been what has clearly been a deeply uncomfortable and distressing public self-outing by Laws. He strikes me as an intensely private man (nothing wrong with that) whose homosexuality, if an “open secret” around Westminster, wasn’t widely known even to those closest to him. I get the impression that he was extraordinarily uncomfortable with public knowledge of his private life and part of why he did what he did was to cover the tracks of his private life. In other words, to protect his own privacy, he either broke or severely bent the rules.
Although we are constantly told we live in an open, tolerant society where sexuality is no longer an issue, there is clearly an undercurrent of, if not, outright homophobia then a climate in which open homosexuality remains largely taboo. Laws clearly felt he could not reveal his sexual life for reasons I can only guess though his career in the City might have precluded him toward discretion.
Set against all that is the financial reality of his lifestyle which involved claiming large sums in expenses on a monthly basis for living arrangements which do not seem to be supported by the expenses system. Now, his defenders argue with some conviction that Laws has done nothing “wrong” i.e. he has not contravened the rules nor personally benefitted from the claims unlike some.
The problem with that (setting aside Laws’ own considerable personal wealth) is the extent to which his partner may have benefitted. Again, we are dealing with a “partner” not a wife or a relationship within the confines of the expenses system.
I suspect Laws will be cleared by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner though I also expect a reprimand of some severity.
The “problem” with all this from my perspective is how David Laws, a man of not inconsiderable intelligence and acumen (and regarded as so by ally and adversary alike) could have possibly believed he would get away with it indefinitely. Was he so scared of the public consequences of the revelation of his sexuality that he perpetrated a financial relationship which in the current climate would have been considered by most, if not all, as “dubious” ? I assume neither Nick Clegg nor David Cameron knew any of this until it broke on Friday night and while I suspect they wanted him to tough it out, the unique nature of his political position made his position untenable.
But they can come back – Mandelson did so twice. There will be those who draw the conclusion that “they are all the same” and will use this as a stick to beat Government in general. When the time came, David Laws walked away and did so with more than a modicum of honour and humility.
The anti-coalition elements on both the Right and Left have had a field day and are already sharpening their knifes for Danny Alexander, Laws’s successor. The twin tragedies are Laws personally but also the fact that the Government and country are going to be denied a man of talent and knowledge at a time when these qualities are arguably most needed.
And yet…we are locked in to a mindset that our politicians must be above reproach and free of any kind of blemish on their character. I’m more inclined to the view that a Parliament of Saints is not a thing to be desired – the Sinners need representation too. Yes, there are actions that are and should be unacceptable but I cannot put what David Laws has done in that capacity.
The country has lost a man of talent at a time when that talent is most needed not because of a grotesque mistake or self-serving error but because of the clarion cries of the hypocritical, the mewlish rantings of the homophobic and the self-serving antics of the opportunists.
I hope David Laws can be brought back to Government as soon as the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner exonerates him and we can get on with the task at hand.