John Humphrys asks: what damage has been done to David Cameron after the Maria Miller resignation?
Maria Miller’s resignation from the cabinet came, in many people’s eyes, not a moment too soon. To others she was hounded out by a media witch-hunt. What’s clear, though, is that her going has been a defeat for David Cameron who had defended her throughout. Has he lost his political touch? And what damage will the whole episode do to his party and, more widely, to the public’s trust in politicians?
Many believed that Maria Miller’s days as Culture Secretary seemed numbered from the moment she sat down in the House of Commons a week ago after making a personal statement of apology that lasted a mere half minute. Her behaviour looked intensely arrogant, as though she was either wholly unaware of (or couldn’t care less about) continuing public outrage over the highly controversial question of MPs’ expenses, an outrage that looked for contrition in politicians who were found to be in the wrong.
From her point of view, however, the whole thing seemed quite different. She had been accused of fiddling the system in order to use public money to finance a home for her elderly parents. But the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards had acquitted her of this. She was, though found to have over claimed money. The Commissioner assessed this to be £45,000, but the MPs’ own Standards Committee set it at £5,800, which Mrs Miller agreed to repay. What was left of the accusations against her was that she had been uncooperative and ‘legalistic’ in dealing with those handling the inquiry. For this she was taken to task in no uncertain terms by the commissioner and it was for this that she made her perfunctory apology.
David Cameron said that though this was a serious matter, she had made her apology, repaid the money and the matter should be left there. But that wasn’t the view of some of her colleagues, nor the public - and certainly not the press. It took six days of intense pressure by the media, increasing publicly-expressed unease by senior Conservatives and the rare intervention of the former Commons Speaker, Baroness Boothroyd (who said ‘honour’ required her to resign), for Mrs Miller to come to the conclusion that she should go. She made no further apology but simply acknowledged that the whole issue had become such a ‘distraction’ from everything else the government was doing, that only her resignation could put an end to it.
The Prime Minister and his party could certainly have done without those six days of ‘distraction’. With local and European elections only a few weeks off and with Nigel Farage (the Tories’ most dangerous adversary), already buoyed up after his hammering of Nick Clegg in two televised debates, Mr Cameron wanted attention to focus on the good news about the economy. Instead the only story in town was that most toxic of issues: MPs’ expenses. So, in allowing this to happen, has David Cameron shown signs of losing his political touch? His critics (many in his own party) certainly think so.
In the first place, they say he allowed the impression to gain ground in the public that Mrs Miller had been found guilty of fiddling her expenses when in fact she had been acquitted. What’s more, nothing seemed to be done to correct the widespread belief that it was MPs themselves who had reduced the money she was required to pay back - thus feeding the idea that MPs were marking their own homework - when in fact the independent commissioner herself acknowledged the lower figure was the correct one, after new information had come to life. Most of all, little was done to point out to the public that the whole case referred to the period before the last election when MPs did still have a role in monitoring their own expenses, but that this was no longer the case and that the Prime Minister had honoured his promise to change the system to take MPs out of the role.
Mr. Cameron’s critics also believe it was worse than futile to try to claim, in the teeth of the fact that Mrs. Miller had been roundly rebuked for her behaviour in relation to the inquiry, that she herself was the victim of a vendetta. In specific terms it was put about that the press was gunning for her because of her role with regard to the Leveson Inquiry into press regulation and that right-wing Tories were after her blood because of her support for gay marriage. Whether or not there was truth in these claims, Mr. Cameron’s critics say, they were never going to gain traction with the public once their most raw nerve, the issue of MPs’ expenses, had been touched.
What he should have done, they say, is to have been tough and sacked her at the outset. This might have seemed unjust in the light of her having been acquitted of the main charge, but it would have been a powerful symbol of his commitment to ensuring that his ministers were whiter than white over expenses. It would have shown him to be a decisive leader and the six days of ‘distraction’ would have been avoided.
In the Prime Minister’s defence, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, told me on the Today programme, less than an hour after Mrs. Miller had resigned, that David Cameron was very loyal to those who worked with him and that this was not only a sign of basic human decency but a virtue in a leader because it created a more coherent, united and effective team.
Whether this is how the public will see it is less clear. Ed Miliband did his best at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons to pin the badge of incompetence and poor judgement on Mr. Cameron but whether the affair and David Cameron’s handling of it will do the Tories lasting damage remains to be seen. What it has certainly done is open up once again the whole business of MPs’ expenses as a running sore in our political life. Mr. Gove said he thought politicians of all stripes needed to recognise more than they perhaps do, the degree of public anger on the whole matter, even after the changing of the system to take away MPs’ control of their own purse strings. But as to what should further be done about it in order to allay that anger, he admitted he had no immediate answer.
Do you? And what do you make of the whole Maria Miller story and the Prime Minister’s handling of it?