WRONG-footed over the expenses scandal which forced out his Culture Secretary, David Cameron has strengthened the hand of his rivals, argue Tom Peterkin and David Maddox
David Cameron may not normally be someone associated with a youthful Julie Andrews and hills that are alive with the Sound Of Music. But the troubles that engulfed the Prime Minister last week saw him grapple with a question familiar to the tuneful nuns in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. How do you solve a problem like Maria?
In Cameron’s case, the Maria in question was his wayward Culture Secretary Maria Miller. And as far as the question itself is concerned, Cameron has struggled to find a satisfactory answer. More than that, his failure to deal with the Miller expenses saga has raised serious questions about his leadership, made his party more vulnerable to Ukip’s challenge, and has done nothing to reassure Scottish No supporters attempting to combat the SNP argument that Scotland is at the mercy of an out-of-touch Westminster government. For Cameron himself, his mishandling of the crisis has resulted in a subtle shift in power, which has weakened his own Downing Street powerbase.
At the end of the Prime Minister’s dreadful week, the one Conservative to emerge smelling of roses is Chancellor George Osborne, whose acolytes have profited from Miller’s resignation.
Yesterday the anger on Tory backbenches over Dave the Ditherer’s failure to act decisively was still palpable. “It’s just another example of how out of touch with the party he [Cameron] is,” said one MP. “Europe, gay marriage, defence cuts, cuddling up to the Lib Dems, and now this.”
With the European and English local elections looming, there is alarm that Ukip will benefit from an episode that only encourages the impression of an aloof and uncaring Old Etonian government with little understanding of the pressures ordinary people face. Like the bankers pocketing seven-figure bonuses, Cameron no longer appears to “get” the public fury caused by the MPs’ expenses scandal.
One explanation for his lapse of judgment can be found in a character trait which, under different circumstances, would be admirable. His defenders often argue that one of his great qualities is his loyalty: his willingness to stand by colleagues and remain resolute when they are in difficulty. It was a quality that saw him stand by former spin doctor Andy Coulson until the heat of the phone-hacking scandal became intolerable.
For many observers of the Miller saga, the irony was that it was the absence of the likes of Coulson from Cameron’s entourage that let the situation get out of hand.
Before his departure from Number 10, Coulson was regarded as one of the few people close to Cameron with the nous and courage to tell him when he had misjudged the public mood.
At the moment Cameron’s inner-circle lacks such a figure. Many Conservatives grumble about party co-chairmen Grant Shapps and Lord Feldman, Cameron’s tennis-playing chum. According to their critics, neither man has the gravitas or clout of previous party chairmen such as Willie Whitelaw or Norman Tebbit.
In this case, there is little doubt that Whitelaw, Tebbit or even Coulson would have let the Prime Minister know that his loyalty to Miller was misplaced.
However misplaced, there were reasons for it. Miller was the minister in charge of two of the government’s most challenging and contentious briefs – the implementation of the Leveson report into press regulation and the legalising of gay marriage.
But through the former she had made herself unpopular with the press, and via the latter she had incurred the wrath of Tory backbenchers who hold a more traditional view of marriage.
Ultimately, however, it was Miller’s own actions and her half-hearted response to the outrage that greeted it, which led to her downfall. The scandal had its roots in the House of Commons expenses claimed by Miller between 2005 and 2009. She claimed more than £90,000 on her house in Wimbledon, south-west London, which she shared with her husband, children and her elderly parents.
The Parliamentary Commissioner Kathryn Hudson began investigating her claims in 2012 after it was suggested they breached Commons’ rules on the allowance for second homes. Miller argued her parents did not benefit financially from her expenses and Hudson cleared her of making false claims.
However, the commissioner did find Miller should not have claimed as much. It was calculated she had overclaimed by £45,000 and was ordered to pay back the cash.
She was found to have wrongly designated the property as her second home on the grounds that another property – a rented cottage in her Basingstoke constituency less than an hour away from the centre of London – was her first home.
According to Hudson, the Wimbledon property should have been designated as her first home and Miller should have reduced her claims by two-sevenths to take into account her parents’ presence there.
Criticising Miller for the “inappropriate use of public money”, Hudson also attacked her for her obstructive and legalistic attitude to the investigation.
There was further public anger when Hudson’s verdict was reassessed by the Tory-dominated Commons standards committee. It watered down her findings on the second home designation and accepted Miller’s argument that she should only pay back £5,800. A public relations disaster was made worse when Miller was hauled in front of the Commons and gave a perfunctory, grudging apology which lasted a mere 32 seconds.
While Miller was misjudging the public mood, so was Cameron. His instinctive sense of loyalty saw him publicly back his minister. But by now his backbenchers were feverish. On Tuesday last week a bundle of e-mails was delivered to Cameron from furious Tory MPs many of whom had stood in 2010 in seats where MPs had been caught up in the expenses scandal.
Meanwhile Miller and Cameron’s error of judgment was compounded by a ham-fisted damage limitation exercise mounted by Miller’s aide, Mary Macleod.
Macleod, the Scots-born Tory MP for Brentworth Isleworth, texted colleagues calling for Miller to be supported, suggesting she was the victim of a media witchhunt because of her roles in press reform and gay marriage. This merely stoked their anger. As one Tory MP put it yesterday: “We still can’t believe how the PM got it so badly wrong. Maria should have gone last week, but really she should have been gone long before then.”
The damage this sorry episode has wrought on Cameron’s reputation and the questions it raises over his leadership will now weigh on the Prime Minister in the coming weeks, as the May elections loom. A poor showing for the Tories – polls put them in third place behind Labour and Ukip in Euro voting intentions – will compound his woes.
The saga has also revealed faultlines in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party, and the rival camps at Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street. This rivalry may have nothing on the open warfare that existed when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown inhabited those addresses. Nevertheless, the divide is all too discernible and the Miller saga has made it more so. Under normal circumstances, Osborne and his acolytes are content to march in time with the Prime Minister.
Miller, however, had the misfortune to incur Osborne’s displeasure over her stewardship of the government’s plans to roll out rural broadband.
The toxic coverage of Miller’s travails last week, at a time when Osborne was hoping to grab some glowing headlines for his handling of the economy, did nothing to improve his temper.
As the Chancellor set off on an export drive to Brazil, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast a 2.9 per cent UK rate of growth in 2014 – a faster rate than other G7 countries. It was a volte-face for the IMF, which had previously warned Osborne that his austerity programme was “playing with fire”. So economic news which Osborne felt vindicated the most controversial of his policies was overshadowed by the Miller scandal.
While Cameron doggedly defended his errant minister, the response of Osborne’s allies was somewhat different. Some pointedly declined to leap to her defence. Others were more forthcoming.
It was noticeable that Nicola Blackwood, the Tory MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, was one of the first to suggest that “most serious” questions had arisen over Miller’s expenses. It would not have escaped those in the know that Blackwood is a ministerial aide to Matthew Hancock, Osborne’s former chief of staff, whose third child just happens to be Osborne’s godchild.
Just as it was Osborne’s allies who gripped the rug that was finally pulled from under Miller’s feet on Wednesday, it was the Chancellor’s protégés who benefited from her departure.
Her replacement as Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, is not just the Conservatives’ first male Asian Cabinet minster, the former investment banker is also a close friend of Osborne.
Javid was replaced as financial secretary to the Treasury by Nicky Morgan, the Loughborough MP, who will also be given Miller’s role as Women’s Minister. Morgan’s tent is also pitched in the Osborne camp.
So the upshot of this protracted and, for Cameron, deeply embarrassing row is the elevation of two of the Chancellor’s trusted lieutenants. Cameron is looking a trifle isolated as Osborne’s powerbase at the top of government strengthens. Meanwhile Osborne has emerged with his reputation as the consummate pragmatic politician enhanced.
As one senior Conservative put it: “George is positioning himself. The key people now all owe him and have benefited from his patronage.
“He can tell the party that he saved the country and economy, but it was Cameron who messed up the politics.”
In the short term, the role played by the Osborne camp in pushing Miller out of government has ensured that the damage to Cameron will not be terminal. Cameron may have taken a battering, but he has weathered more serious storms in the past.
Among the main leadership contenders such as Osborne and Michael Gove, there is no appetite for a challenge to Cameron this close to the 2015 election. While Cameron’s most likely rival, London mayor Boris Johnson, is not yet an MP.
“It’s too late now, anyway, we have to try to win this election,” said one MP. “If we do then he [Cameron] is probably safe, if we don’t then he will have to go anyway.” «