A MUTINY by Tory back-bench MPs forced Maria Miller to resign as Culture Secretary over her expenses, it has emerged, leading to new questions over Prime Minister David Cameron’s judgment.
The resignation led Downing Street sources to concede that the Prime Minister had under-estimated just how “raw” public emotions still are on the issue of MPs’ expenses.
On a dramatic day in Westminster, Downing Street announced at 7:20am that Ms Miller had resigned and was to be replaced as Culture Secretary by rising star Sajid Javid, who was promoted from the Treasury.
The announcement came just hours before Mr Cameron was set to meet the Tory back-bench 1922 Committee, with MPs in his own party furious that Ms Miller had been allowed to keep her Cabinet job. It was reported that one senior back-bencher had forwarded e-mails demanding that she should go. One Tory MP told The Scotsman: “This has brought the Prime Minister’s judgment into question.” Ms Miller is entitled to a £17,000 pay-off, but it has been reported that she intends to donate this to a charity in her constituency.
She had held on to her post since Thursday, when the parliamentary standards committee made up of MPs had ordered her to pay back £5,800 and apologise to the House for holding up an investigation into money she had claimed for a second home.
But her 32-second apology provoked fury and was damned by former Tory chairman Norman Tebbit as “arrogant” and there was anger that the committee had watered down the Parliamentary Standards Authority conclusion that she should repay over £45,000.
Yesterday, the Basingstoke MP bowed to pressure, announcing that she was quitting her post to avoid becoming a “distraction” from the work of the government. A clearly emotional Ms Miller said she took “full responsibility” for her decision to resign, despite conceding that she had hoped to hold on to her Cabinet post after she was cleared of the central allegation against her by the standards committee.
However, questions were directed at Mr Cameron, who had stood by his Cabinet minister, which spilled over into angry exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions, where Labour leader Ed Miliband accused him of a “terrible error of judgment”. Anyone else would have lost their job, he suggested, calling Mr Cameron “an apologist for unacceptable behaviour”.
But Mr Cameron told him: “The biggest lesson I learned is that that anger is still very raw and it needs to be acted on.” He said he wanted cross-party talks to establish ways “to put beyond doubt that this is a good and honest parliament”. He added: “Firing someone at the first sign of trouble, that is not actually leadership, that is weakness.”
Ahead of Ms Miller’s resignation, a ComRes poll of more than 2,000 voters had shown 74 per cent thought she should go, while a Survation poll suggested one-third of Tory voters felt “alienated” by her being allowed to stay on. But it was pressure from Tory MPs and lukewarm support from ministerial colleagues that appeared to have finished her ministerial career. After her resignation, former Tory whip Michael Fabricant tweeted: “Well, about time.” A senior Tory source reportedly said the mood in the 1922 meeting was like a “relief rally” following her decision to quit.
The senior Tory said Mr Cameron told MPs: “I hope you agree with me that rather than dropping a colleague at the first sign of difficulty.”
Commenting on the resignation, Hendon MP Matthew Offord said: “It’s long overdue. She put the Prime Minister in a very difficult position where he wanted to be seen to back his ministers – her lack of integrity let him down.” Enfield North MP Nick de Bois: “Unfortunately, I don’t think it was understood by some in the party how toxic expenses still are to the public … this should not have been allowed to drag on.”
Meanwhile, there was anger over Mr Cameron’s decision to make Nicky Morgan the new minister for women, even though she voted against gay marriage. The MP for Loughborough replaces Mr Javid as No3 in the Treasury, but also gets the women’s brief and gets to sit in Cabinet.
Gloria De Piero, shadow minister for women and equalities, said: “There are now just three women running government departments out of a possible 22, demonstrating that – when it comes to women – it’s out of sight, out of mind for this out-of-touch government.”