Bill Jamieson: Culture of conceit with no humility
Maria Miller’s letter of resignation from the UK Cabinet is nothing more than pious nonsense, writes Bill Jamieson
Let’s skip, as Maria Miller surely did, the charm, the niceties and the flummery. Her letter of resignation to the Prime Minister yesterday was a disgrace. It did not, as might have been expected, cauterise her offence in the eyes of her colleagues and the public, or in political parlance, “draw a line under the affair”. It did something a resignation letter should never do: it made it worse.
Why should we concern ourselves with it? She has taken the advice that leapt from a million throats across the country: she has gone. Her departure should in itself be closure. Why subject her to more criticism now? Mercy is surely required, some respect for her position and her feelings, some gentle words to smooth the passage of her expenses affair into the oblivion it deserves.
I will, however, reciprocate, in the same spirit as this Cabinet minister reserved for those who sought to question her behaviour and seek some redress for her false parliamentary claims. So let’s study the letter and see what it yields by way of an explanation.
For this was not just a letter balefully absent of apology, contrition or grace. It was utterly bereft of that one quality that just might have saved her career and her reputation: humility. Humility, it seems, is for other folks.
Consider this sentence in all its evasion and sententious posturing. Mrs Miller wrote to the Prime Minister thus: “It has become clear to me that the present situation has become a distraction from the vital work this government is doing to turn our country around.”
Note the elliptical phrasing and the absence of self-involvement. Instead, there is a reference to some objective, impersonal agent: “It has become clear…”. What, did the window cleaner come? Did the car window de-mister suddenly spring to life?
There is no admission of responsibility, still less any statement of contrition or apology, either to the office she represents or the wider tax-paying public whose interests she so betrayed. In fact, there is no reference whatever to any action of her own which triggered such a public furore. You would be forgiven for not knowing there was a furore at all.
All this is hidden behind the guileful phrase, “the present situation”. Of course. It’s clear now. It was nothing she did or nothing she said that caused her to submit her resignation. It’s “the present situation”. How’s that for evasion?
And then comes this: the present situation (sic) “has become a distraction from the vital work this government is doing”.
So her behaviour was not really a problem at all, still less an offence, but “a distraction”, drawing attention from the government’s vital endeavours. There was no blame or fault. She simply got in the way of the vital work of the government and its reflection in the mirror of public view.
What pious nonsense. What effrontery to seek to pass this off as an explanation, let alone an apologia for her behaviour.
As for the literary style it reveals of the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, it will leave many gasping in wonderment as to what competence or talent Mrs Miller could possibly have brought to the post. About the only culture on which she could fairly claim expertise on this showing would be the type discussed on Gardeners’ Question Time.
I focus on this terse and modest letter because it is, in its way, all too revealing as to why disaster befell her in the way it did. It was not just the fact of what she had done in seeking to claim her parents’ house as her second home for the purposes of a large parliamentary expenses submission, but the hauteur that came with it and her irritation and annoyance at those who dared to question the particulars of this claim.
It is worth briefly recalling the sequence of events. The conduct of Maria Miller cannot be put down to some rare, untypical moment of absentmindedness or administrative oversight. She claimed a large London property occupied by her parents was her second home and on this put in for taxpayer support of £90,718 in paying the interest. Her claim resulted in her receiving more money than that to which she was entitled. She subsequently cleared a profit of more than £1 million when the property was sold.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards ruled she should repay £45,800. But the Commons committee on standards, which has the final say on issues on disciplinary matters and on which fellow MPs constitute a majority, cut this to £5,800. In this it amply fulfilled the concerns of those who argued MPs could not be trusted with policing their own expenses.
It was then revealed that Ms Miller sent bullying e-mails to the Commissioner in an attempt to have the charges against her dropped. She also hired a lawyer to respond to requests for information and refused to hand over documents to justify her expenses claims. Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the committee on standards, described her actions as “shocking”.
Moving on – and by this I mean Ms Miller was keen that the affair should move on while she remained in office – her assistant was accused of reminding a journalist from a Conservative-leaning newspaper that the minister had oversight on Press regulation in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry and that the journalist might just want to be aware of that. Hmmm.
Her apology to the Commons last week, which might have cauterised the affair, only made matters worse, lasting as it did just 32 seconds and without any hint of contrition or apology to taxpayers.
Throughout yesterday, Mary Macleod MP, her parliamentary aide, accused the media of whipping up a “witch hunt” about Ms Miller’s over-claimed expenses and could MPs please rally round and send messages of support? Ms Macleod said she thought newspapers had a “hidden agenda” in pursuing the story, after the Commons watchdog ordered Ms Miller to pay back £5,800 and apologise in the Commons. “Every allegation has been dismissed,” she said.
Truculent, defiant and in denial to the last, Mrs Miller put her Prime Minister in an impossible position. Her resignation, when it came, was delivered just hours before Prime Minister’s Question Time, when Mr Cameron stood to be torn apart by the shadow front- bench.
Her conduct has made light of his loyalty, damaged the standing of her party, discredited the role of MPs as scrutineers of parliamentary expenses, insulted taxpayers, demeaned the Commons and loaded up the armoury of Nigel Farage with more anti-Conservative ammunition than he could wish for.
That is why her letter deserves scrutiny – and why it fails so abysmally. It leaves voters with a clear impression as to how much the attitudes of some senior MPs have changed since the expenses revelations four years ago. Very little, it would seem.