Euan McColm: PM’s support for Miller is chilling

David Cameron's 'warm support' for shamed Maria Miller sends chilling message, writes Euan McColm. Picture: PA
David Cameron's 'warm support' for shamed Maria Miller sends chilling message, writes Euan McColm. Picture: PA
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DAVID Cameron isn’t much of a sacker. The damage-limiting dismissal of ministers doesn’t come naturally to him.

Previous prime ministers – Tony Blair, for example – were ruthless in demoting anyone who might have the faintest whiff of controversy about them. But Cameron refuses to be dictated to about who he should or should not sack and so he doesn’t sack anyone.

There are good sensible reasons for the Prime Minister not to make a habit of getting rid of problematic colleagues, not least the fact that the Tories’ coalition with the Liberal Democrats is often fragile enough without him causing ructions.

But there are times when Cameron should have sacked ministers because the damage they inflicted by their actions was so serious. Last week, the Prime Minister failed to sack a colleague who briefed a newspaper that the UK government’s insistence there would be no currency union with an independent Scotland was a bluff. That seriously harmed the Better Together campaign and Cameron will have to take the consequences of his failure to shut down a solid line of attack from the nationalists.

Fresh from not sacking the individual who did such spectacular damage to his campaign to preserve the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister took the opportunity not to sack his Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, who was this week ordered to repay £5,800 in allowances and apologise to the House of Commons for her “attitude” to the inquiry into her expenses.

Not only did Cameron choose not to dismiss Miller, he offered her his “warm support”. I think the Prime Minister will live to regret this.

The 2009 Westminster expenses scandal was a breaking point for voters, confirming for many the long held suspicion that MPs were a venal, grasping lot, less interested in what they could do for their constituents than in what the fees office could do for them and their new 3D telly and moat-cleaning needs. This was a scandal that engulfed the chamber. Every party was tainted. Politics was tainted.

Yet Cameron, by appearing to be as appalled as the rest of us by what was revealed, made a decent fist of making cleaning up politics part of his 2010 manifesto. And now he’s offering Maria Miller “warm support”?

The inquiry into Miller’s expenses began in December 2012. It took 14 months to complete, the process drawn out by Miller’s frequent attempts to call into question the integrity of the investigation and her failure to fully disclose information requested by Westminster’s standards commissioner Kathryn Hudson.

Miller had claimed more than £90,000 in mortgage interest and other housing costs over four years for her “second” home. But this house in Wimbledon was also home to her parents, an arrangement that is strictly prohibited under the rules for “second” homes.

Following her inquiry, Hudson concluded that Miller should pay back £45,000 in over-claimed allowances. Hudson was quite clear – Miller was not entitled to that money.

But Westminster’s not like the real world, silly. Hudson may appear to have the power we’d like in an independent standards commissioner, but her word is not law. It was the Commons standards committee – comprised of MPs – which overruled the commissioner and said Miller should repay less than six grand and say sorry to colleagues.

The Culture Secretary – who made more than £1.2 million from the sale of the home, in February – spoke in the Commons for 31 seconds to fully accept the committee’s recommendations and offer that apology.

Cameron’s hope that matters should now be considered closed is surely forlorn. How can the Prime Minister who so quickly recognised – and capitalised upon – voter anger over expenses not see the damage Miller has done to him? To politics?

Politicians demand that we not only believe them but that we see their opponents as deceitful: I’m telling the truth, there will be a currency union; trust me, we will get into the EU.

Cases like Miller’s don’t do anything to improve trust in any politician. And, before anyone gets all high and mighty about Holyrood superiority in these areas, a recent standards investigation which cleared SNP MSP Joan McAlpine of wrongdoing after she paid a photographer for work and then repaid cash when details of her relationship with the photographer’s husband were made public, was rendered meaningless by the fact that the politician’s affair was not considered relevant to the circumstances and therefore not considered as evidence. If Cameron thinks Miller has a grain of moral authority left simply because some of her colleagues decided to overrule the standards commissioner, he is mistaken. In fact, she is a bright new reminder of the worst of MPs’ behaviour. Her colleagues’ decision to overturn the commissioner’s findings says that while politicians were terribly keen to reassure us that everything had changed after the expenses scandal, in reality it’s business as usual.

Miller is fatally wounded, even with the intervention of MPs on her behalf.

Surely the most common question people ask when it comes to these cases is “what would happen if that was me and I wrongly claimed thousands in benefits or expenses?”. I have no polling evidence, but based on my experience, I would venture that almost all of those asking that question conclude that they might expect a visit from the police.

Miller may yet have to discuss her claims with the constabulary. Labour MP Thomas Docherty has written to the Metropolitan Police requesting that they investigate both the allegations against the Culture Secretary and her frustration of the inquiry.

We should be wary of excitable opposition politicians who call for police involvement in scandals but, in this instance, it seems an entirely reasonable development.

Meanwhile, it’s time for MPs to lose the power to overrule the standards commissioner. Let independent judges hear appeals if they should emerge.

Maria Miller today enjoys the warm support of David Cameron. The Prime Minister should withdraw it. All he stands to attract from continuing to back his Culture Secretary is collateral damage. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm