Political history has all too frequently demonstrated that it is not the originating wrongful act but the reaction, the attempt to justify or worst still cover up, which inflicts lasting damage. In our era of attention by 140 characters, public focus moves quickly once a matter is brought speedily to resolution. Wounds heal and losses are recouped. Toxicity results from allowing a wound to become septic.
Maria Miller has become septic.
Every action from her and the Miller camp simply results in a greater reaction. For a Prime Minister who undoubtedly has considerable media skill and was in his brief career prior to politics in media and public relations, to allow the issue of Maria Miller’s continuing presence in his government to become one of his own authority, judgment and prestige is extraordinary.
David Cameron’s choice to forgo a quick ministerial resignation, dig in and elevate what otherwise would be a minor set back into a Mexican stand off with the media demonstrates not backbone but obstinance. Furthermore to have done so when the media appears backed by an overwhelming majority of the public, including Conservative voters, is inexplicable. The PM’s choice to invest such political capital in defence of his vexatious Culture Secretary whose conduct throughout this whole affair has been led by obfuscation, denial and arrogance calls directly into question his own judgment just a year from a general election the campaign for which has already begun. That she belatedly resigned this morning does not change this.
Wearily we find ourselves yet again within the realms of an MP who has flipped the primary and secondary designation of their homes. Whilst an ever greater proportion of the public struggles to acquire one home, two homes is pa for the course for many serving in Parliament.
The ‘flip’ works as follows. An MP receives reimbursement by the tax payer of the interest payments incurred on their designated second home. Maria Miller chose this to be her London property in Wimbledon, notwithstanding evidence which points to the fact that it was Wimbledon rather than her constituency home of Basingstoke that she spent a majority of time and family life.
By her own reluctant admission, she over claimed back the interest paid on this property by the sum of £5,800 in excess of the monies she actually paid for interest. The issue of whether this sum should in fact have been £45,000 as originally indicated as due by Kathryn Hudson is a secondary and more technical one. There are certainly arguments that it should and Maria Miller was wrong to claim interest for additional borrowing on the property she took out some time post acquisition in 1996 and before her election to Parliament in 2005. However, even giving Maria Miller the benefit of the doubt on this point, her conduct generally on substance and considerably worse still on the form of her dealing with the investigation led by Kathryn Hudson and then adjudication of the Standards Committee, has been a disgrace.
Staying with the admitted excess claim for mortgage interest, almost every home owner in the country with a mortgage knows their interest rate. It appears that Maria Miller was not fully across the details of the financial arrangements she has put in place in respect of her Wimbledon home or perhaps more accurately was selectively across such details. Needless to say, such error of calculation was wholly to Maria Miller’s financial advantage.
The Culture Secretary’s financial acumen extended to the designation of the Wimbledon home between 2005 and 2009 as her secondary residence and taxpayer (over) reimbursement of mortgage interest. Coincidentally or otherwise she stopped the designation of her London property as her second home in April 2009, apparently one month prior to all MPs receiving a letter informing them that they would be liable for Capital Gains Tax (28%) should they sell a house on which they have claimed as a second home. To complete the picture, Maria Miller subsequently did sell the Wimbledon property and as per the rules, has not paid Capital Gains Tax on the considerable profits realised.
Hence by the facts as admitted by Maria Miller, we have an individual who is sufficiently across the details and her financial affairs so as to ensure a beneficial tax structure to property holdings, but not sufficiently across the interest payments incurred thereby resulting in an excess claim for mortgage interest. A perfunctory apology or otherwise, it is clear that a wrong occurred. Yet the considerably greater wrong has not been the act itself, as petty and unbecoming as it may have been, but the actions of Maria Miller and individuals part of her entourage during and post the investigation.
Much has been written about the scandal of MPs expenses. Kathryn Hudson is the second Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to run into opposition from certain MPs for doing her job. Of course no one likes being investigated or having to admit to error. For Maria Miller, attack appears to have been her choice of defence. Letters from the Culture Secretary which were drafted with legal counsel help sought to circumvent Kathryn Hudson’s investigation and called into question both Kathryn Hudson’s conduct and remit. For someone who by admission was unable to accurately claim for mortgage interest, Maria Miller’s deployment of focus as demonstrated by this correspondence, to say nothing of her timely withdrawal of secondary designation of the Wimbledon property, suggests that such ability to focus may be selective.
Things continue to go from bad to worse. Last week the Telegraph published the transcript of a call between Mrs Miller’s adviser Joanna Hindley and its journalist Holly Watt. Like an extra from the Sopranos, Miss Hindley said “Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editor’s meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to flag up that connection for you to think about”.
How kind of Miss Hindley to conflate the issue of Press Regulation and Leveson with reports pertaining to the Parliamentary Standards investigation into the conduct of her boss. Miss Hindley’s intervention was as clumsy as ill-judged.
There is then a second disputed call between the Prime Minister’s director of communications, Craig Oliver and the Telegraph’s then editor Tony Gallagher, who claims to also have been threatened with Leveson. Craig Oliver denies it. This is not the place to write about Leveson but the potential chilling effect on free speech and investigative journalism seems already to have emerged.
Reverting back to Team Miller, the rank stupidity of Joanna Hindley’s intervention is only rivalled and arguably surpassed by yesterday’s car crash of an interview given by Mary Macleod, her Parliamentary Private Secretary on Sky News with Kay Burley. She labelled this a media witch hunt, again sought conflation by bringing Leveson back into the mix and weirdly topped this off by suggesting that press reporting was motivated by Maria Miller’s position in support of gay marriage. She offered no evidence for any of her accusations. To watch an MP display such incoherence and bluster and be comprehensively demolished by Kay Burley was in equal measure entertaining as it was depressing.
Such puerile a response is matched by Miller’s conduct. Whether on account of her providing us with the most famous 32 seconds of this Parliament, the ‘perfunctory’ apology, or her 178 word article in today’s Basingstoke Gazette, every choice made leading up to and including the manner of her resignation has been wrong. Even today and notwithstanding publication of letters from her demonstrating obfuscation, Miller writes “Separately, I have already apologised and repaid an over-claim for my expenses, having myself drawn the committee’s attention to the matter immediately I was aware of it”.
By her conduct, she appears determined to make what should have been a political career set back, career ending. Her forced resignation this morning does little to mitigate from this.
We have likely now reached the point of no return in this affair. The issue is not whether Maria Miller departs from Government, as she eventually did today. For some time that has been a given. Rather it is whether we have entered Neil Hamilton territory and her re-election to Parliament next year (assuming she stands) is becoming an ever more remote prospect. What price a Nigel Farage candidacy in her Basingstoke constituency next year?
The Prime Minister and his team need to reflect both on the facts here and their own decision making in seeking to defend what to most Conservative voters, to say nothing of the wider public, appears indefensible. The General Election campaign has already started and in the Farage/Clegg debates we were treated to what seemed a long advertorial for Farage. Meanwhile we are just months away from a vote in Scotland which would see the potential dissolution of the United Kingdom.
Rather than support a narrative of a rapidly strengthening economy and Labour incoherence on the deficit – for reduction but against every measure taken in this Parliament to reduce the rate of growth of Government spending, Cameron has for a week allowed the focus to be internal and on his party. By doing so he has supported the belief that ‘they just don’t get’. More bewildering still, he has chosen to double down in his defence of Maria Miller and needlessly increase significantly the political cost of her inevitable exit.
Who in Downing Street is responsible for this?
Perhaps after four years in Downing Street, his own judgment has been coloured by feelings towards the media. The danger is that this debacle will erode the modest chance he and the Conservatives have of forming the next Government, at precisely the time the economy looks set to generate momentum for his party. It can only re-energise the opposition. It is the choices made by Prime Minister in his response to this matter rather than the arrogance and ill-judgment repeatedly demonstrated by Maria Miller which appears to many as truly inexplicable.