Sorry for David Laws, but he’s not a victim
All sensible people are bound to sympathise with David Laws as his soaring ministerial career crashes almost before it has taken off. I’m not too sure, though, about what is fast becoming the conventional wisdom among the commentariat: namely, that he has paid a high price for his perfectly honourable attempt to preserve his privacy and to avoid publicity for his sexual orientation. It’s even being asserted that there has been no question of personal profit from what he has done: his sole concern, it’s being said, has been to protect his private life from intrusion and unwanted exposure.
But actually his sexuality and his desire for privacy have nothing at all to do with his downfall. He has been forced to resign by the revelation that for years he has been breaking a pretty basic rule governing MPs’ expenses: namely, that you can’t claim back from the taxpayer ‘rent’ on your second home that you pay to your own spouse, partner or relative. The gender of Mr Laws’s partner, to whom he has been paying rent for their shared homes, is completely irrelevant. Nor is it the case, as one of the BBC’s army of political correspondents was saying on television last night, that Laws’s offence was to pay rent to his partner. There’s no rule against that; Mr Laws has always been entirely free to pay his partner whatever he thinks right, whether in rent or anything else. What, however, he was not free to do under the rules was to claim it back in expenses from the public purse.
Mr Laws’s initial defence was to deny that the person with whom he has lived for several years, evidently in a sexual relationship, was his ‘partner’ within the meaning of the rules governing MPs’ expenses. His justification for this interpretation was that he and his room-mate have separate bank accounts and lead separate social lives. There seems no need to spend time on a scrutiny of that defence, which indeed Mr Laws now appears prudently to have abandoned. At any rate, he now acknowledges that he feels that “what I have done was in some way wrong” (I love that “in some way”, as if he’s still not quite clear what it was, like the injured look of a puppy who’s been smacked for peeing on the carpet and can’t understand what was wrong about that).
There is certainly a sad and worrying implication in Laws’s acknowledgement that the reason for his concern for ‘privacy’ (code for secrecy about his sexual orientation) was that he didn’t want his Roman Catholic parents to know that he was gay. It seems incredible that in this day and age there should be in this country parents to whom a middle-aged man, a spectacularly successful MP and former banker, didn’t feel able to talk frankly about such a central aspect of his life and personality: such is the bigotry generated by a cruel and irrational but widely shared religious doctrine. But none of this has the smallest connection with the offence that brought down Mr Laws.
Liberal Democratic party leaders are queueing up in front of the cameras and microphones to assert that David Laws’s tragedy is the result of his honourable concern to protect the privacy of his private life. That however is nonsense, even if it’s well-meant nonsense motivated by kindness to a friend and colleague. Homophobia and the right to privacy and a private life have nothing to do with it. David Laws claimed from public money some £40,000 to which on any rational analysis he was not entitled. Nothing about his sexuality or his desire for privacy forced him to claim and receive this money as parliamentary expenses: amid all the furore about MPs’ expenses it beggars belief that it never occurred to him that he was cheating. He’s a multi-millionaire: it’s not as if he needed the money. Other MPs have been forced to leave parliament and abandon their political careers for lesser offences. Laws’s position as Chief Secretary to the Treasury with prime responsibility for axeing public services, at the expense of tens of thousands of people incomparably poorer than Mr Laws, was manifestly untenable once it became public knowledge that he was an expenses cheat — and a cheat on such a substantial scale.
We should all feel sorry for him. He’s obviously exceptionally talented and exceptionally well equipped for the unsavoury task to which he had so recently been assigned. It’s fair to hope that he’ll be back in government before long. His colleagues’ loyalty to him in his time of crisis has been commendable. But the idea that he’s somehow a victim of prejudice or newspaper intrusion, or indeed that he’s a victim at all, is strictly for the birds.