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.


11 Responses

  1. Leo says:

    Many MPs were chastised during the expenses scandal for having followed the letter of the law but not its spirit. I think a highly plausible case can be made that Laws did nothing morally wrong. If such a case can be made and is accepted, it must surely follow that Laws’ having broken the rules demonstrates that they need to be re-written, rather than that he should have resigned.
    What evidence is there that Laws did nothing morally wrong? First of all, Laws would have been able to claim much more in expenses on the house in which he was living if he had declared James Landie to be his partner to the Commons authorities, so arguably by keeping his arrangement as he did, he actually saved the public money and actually deliberately claimed less that he otherwise could have for the sake of keeping his sexuality private.
    Second, one has to make a decision as to whether Landie was his partner or not. Quite aside from the facts that what constitutes a partner is a highly subjective question, and that Laws suffered from being in a minority in his answer to it, if one decides Landie wasn’t his partner, he clearly he did nothing wrong; if one decides Landie was, then he took money that he wasn’t entitled to take under one rule (expenses claimed to pay rent to a partner), but which he was entitled to take under another which would have allowed him to claim more (expenses claimed to pay for a mortgage on a second home). So if you think Landie was Laws’ partner, it is clear that Laws actually broke the rules to claim less money than he was really entitled to, in order to keep his sexuality private. Does that constitute having done something morally wrong? Only if you think that breaking these rules is always wrong; in my view, Laws’ situation demonstrates not.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Leo. Yes, in these circumstances I do think that for an MP to break the rules governing MPs’ expenses is always wrong. It resulted in Laws receiving over £40,000 of public money to which he was on virtually any reasonable reckoning not entitled. If you were to be found out trying to cheat the Inland Revenue out of tens of thousands of pounds in tax that should have been but was not paid, I doubt if the Revenue would be much impressed by the argument in your defence that you had chosen not to claim some even bigger tax allowance to which you might theoretically have been entitled, so by avoiding £40,000-odd of tax due you were actually saving the taxpayer money. (Now please also see Phil’s reply to your comment, below, and my response to that.)

  2. Phil says:

    his sexuality and his desire for privacy have nothing at all to do with his downfall
    Thanks for saying this – after watching the extraordinary parade of political sympathisers on the News last night, my wife and I were starting to think we were the only people who had spotted this!

  3. Phil says:

    Leo – let’s assume that you’re right about the expenses regulations, and that not acknowledging Landie as his partner prevented Laws from claiming a larger sum of money in expenses. Landie still was his partner; failing to claim one sum for which he was eligible didn’t somehow entitle him to claim another sum for which he wasn’t eligible, as a kind of consolation prize. Laws is a responsible adult (and a wealthy one, as it happens); he made a deliberate choice not to acknowledge Landie as his partner, and must be assumed to have done so in the awareness that it could cost him money. Any sharp practice that he subsequently engaged in to recoup some of that loss was simply that – sharp practice.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Phil. You put it with exemplary clarity. I can understand Laws’s reasons for not having acknowledged that the person he was paying rent to was his partner even though that might have enabled him to claim more in allowances (in fact I wonder whether he could have claimed for mortgage payments on someone else’s mortgage, as Leo suggests?); but I find it utterly incomprehensible that he should then go on to claim for the rent when he must have known that it was against the rules — and indeed that by breaking the rules he risked the whole deal unravelling, including the truth about his real relationship with his ‘landlord’, as of course has now happened. So he has had to pay back the £40,000+ that he wrongly claimed and has had the truth about his private life revealed to the world and he has lost his prized ministerial career: the worst possible outcome for him, from every point of view. And none of this need have happened if he had not broken the rules by claiming back as rent the money he was paying, perfectly legally, to his partner. The prying hacks might still have outed him as gay, but he would have been perfectly entitled in that case to reply “So what?”, and hardly anyone would have taken the slightest notice.

  4. Peter Harveey says:

    One point that is missed here, which would explain why he chose to claim less than he was entitled to in order to protect his privacy, is that in 2006 there was a change inthe rules. Before that he was, presumably, declaring his payments to Landie correctly under the existing rules. After the change he should have stopped paying Landie but had he done so the sheet-sniffing reptiles of the British press would certainly have noticed, and might very well have done to him what they had done to another public figure who valued his privacy, Nigel Hawthorne, a few years earlier. Faced with the practical certainty of being outed and pilloried by the reptiles or carrying on as he was and hoping that nobody would notice, he seems to have chosen the latter course even though he lost out financially as a result.
    And I do not blame him in the slightest.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this ingenious explanation, Peter. It’s possible that you have hit on the true reason for Laws’s behaviour, although (a) it strikes me as rather far-fetched — I can’t imagine even the blood-hounds of the Murdoch press taking any notice of a then obscure MP’s action in ceasing to draw a particular allowance in 2006, still less drawing from it any conclusions about his sexuality; and (b) if it might explain Laws’s behaviour, I don’t see how it can excuse it. He broke a clear rule and drew tens of thousands of pounds of public money to which he must have known he was not entitled. In other words, I find your concluding sentence incomprehensible.

  5. Oliver Miles says:

    Like Phil, I was glad to see this because I was beginning to think that I was the only person who had spotted the weakness in the case for David Laws. But I paused when I came to your conclusion, Brian, that “It’s fair to hope that he’ll be back in government before long.” No doubt he will, on the unhappy Mandelson precedent. But should he be? I base my case for answering “no” on three propositions; let me know which one you reject, or what other factor I have neglected to take into account.
    One: if you or I, when we were civil servants, had acquired tens of thousands of pounds of public money by making claims which were out of order according to the rule book, our careers would have been finished. We would probably also have faced a police investigation.
    Two: quite right too.
    Three: the rules in these matters should be implemented just as strictly for ministers, MPs and peers as they should for civil servants.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Oliver. As always, your logic is impeccable. I suppose my only defence is to express a curious reservation about your third point: I believe that the rules governing the behaviour of civil servants and diplomats in regard to public money are stricter, and their enforcement more unforgiving, than for politicians, and that they should be, although I confess that I can’t easily explain why. Perhaps it’s just a residual pride in what on the whole, with exceptions, I perceived as the integrity of the practitioners of your and my former trade.

    A letter in today’s Guardian points out that a benefit claimant caught fraudulently claiming £40,000 of public money would be facing a prison sentence. I can’t argue with that, either.

  6. Clive Willis says:

    What appals me is that people who should know better (e.g. the PM, Ashdown &c) fell over themselves to present Laws as ‘honourable’. So he’s Mr Clean, is he? Or is he in the Fergie category? I despair…

  7. Ronnie says:

    He was naive, not about ways of getting money to which he was not entitled but about the ruthlessness for good or ill of our Press:  not a good start for a minister these days.  I don’t suppose he thought he was going to be a minister.  He didn’t want his parents to know about him, or so we are told, conveniently: a weakness which in other circumstances might have denied him a positive vetting.    Did nobody – Cameron, Clegg, some Whip, an inquisirive Press Officer, an adviser – ask any questions?  But he made a bright start at the Treasury.  So did GB all those years ago. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Ronnie. You make some excellent points, especially perhaps about positive vetting.

  8. AnneJGP says:

    Ever since the Expenses scandal first broke, I have believed that Parliament should simply adopt wholesale the Civil Service rules, so I agree with Oliver on this. I don’t mean to insult you, Brian, when I say that the “integrity of the practitioners” has at least some connection with the knowledge that the rules are both strict and strictly policed.

    The system seems to have been an open invitation to help themselves to the full extent of their “entitlement” – and some MPs had a huge sense of entitlement. The trouble is, all MPs are being damned by association.

    Practically everyone accepts that legitimate expenses should be reimbursed, but it strikes me that MPs necessarily have a fairly arcane lifestyle which is hard for ordinary people like me to understand. If that’s true, and much of it is not reckonable as “expenses”, it may well be true that even though the basic MP’s salary seems enormous, it’s not enough. 

    At the height of the scandal, it would have been really helpful if one of the political parties had published an outline budget for being a typical MP. That’s the only way the public can see what a reasonable salary is.

    In my opinion, if this drags on it will damage our democracy. I think it would be worth while setting up an amnesty for both MPs and benefit claimants (because we’re all in this together). Get your claim right from now on and there’ll be no comeback on you for the past.  Carry on abusing the system and full rigour applies.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this excellent proposal of an amnesty for MPs — and for benefit claimants. The only point you make on which I have a reservation is that “the basic MP’s salary seems enormous”: to my mind it’s miserably inadequate, and its manifest inadequacy is at the root of the exploitation by some (not all) MPs of the expenses system, and of the failure to reform it. IOW, I think you’re absolutely right to say that “it’s not enough”. Unfortunately the double whammy of the recession and the sacrifices that ordinary blameless people are about to be forced to make to deal with it, plus the still lingering stench of the MPs’ expenses scandal, makes it quite impossible to insist on MPs’ and ministers’ salaries all being doubled with effect from tomorrow, if not sooner, which on any reasonable analysis would be the right thing to do.

  9. He broke a clear rule
    Socialists believe that people should obey rules. Liberals believe that rules should be adapted to the reality of individual diversity. Both act according to their beliefs.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Peter. These are wonderful sweeping generalisations to savour. I think the first is true in only a limited sense: it depends on the rules — their status, origina and effect — whether socialists believe in obeying them, and if all you’re saying is that democratic socialists believe in obeying laws validly passed by a partially elected parliament, the generalisation should probably read: socialists believe in obeying the law in a democracy but they also believe in changing laws which are unjust, oppressive, disproportionate to what they seek to achieve, or inimical to the maximising of equality.

    (I’m not qualified to comment on your second generalisation regarding ‘liberals’. or possibly ‘Liberals’ — since the word starts your sentence, it’s impossible to know which group you refer to. If you mean small-l ‘liberals’, some of them are also socialists, and nearly all socialists are liberals, so making the contrast between them that you propose raises a certain initial difficulty.)

  10. Iain Orr says:

    I largely agreed with your comments on David Laws (similar to those on Craig Murray’s website – does diplomacy make one more sensitive to bad arguments?).  The image of the injured look on a widdling puppy’s face perfectly evokes Laws’ face at some points in the saga.
    However, one point you do not mention but which I have seen in some commentaries makes sense to me: that paying rent through the parliamentary allowances system to his lover – to whom he was loyal but not linked through a civil partnership – was a way for Laws to help his friend financially without appearing just to make him the beneficiary of a rich man’s generosity.  The logic might appear twisted, but it strikes me that the rationale of the MPs allowances system married to the Catholic Church’s rationale for considering homosexuality unnatural could easily lead such an intense man to convince himself thst he was really doing the best thing in the circumstances and keeping to the spirit the moral rules by which he led his life.  It’s perhaps an invidious comparision (because I have far more respect for Laws), but similar Jesuitical arguments led Tony Blair to believe that he was right to lead the UK into the crusade to bring Saddam to justice.  A different Calvinist logic (faith, not works) perhaps led Gordon Brown to the conviction that removing the 10p income tax band was the right thing to do because it meant he could outflank the Conservatives by reducing the standard rate of Income Tax.
    Do new MPs need to be given a course in testing the logic of personal and political moral theorems?

    Brian writes: Thanks for this, Iain. Your theories, especially about what Laws may have seen as justification for what he did, are counter-intuitive on first reading, but on reflection I think they are really quite plausible. If so, there could hardly be better illustrations of the way religious doctrines tend to add a quite unnecessary complexity, even a kind of twisted logic, that distorts perception of otherwise pretty straightforward moral judgements. In any case, I’m sure the answer to your closing question must be a resounding Yes, although I’m not sure whom I would trust to run the course.

  11. Clive Willis says:

    If, after the 2006 change in the rules, Laws had withdrawn his claim, he could have continued thereby to keep his sexuality under wraps, and the Telegraph would have had no case.  But he didn’t – and that was dishonourable, whatever the PM and others may say.

    Brian writes: You put it very neatly and concisely, Clive. It’s difficult to disagree — not, I hasten to say, that I want to!