Home > General Politics, Laughable Lib Dems, Terrible Tories > Politics knows no sweethearts…but plenty of hypocrites

Politics knows no sweethearts…but plenty of hypocrites

Farewell for now David Laws, Lib-Dem MP, former chief secretary to the Treasury, whose departure seems to have brought to the fore a great deal of sympathy from various twitterers and commentators. I imagine it will surprise few people to learn that I’m not one of them.

Rather, I think it is tragic that this chap got away with paying his partner £920 per month from 2007-2009 for a bedroom (regardless of whether it was used or not). That’s £920 per month on the taxpayer, when parliamentary rules have forbidden leasing anything from a partner since 2006.

A lot of the sympathy is based on Laws’ sexuality, and the suggestion that the Daily Telegraph investigation ‘outed’ him. I’ve seen various people suggest that we’re somehow worse than a certain African country which recently pardoned two men from the ‘crime’ of homosexuality.

I’m sorry that any person’s private life gets trailed into their work life – but as with all the MPs who so ingraciously fell on their swords during the last parliament as a result of the same, if you do something wrong, break the rules or, worse still, profit at the expense of the taxpayer, you shouldn’t be allowed to glibly carry on.

What’s utterly disgraceful is that Laws, one of the privileged few, graduate of Cambridge, who slotted himself into a safe seat nowhere near his original home after bouncing around an unsuccessful candidacy or two, can claim so much on rent of a second property whilst people who can barely get together the rent on their only home have to navigate all sorts of problems to get anything from the State.

One wonders if MPs expenses have anything like the cut-offs of regular Housing Benefit, under which you get nothing once you have more than £16,000 in ‘cash, savings, bank deposits, Tessas, PEP’s, Unit Trusts, ISA’s, building society accounts, Tax Credit arrears etc. and all “liquid assets”.’ Somehow I doubt it.

I’ve heard the argument that they need a second home if they’re to function with a workplace that can be many miles from their home…but it doesn’t excuse un-means tested benefits. What is good for the goose, after all…

Most irritating of all have been the pronouncements from Cameron and Duncan-Smith (et al) that David Laws will be back. Either he did something wrong and shouldn’t be back at all (thus the attitude of the Tories – and myself – to Messrs Mandelson, Blunkett and company) or he didn’t and someone should show some balls and stick up for him.

No-one will be distracted from the budget by Laws’ actions if he’s done nothing wrong. The budget is serious stuff which people are going to be talking about up and down the country as regards what’s actually in it whether it’s delivered by Charles Manson or Postman Pat. It just goes to show, politics has no sweethearts but armies of those for whom hypocrisy or cowardice are simply different words for pragmatism.

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  1. Barney Stannard
    May 30, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    A nice balanced view. No mention of course of:

    a) partner=someone you treat as spouse; not, partner=anyone you sleep with and live with. Note the lack of shared bank accounts (which is a major point of assessment in the law on related matters). One can still rgue that he violated the spirit of the law – a view I have some sympathy with – but that is different from a clear violation of the letter of the rules. The latter is prima facie evidence of corruption, the latter may reflect other motives. For example, his desire to hide his relationship. It is much easier to shut one’s eyes to violation of the spirit than the words.

    b) If he had declared the relationship as a partnership he would have been able to claim more on the second home allowance. So he didn’t actually claim money he wasn’t entitled to, instead he claimed that money under, perhaps, the wrong heading.

    Neither of which show him to be completely in the clear. But it does make it rather tragic that we have lost so talented a man to what boils down to a relatively small misdemeanour.

    All of which is of course separate from the sensible suggestion that there should be some means testing.

  2. May 30, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    You will know the law better than I, though having dealt directly with government agencies assessing such matters, a partner is simply someone you have a relationship with and live with. This is how government agencies assess matters for the average person coming in to a job centre or coming in to be assessed for housing benefit etc. I don’t really see why Laws should be treated any differently.

    If a normal person wishes to claim anything at all, they have to disclose this sort of information. Again, I see no reason why Laws should be treated differently.

    Legally he may be in the clear but my sense of fairness protests nonetheless.

  3. Barney Stannard
    May 30, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    I would agree with you wrt the sense of fairness if point a) were the only strand to his defence but I note the lack of response wrt point b), which is the real point. he simply didn’t profit from his lack of disclosure.

  4. May 30, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Unprofitable or not, dishonesty is dishonesty, and Laws’ disingenuity after the fact (see quote below) hardly ameliorated the situation:

    “I claimed back the costs of sharing a home in Kennington with James from 2001 to June 2007. In June 2007, James bought a new home in London and I continued to claim back my share of the costs. I extended the mortgage on my Somerset property, for which I do not claim any allowances or expenses, to help James purchase the new property.

    “In 2006 the Green Book rules were changed to prohibit payments to partners. At no point did I consider myself to be in breach of the rules which in 2009 defined partner as ‘one of a couple … who although not married to each-other or civil partners are living together and treat each-other as spouses’

    So he defined for himself – when it is a legal mattter – what ‘partner’ can be constituted as, and said this immediately after admitting that he actually remortgaged his own home to help purchase the place, then paid the ‘owner’ rent. This seems like an arrangement which deserves investigation, whether or not it was possible for Laws and his partner to make more money through claiming back mortgage payments.

  5. Barney Stannard
    May 30, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    Yes. Dishonesty is dishonesty. So all people who have ever taken a pen from work stationery, thrown a sickie, paid the builder cash in hand, should resign from their jobs, hand themselves in at the nearest nick, and generally fall on their swords.

    Dishonesty without any intention to profit is, I suggest, a rather lesser offence than dishonesty with intent to profit.

    Calling him disingenuous is bizzare. He didn’t define for himself – it was in the book. And quite how you can demonstrate someone to be disingenous by quoting a perfectly transparent paragraph is slightly beyond me. Moreover, his conduct after the fact stands up remarkably well compared to most MPs. At least he had the decency to go.

    It may well deserve investigation, but resignation?

  6. May 30, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    I don’t know about your workplace Barney, but I’ve seen people get sacked for throwing sickies, and HM Revenue would certainly take it amiss if it learned about the payment to builders in cash. Again this is an issue of one rule for MPs and one rule for other people.

    As him being disingenuous, the definition of partner was only introduced in 2009. Even allowing for this, Lundie was his partner, however badly the Green Book fudges what that means. The spirit of the rule (3.3.3) which he broke is clear; it forbids partners, business associates and family members from being paid ACA. James Lundie was a man he’d been in a relationship with for five years (as at 2006) and was living with, and had in fact bought a home with. He was a partner.

  7. Barney Stannard
    May 30, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    In my workplace death is not an excuse. But if you think it isn’t done then you live in fantasy land. There are shades of dishonesty, and as things go this really does rank low amongst the wines and spirits.

    And he has lost his job and is under investigation – so not really one rule for them.

    Right – until 2009 it was undefined. So by using the definition given in 2009 and applying it backwards he was being disingenuous? Of course. And, of course, you are no doubt a better judge of whether he was a partner than he is himself. Knowing nothing of the situation beyond a few brief lines in a newspaper and a speech. The fact that he advanced money to help him buy a house – clearly a partner, of course, what else could he be?

    As a summary you are essentially arguing that a man who played by the letter of the law, albeit not the spirit, to claim less than he could have done had he followed the letter, in order to protect his privacy about something which he is obviously deeply uncomfortable deserves no sympathy for losing his job.

  8. May 30, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – but you brought up these minor misdemeanours as analogies and I’m saying people do lose their jobs for them, and should, especially if the behaviour is prolonged. Like, say, over the course of three years. I am gratified, on this basis, that Laws has lost his job because it shouldn’t be one rule for them and one rule for the rest of us (which in the case of your analogies it is not, though in other respects it is).

    As for who is and is not a partner, evidently I’m not the only one making the flat assertion that they were partners, Laws coy behaviour aside. They were partners, and by his resignation Laws essentially admitted this. Your treatment of what I presented as evidence is lopsided – they were in a long-term relationship and lived together. The only reason I mention that Laws remortgaged his own home to help Lundie purchase a different property is to combat the very flimsy excuse (mentioned by you and others) that they did not share a bank account. As though that is the defining feature of being ‘partners’! Taken all together, such an assertion doesn’t seem unreasonable.

    Lastly, as a summary, I am arguing that he broke the rules for three years running, motivated by his own personal comfort, evidently. It’s sad that in this day and age someone feels they have to hide their sexuality and I definitely sympathise – but if rules can be broken for personal comfort in this regard, why not for other selfish matters for which we can’t adduce others’ intolerance or prurience, or one’s own reticence.

    (Edit: as a PS, if Laws was so worried about the relationship, why didn’t he just not claim the expense at all?)

  9. Barney Stannard
    May 30, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    I suppose it is time to draw back from this rather fruitless throwing match and put the arguments into context.

    At the start of your post you stated two things. First that you were not amongst those exhibiting any great sympathy, second that the true tragedy was the payment by the taxpayer of money under false assumptions.

    We are discussing a man who left an extraordinarily lucrative career to enter public service. He did not parachute in as an MP, which he could easily have done had he stayed in banking a few more years, but went in as an adviser and worked his way up.

    He chose to serve for the party least likely to enable him to gain a position of power and resisted numerous attempts by the Conservatives to lure him to their party. They prized him for his outstanding talent and competence. This competence was recognised in the first few weeks of the new government.

    It is clear that he has never intended to profit from his time in politics, but has fallen from office due to what at most amounted to an error of judgement which cost the taxpayer nothing and, I believe, may well have been committed with the sincere belief that he was not transgressing the rules. He was led to this error of judgment, at least in part by his inability to be open about his sexuality – a vestige of society’s attitudes not so long ago. In keeping his relationship out of public circulation it appears he was also hiding it even from his closest friends and family.

    The public pressure which forced Laws from office was generated by a media campaign built on self-righteousness and anger. We the public, who take pens from work, who pull sickies, who pay the builder in cash, or who just occasionally round up on the insurance. We who are not above a bit of deception to make our lives easier, lashed out on hearing little more than the headline. There are, I judge from reading the comment pages on the various newspaper websites, very few people who realise he could have claimed the money anyway, or that it is by no means clear that he has actually broken the rules.

    In so doing we rid ourselves of an exceptionally talented individual who would have been a great asset in our rather turbulent times. But we have a great feeling of triumph and moral self-worth. This feeling is utterly hollow. Politicians are in many ways mirrors of the rest of us. One can readily imagine things very similar happening in our own work. Much as it does not need to stretch the credulity too far to imagine members of the public flipping homes if we had half a chance.

    It may well be that Laws was guilty of a certain amount of self-deception. It is certainly true that he has not been as open as he might have been. But one need not have sympathy with his actions themselves to have sympathy with the man. To be trite, we are all of us human.

    To view it as a simple black and white, open and shut case – dishonest therefore gone – is to miss all the subtlety of the situation and the wider context of his life. It also betrays an inability to balance events. I don’t attribute that to you – your politics is so different from Laws I have no doubt you don’t see his resignation as particularly detrimental to the public interest. But for the Telegraph not to see the wider context is a rather different matter. Their paper calls relentlessly for greater cuts and fiscal restraint but it is they who have, with the aid of a bit of digging and a telephoto lens, got rid of the man best equipped to pursue those aims sucessfully.

    I suppose that is why so many people view this with such distaste and a mild sense of despair. How have we let this happen? How has it come about that such a talented and obviously decent man has had to resign in these circumstances?

  10. May 30, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    He did parachute in as an MP. He went from London (where presumably he lived during his banking / political advisory careers) to seek election in Folkestone and from there to Yeovil in Somerset. It’s power-seeking behaviour as exhibited by so many of our current political class. Lacking the patience to work up from the grassroots as activists in direct contact with the concerns of a constituency, they use the mobility gifted to them by wealth and the support of the Party apparatus to wield influence that is useful at selection processes.

    The fact that he stuck with one party instead of crossing the floor meets the lowest possible standard for political principle and I’m not even sure why it’s brought up here. Have we so descended into opportunism that not immediately jumping on the Labour or Tory gravy train is considered a praiseworthy form of principle? The fact that this party was the ‘least likely’ to gain power is also rubbish, it was just the least likely of the three parties that have for the last twenty years competed successfully on a national basis.

    I might just as well say to his discredit that he chose one of the mainstream parties and therefore exhibits some degree of power-hunger, if not to the extremes of Tory and Labour levels. Which is a nonsense, but then so is crediting him with principle because he didn’t join the Tories despite their offer. He gets no credit for any of this from me – and certainly gets none for being ‘competent’, which is an entirely subjective judgment and which may as well mean “he agrees with us” when it comes from senior Tories.

    As regards ‘the wider context’ it is surely to the credit of the Telegraph that they stuck by their moral guns against potential or even the suggestion of wrongdoing as regards the rules or spirit of the rules when it comes to expenses, despite the political damage it would do?

  11. Barney Stannard
    May 31, 2010 at 12:10 am

    Well, to respond to your point-by-point analysis.

    I thought it was clear from my sentence that when I said he wasn’t parachuted in, I meant that he didn’t jump straight into being an MP from the private sector but went through the lower levels of politics first, albeit not in the manner you would like to see. I apologise for the lack of clarity.

    The fact that he did not cross the floor is of course of no particular importance, I mentioned it only to fill out the fact that, despite being in many ways ideologically quite similar to the Conservatives he chose a more difficult path which more closely reflected his politics. I don’t believe that is especially indicative of power seeking behaviour.

    How exactly my suggestion that the Lib Dems were the least likely to gain power is rubbish slightly defeats me. It is a rather obvious fact, and is part of the point that he chose a more difficult path.

    The last two paragraphs were not meant to mark him out as being in some sense special. I simply wanted to discuss the background of the man rather than fixing purely on the particular set of events in question.

    Regarding the question of competence. It is of course obvious that he gains no absolution from guilt by being competent. But I wasn’t really driving at that. I was more interested in discussing the notion that it seems quite a shame that someone so talented has been forced to resign over what is, to my eyes, a fairly ridiculous set of circumstances.

    Whether someone is competent is not especially subjective, and certainly he was regarded as competent by most corners of the media, and I know that within Westminster he is very highly respected. He is obviously an exceptionally intelligent man and until now he seemed to be rather adroit as well. Mandelson, for example, is obviously very competent, whatever one thinks of his politics.

    Your discussion of the wider context is very narrow. As for the idea that the Telegraph ‘stuck by its moral guns’, is absurd. The idea they are that naive is quite frankly laughable.

    I was hoping that you would argue why the spectacle we have seen wasn’t rather sad, rather than pot-shotting my argument. I find the view that Laws’ departure to be gratifying either rather odd or based on a nasty, mean spirited and self-righteous moral puritanism which lacks any degree of empathy. I know you are by no means guilty of the latter, so I would be interested to see where you are coming from.

  12. May 31, 2010 at 12:35 am

    You’re quite right about the Telegraph; they have one real goal and it is reading figures, which had begun to drop off by a fair margin since the ‘end’ of the MPs expenses exposés. I really shouldn’t credit them with any sort of consistency; a Lib-Dem cabinet member seems like a game target to them, I imagine.

    As for my sense of empathy, I simply don’t feel much for anyone who is reduced to quibbling about how much they claimed in expenses when the amounts run to middle five figures over a few years. I worry that he didn’t feel comfortable being open about his sexuality – but that concerns me because it’s an issue that real people have to deal with. If one of them loses favour because they fudged the rules or spirit of the rules, it doesn’t concern me. It’s a pantomime happening light-years from the reality in which the rest of us live.

    I care as much about as about the last episode of Eastenders, in my less ‘nasty, mean spirited and self-righteous’ moods – the direction of this post was actually only partially aimed at David Laws himself. I do believe he erred, and I do believe in higher standards for those elected to office – but the unreality imposed upon him by the advantages accorded to MPs is what is at fault. And the utter failure of the government to give a clear stand is repugnant to me.

  13. Barney Stannard
    May 31, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    So your sense of empathy is means tested?

  14. May 31, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    I laughed out loud when I read that. Yes, I suppose that to an extent it is. But the means tested element is not the only basis on which to extend or refuse empathy. It is just one of them.

  15. Barney Stannard
    May 31, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Of course.

    I think one of the reasons there has been such sympathy to Laws is that compared with many other MPs his indiscretion was relatively minor, compared to, say Danny Alexander. Though again I am led to believe that wasn’t so inexcusable – something about what he was advised to do…. No doubt there may be an innocent explanation.

    But compared to say, Alastair Darling, who changed the designation of his house something like four times in two years to gain avoid tax, Laws doesn’t look too bad. That is not of course an argument to excuse him, but it does put it in a certain light.

  16. May 31, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    I suppose some of the sympathy is bound to be inspired by that – and in truth that’s fair enough. It is a minor indiscretion in the scale of things, though the iniquitous mess (if I can jump up on my pulpit for a moment) of parliament is all the more to be damned if it means we’re becoming relativists as a result. What I noticed most sympathy for, however, was that people wanted to stick up for him because they thought he was trying to hide his homosexuality.

    Which is where my means-tested empathy kicks in. I do sympathize on that basis, but he had enough money not to need to draw money for rent from the taxpayer and his privacy would have been protected.

    I can’t comment on Danny Alexander – from a plain reading of the BBC on the subject, the Telegraph claimed he didn’t pay CGT and he says his property wasn’t eligible anyway. But yeah, even that compared to the amount of money raked in by the flippers like Darling and Osborne is negligible.

  1. April 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm

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