David Laws is trouble with the Telegraph over his expenses. He stands accused of claiming for rent from his long-term partner which may be against rules against paying rent to a spouse or equivalent. He has accepted a degree of fault, offered to pay money back, given an explanation based on protecting his privacy, and referred himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. His future as a minister must be considered uncertain.
There are two issues within the Laws story. The first is what level of privacy it is reasonable for someone to expect in public life. Here his behaviour looks understandable if naive and anachronistic. Not a resigning issue, but if you want complete privacy don’t claim public money that depends on honest disclosure of your personal relationships.
The second issue is familial benefit. Did his arrangements mean either he or his partner gained at the taxpayer’s expense? That is the point of the rule in question. Here he may be in trouble on the decision to rent from his partner, the amount, and whether his claim that their relationship was not akin to that of spouses stacks up. That accounting and legal headache is for him and the investigating Commissioner.
Can he survive? The view of most commentators so far is yes he can. On beliefs and ability alone this blog would rather he did. His decisions look foolish not self-enriching, and Julian Glover’s analogy with Lord Browne of BP is apt, but it will depend on what the Commissioner rules.
His reputation though, and that of the Coalition is damaged.
Politically part of the Liberal Democrat narrative in the last election was that none of our MPs had broken the rules, carefully avoiding any mention of the other place, or the motives behind some claims, but still holier than though. It was unwise then, it is defunct now.
Our policy was that those in serious breach of the rules could be subject to a recall ballot by their constituents. I believe some form of that will still be a part of the Parliamentary Reform proposals.
The logical conclusion, depending on the timing of the legislation and what the Commissioner’s actually rules, is that Yeovil might see the first test. If that happens David Laws would be wise to welcome the process. The Commissioner will influence whether he gets to remain a minister. His constituents are the best judges of his longer-term political future.