It’s unfathomable that any UK politician could be so oblivious to the public’s resentment of the expenses scandal that brought British politics into disrepute in 2009 and saw a number of MPs relocate from HM Government to spending time at HM’s pleasure. I’d have thought MPs today would be ultra conservative when making expense claims. Not Maria Miller, it seems. The conservative MP for Basingstoke and cabinet secretary for culture, media and sport looks like she may have misunderstood the intent of the government’s ‘help to buy’ scheme.
The events were exposed by an investigation by the Daily Telegraph in late 2012. The paper reported that Mrs Miller had claimed £90,718 in mortgage-related expenses for a property she shared with her parents, something not permitted under the rules. These expenses were used by Mrs Miller to help to buy a ‘second home’ in London’s leafy suburb of Wimbledon. The subsidised second home netted Mrs Miller a profit in excess of £1 million when it was sold in February 2014.
An investigation was carried out and a parliamentary commissioner found that Ms Miller had over-claimed by £45,800 for mortgage expenses and suggested a full refund was in order. This week, after the involvement of the cross-party House of Commons’ Committee on Standards, the Minister agreed to refund £5,800 from the £45,800 the commissioner suggested was due and was required issue an apology in the House of Commons. Maria Miller’s apology lasted 34 seconds. The repercussions could last a little longer.
Mrs Miller’s defence is that she misunderstood the impact that interest rate changes would have on the amounts she was entitled to claim back. That any MP can be unaware of changes to interest rates, something that is of such significance to their constituents, beggars belief but we’ll leave that one there, alongside the fact that it takes only 15 minutes longer to travel from Basingstoke to Westminster than from Wimbledon to Westminster. What happened next is more worrying.
First of all, Ms Miller was obstructive and failed to co-operate fully with the commissioner’s investigation. This lack of co-operation was accepted by the Standards Committee and formed the core of Mrs Miller’s apology. Now we have learned that when Holly Watt, the Daily telegraph reporter working on the earlier story called Joanna Hindley, Mrs Miller’s special advisor, for comment, she was told. “Ms Miller is having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. I am just going to flag up that connection for you to think about,” she said. Such a response sounds a lot like abuse of office to me.
The Prime Minister has rallied around Ms Miller, suggesting the issue is ‘complicated’ and that a line should now be drawn under it. I disagree. Either Mrs Miller’s expense claim was entirely valid or it was not; either it complied with the rules or it didn’t. He also said this weekend that governments that waste taxpayers’ money are ‘white collar thieves’. Mr Cameron may choose to spend some private time reconciling both public statements.
The whole sorry saga outlines the level of disdain that many senior elected officials still have for the office they hold and for the people who elected them and by whom they are employed to serve. During a reception at the House of Commons during the height of the expenses scandal, a backbench MP complained to me that the salaries they earn as public servants are too low. Why, I asked him, did he apply for the job? Surely he knew the compensation the office offered before he applied? My question went unanswered.
Whether Mrs Miller broke the rules of not, or gained financially with inappropriate taxpayer subsidy is a matter for others to decide. But David Cameron is a PR man and the UK government has its fair share of PR advisors among its ranks. Where were they during the months during which this storm was brewing? Surely the conservative party’s comms dept is sensitive to the things that upset voters and advise ministers accordingly, as they would be expected to do in the private sector?
I think a political lobbyist with conservative party sympathies summed up the problem on Twitter yesterday when he asked: “How many more bad media days will it take to persuade Maria Miller that she must think about the best interests of the Party at large?”
Until such time as the best interests of the voters are seen as the only priority, I suspect we’ll continue to see such cack-handed crisis communications responses by Government and the dwindling trust (subscription reqd) in the institution among the governed will continue to erode.