Laws is guilty of poor judgement, not avarice

It is astonishing that David Laws has been suspended: other MPs motivated by financial gain escaped

I first met David Laws aged 28. He had been working in the City on a top salary and had given it all up to work for the Liberal Democrats for £14,000 per year as an economics researcher. He was a total joy to work with: fantastically bright, horribly challenging and fanatically shy. He was always a loyal friend and colleague. He left the City because, in the end, making money wasn't fulfilling enough; he hungered for a political career and he wanted to make a difference.

Nothing much has changed, except that now – because of a tragic error of judgement, for which he apologised a year ago, will apologise again in the House today and has already paid back £56,000 – he has been suspended.

The detail of the report is complex and requires understanding. It lacks the simplicity that trial by media often needs. But two fundamental principles remain true. As the British parliamentary commissioner for standards, John Lyon, says: "I have no reason to doubt that Mr Laws's primary motivation was to keep secret the sexuality that he had hidden."

Elsewhere, Matthew Parris in the Times today (£) writes: "I have no doubt that Mr Lyon will have concluded that it was a craving for privacy, not greed, that drove David Laws. I have no doubt because that is the truth."

However descriptions such as "venal", "moneygrubbing" and "greedy" were already being bandied about as killer facts in this showcase trial, even before the report was published. But again, as Commissioner Lyon says in the report: "I have no evidence that Mr. Laws made his claims with the intention of benefiting himself or his partner in conscious breach of the rules."

So it is astonishing, when so many of the other politicians were given a slap on the wrist when their motivation was more money, that David Laws will be suspended for a week, even though there is a clear conclusion that benefiting himself financially was never the plan. The tragic irony is that, had he walked into the relevant Commons Office and explained to some anonymous clerk to the House, having never told a friend or family member, that he was gay and living with someone, the advice to him would have resulted in him claiming more money, not less.

The report says: "I believe that it is right to recognise that Mr Laws's ACA claims were below the maxima provided by the allowance . . . and I recognise his evidence that, had he claimed for his Somerset property, and had he wished to do so, he could have claimed considerably more."

If he had allocated his constituency home as his second home he would have still been in the cabinet, having claimed £30,000 more.

The whole situation has been further compounded by him downloading the wrong form from the internet. Laws downloaded a "lodging agreement", which covers bedsits with no rights regarding eviction, rather than an "assured shorthold tenancy", leading to a different assessment of rent levels. Yet even the committee says: "We agree that in reality Mr Laws's living arrangements were more advantageous than the bare terms of the agreement."

As Laws had already made his millions, why didn't he just not claim if he wanted privacy that badly? Under the rules, to have claimed nothing at all would have also raised questions. It comes back to the issue of privacy. He worked for the party for £14,000 for three years, £25,000 for one year and then as a candidate fighting a constituency for no salary at all for two years. Of course he did not start life in parliament on a high financial base. This career path hardly describes someone who is in it for the money.

His error was poor judgement, but not avarice. This man was born to serve the public. Now that this year-long report has concluded, let's allow him to get on with it.

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The real question about George Osborne and the Evening Standard? Why he'd even want the job

The week in the media, from Osborne’s irrelevant editorship to the unrepentant McGuinness and Vera Lynn’s stirring ballads.

The big puzzle about George Osborne’s appointment as the editor of the London Evening Standard is why he wanted the job. The Standard is now just a local freesheet, a pale shadow of its old self. In Tube carriages, discarded copies far exceed those being read. Its columnists are lightweight [Ed: as an occasional columnist myself, thanks, Peter] and its news stale, mostly written the previous day. Critics of Osborne’s appointment describe the Standard as “a major newspaper”. It is no such thing. The idea that the editorship will allow the former chancellor to propel himself towards the London mayoralty is laughable. In last year’s election for mayor, the Standard, according to University of London research, ran twice as many positive headlines about the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith as it did about Labour’s Sadiq Khan. The latter won comfortably. The paper was so supportive of Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, that it became known as “the Daily Boris”. But Johnson, with a high profile from television, hardly needed its backing to beat a tired and largely discredited Ken Livingstone.

If Osborne believes that the Standard offers him a significant political platform, it is just further proof that he belongs to an ignorant elite.

 

Violent legacy

More than anyone else, Martin McGuinness, who has died aged 66, represented how the IRA-Sinn Fein combined uncompromising violence with negotiating charm to achieve its aims. Unlike Gerry Adams, McGuinness admitted openly and proudly that he was a senior IRA commander. In Londonderry on Bloody Sunday in 1972 he carried a sub-machine gun, but apparently without using it. Later that year, he was among a delegation that held secret talks with British ministers and officials. The following year, he was arrested near a car containing prodigious quantities of explosives and ammunition.

Like many who recall the IRA’s campaign in mainland Britain – three huge bombs detonated less than half a mile from me – I could never quite accept McGuinness as a government minister and man of peace. Whatever he said, he did not renounce ­violence. He just had no further use for it, a decision that was reversible.

 

A peace of sorts

When I hear politicians saying they could never contemplate talks with al-Qaeda, I smile. They said the same about the IRA. The idea of negotiation, John Major said, “turns my stomach”. A month later, news leaked of secret talks that would lead to a ceasefire. You can call it hypocrisy but politicians have no practical alternative. Significant terrorist campaigns rarely end without deals of some sort. Even then, dishonesty is necessary. The parties to the Good Friday Agreement with Sinn Fein in 1998 never admitted the true terms, perhaps even to themselves. In return for a role in government, the IRA ceased attacks on the British mainland, army, governing classes and commercial interests. It remained in control of working-class Catholic enclaves in Northern Ireland, where it continued to murder, inflict punishment beatings and run protection rackets. Not a pretty bargain, but it brought peace of a sort.

 

Real war anthems

“We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”, sung by Dame Vera Lynn, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, are the songs most closely associated with the Second World War. This, when you think about it, is peculiar. Most wars are associated with stirring, patriotic anthems, not sentimental ballads. Even the First World War’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, before it mentions hearts yearning for home, stresses the noble, manly instincts that drove soldiers to fight: “They were summoned from the hillside/They were called in from the glen,/And the country found them ready/At the stirring call for men.” Lynn’s songs had only the wistful sadnesses of parting and reassurances that nothing would change.

Their “slushy” tone troubled the BBC. It feared they would weaken the troops’ fighting spirit. Despite Lynn’s high ratings among listeners at home and service personnel overseas, her radio series was dropped in favour of more virile programmes featuring marching songs. Unable to sing to her forces fans over the airwaves, Lynn bravely travelled to the army camps in Burma. A BBC centenary tribute showed veterans of the war against Japan weeping as her songs were played back.

The wartime role of this unassuming plumber’s daughter makes me – and, I suspect, millions of others – feel prouder to be British than any military anthem could.

 

Ham-fisted attempt

After his failed attempt to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, Philip Hammond, it is said, will have a £2bn hole in his budget. It will be more than that. Thanks to the publicity, tens of thousands more workers in regular employment will be aware of the tax advantages of self-employed status and hasten to rearrange their affairs. Likewise, newspaper accountants of old, after circulating memos imploring journalists to reduce lavish claims for “subsistence” while covering stories away from the office, would find a sharp rise in claims from hacks previously unaware that such a perk existed.

 

Battle of Hastings

My fellow journalist Max Hastings, attending a West End play, was once dragged on stage by the comedian James Corden, told to help move a heavy trunk and slapped on the bottom. Ever since, I have approached plays starring comedians warily. I dropped my guard, however, when I bought tickets for a contemporary adaptation of Molière’s The Miser starring Griff Rhys Jones, and found myself drenched when Jones spilled (deliberately) what purported to be fine wine. It was of course only water and, unlike
Hastings, I shall not demand a refund.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution