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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.