Laws will struggle to ride this affair out

The Lib Dem appears to have broken the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules.

The David Laws revelations are the first big blow to the new government and, for David Cameron and Nick Clegg, a reminder that the expenses scandal can at any moment overshadow all talk of a "new politics".

It is currently unclear whether Laws, one of the coalition's star performers, can survive. But one point in his favour is the absence of any evidence that he abused the expenses system for personal gain. Laws's claim that his motivation throughout has been not to "maximise profit", but to protect his privacy, stands up to scrutiny.

Yet the rules remain unambiguous: MPs are forbidden from "leasing accommodation from a partner". Laws's defence relies on a highly technical definition of "partner" that may not satisfy either parliament or the media.

In his statement last night he said: "Although we were living together we did not treat each other as spouses. For example, we do not share bank accounts and indeed have separate social lives."

But Laws's decision nevertheless to pay back tens of thousands of pounds "immediately" does appear to be a tacit acknowledgement of guilt. He broke the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules.

That Laws may fail to ride this crisis out is in part due to the fact that the Liberal Democrats in general, and Laws in particular, chose to make their relatively clean expenses record an election issue. Here, for instance, is an extract from the statement posted by Laws's constituency party following Sir Thomas Legg's investigation:

David has not been asked to pay back any expenses paid out to him. So far, over a third of MPs are believed to have been asked to make repayments.

I expect Laws is now regretting his decision to take the moral high ground.

And yet that this story has broken during the coalition's honeymoon period may save him. So far, he has not had to implement the sort of spending cuts that Philip Hammond once predicted would make the Chief Secretary to the Treasury "the most hated man in England".

But regardless of the verdict of the parliamentary commissioner, I would be surprised if Cameron kept him in this highly sensitive post for much longer.

Postscript

Incidentally, Laws's homosexuality sheds new light on his decision to reject George Osborne's invitation to join the Conservative front bench. As Allegra Stratton's illuminating profile of Laws noted on Friday, he still had great reservations over the party's position on social affairs and personal morality.

Laws has previously told Tory MPs that he would have been one of them, had it not been for the repellent Section 28.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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