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.

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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