The Laws and coming out

It is impossible to detach consideration of David Laws’s misdeeds from the cultural acceptance of ho

Homosexuality is not an exoneration, of course not, no more than are the guy's political talents. No one is saying that clever people, or gay people, or even clever gay people, should not be made to abide by rules governing parliamentary expenses.

Neither David Laws's guilt in claiming housing expenses to which he was not entitled (because his landlord was his lover), nor his acceptance of that guilt, are in question. What remains to be determined is the fitting level of punishment.

To answer this question, I don't see how it's possible to ignore Laws's sexuality, because (in my mind, anyway) the punishment for venality should be of an order of magnitude stronger than that for an attempt to maintain privacy.

Jacqui Smith rented a room from her sister and designated it her "main home". That wasn't out of a desire to prevent her sororal habitation habit from being known: it was from a desire to maximise her cash take. For that, she was censured by, but not suspended from, the Commons. Her eventual expulsion from the House by her electorate was one of the most powerful arguments against AV, by the way: giving first-weight preferences to the last-placed candidates in her constituency could well have returned her to the green benches. (Update: Jacqui Smith has posted a comment below to challenge my reading of events).

So, to repeat, because it matters: I'm not arguing that Laws should go unpunished, or that he didn't act wrongly and against the rules. I'm not even pointing out the strangeness of the "No lover as landlord" rule (does a single act of intercourse with one's landlord break the rule? Or must intercourse be carried out repeatedly over time?).

I'm asking that the most probable reason for his actions be taken into account in order to deliver a just punishment. And I can't – of course I can't – separate Laws's sexuality from my thinking about this.

The best counterargument I've read came from Tom Harris, that good man and Labour MP for Glasgow South, who said to me on Twitter last night that I was "Wrong [to suggest that Laws's homosexuality is part-explanation for his behaviour]. He could easily have afforded not to claim rent at all, thus staying within rules and not outing himself." Means testing for MP expenses? Well, why not? I'm sure with hindsight Laws would have sympathy with this.

It's tempting to reply to Harris, and those who agree with him, thus: you simply have no idea what it's like to live as a gay person.

For all the movement towards legal equality of esteem, we do not inhabit a world where we are treated the same as people who are not gay.

In corporate life, at the start of my career a couple of decades ago, I sometimes noted my own lack of "clubbability" (my inability to socialise with ease, not the desirability of treating me like a baby seal in the 1980s), and asked myself if it was holding me back.

Do you see what I mean? I'm not accusing other people of treating me differently; I'm asking if something unresolved within our cultural etiquette of social interaction (because the liberated gay person is a relatively modern fact) prevented me from being as straightforward with colleagues as I would have been, were I a different person.

You will find this impossible to understand, I guess, but certainly in my twenties I found it almost excruciating to take part in any workplace conversation that moved on to the topic of families, children, schools, holidays, weekends – that is, almost anything.

There seemed no way of participating in such conversations without making a political point, which was the last thing I wanted to do ("Are you seeing anyone?" "Yes . . . [awkward silence] . . . I'm gay! Since you didn't ask").

Now, I'm about as openly gay as it's possible to be, and consider myself liberated: I don't put up with rubbish from anyone. But were I even to a mild degree more diffident, I think my professional (and private) life would be markedly less successful: I would prioritise privacy (for fear of censure) over the joy that comes from living life openly.

For the third time, and in conclusion, let me underline that I'm not claiming that any of this implies that David Laws should not be punished for his expense claim faults. He should be humbled in front of the House and repay every penny that should not have been taken. After that, though, I'd rather let the voters of Yeovil decide whether or not he should be removed from the Chamber.

Whatever happened to that rather excellent Tory initiative on voter recall?

Graeme Archer is a regular contributor to ConservativeHome hoping to remain on the Tory party official candidates' list. In real life he is a statistician. On Twitter he's @graemearcher.

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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

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