Out of here: Maria Miller drives away from parliament following her resignation. Photo: Getty
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Maria Miller’s feeble apology, BBC hotel jaunts and the trouble with responsible capitalism

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

Maria Miller’s resignation was inevitable, as was that of the Lib Dem minister David Laws over his expenses in 2010 – though he at least got it over with quickly. David Cameron’s hope is that Miller will return to the cabinet “in due course”, which, in Laws’s case, turned out to be about two years and three months. The force of such resignations is thus diluted from the start. Politicians have never mastered the art of sincere contrition and unreserved apology except for things that happened long ago on other people’s watch, such as slavery, Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough.

Miller’s 72-word “apology” to the Commons included 18 words on how the standards committee had rejected the complaint against her by the Labour MP John Mann. She apologised to the committee for her “attitude”, not for her expenses claims. She thus implied that, even though she had been awfully rude, her expenses were beyond reproach. She wasn’t just innocent, but very innocent. Likewise, when Laws apologised, nearly half his words explained how, if he had done his expenses correctly, they would have cost taxpayers more. He apologised as his “own sternest critic”, who recognised “[his] duty” to ensure his claims were “in every sense above reproach”. He, too, was more than just innocent; he was impeccably moral and rigorously honourable.

Politics, by its nature, involves half-truths, double standards and self-delusion. As the Cambridge academic David Runciman has argued, “Liberal democratic politics are only sustainable if mixed with . . . dissimulation and pretence.” Making the best of a bad case is what politicians do. Paradoxically, the more unreserved the apology, the greater the insincerity. 

Think local

Everybody finds it laughable that Miller designated a rented cottage in her Basingstoke constituency as her “main home” rather than the grander Wimbledon house she owned. We all know that, if it weren’t a safe Tory seat, Miller, a former advertising executive married to a solicitor, wouldn’t dream of living in Basingstoke, any more than Peter Mandelson would have chosen Hartlepool as his home if he hadn’t been its MP. So why not demand a residential or birth qualification, like that once required of county cricketers, from anyone standing for election? That would make the Commons more representative and reverse the growing dominance of career politicians. Electoral reform would allow parties to nominate a national list of “additional members” according to the overall number of votes cast and they would be expected to take many front-bench positions. There would be numerous difficulties – constituencies would need to be larger, for instance – but our democracy is in dire straits and we need to restore voters’ confidence.

Swing low, sweet Marriott

Scarcely a week passes without papers such as the Mail and Telegraph highlighting BBC “extravagance”. How many of these stories are true? The other day, it was reported that, for the series Lambing Live, 65 BBC staff stayed in a “£279-a-night” Scottish country house hotel, the Dalmahoy Marriott. Where the £279 figure comes from I have no idea, given that the hotel currently advertises rooms from £107 to £184. As you’d see if you scrolled a long way down the article on the Telegraph website (but not newspaper), the corporation negotiated a discount, reducing the price per guest to £58. 

Autobidding for the people

Hoping not only to find higher returns on modest family savings but also to support small British businesses, I joined Funding Circle, a peer-to-peer site that supposedly bypasses rapacious middlemen, giving lenders and borrowers better rates than they would get from conventional investments. I envisaged helping companies that make or sell useful, life-enhancing products such as musical instruments, wheelchairs for the elderly, or starter motors for lifeboats.

I now find myself lending £20 apiece to a firework importer, a confectionery maker, a second-hand car dealer, a fast-food producer, a private health-care firm, a temporary labour agency, a manufacturer of UPVC windows and three property management companies. Only four trade in goods or services that I consider of genuine value: two housebuilders (one specialising in social housing), a legal aid firm and a pond fish shop. I detect few signs here of a “rebalancing” of the economy towards manufacturing. I use “autobid”, which means I pay the money, state my preferred risk level and leave the rest to an algorithm. If I wish to lend to firms I approve of, I have to research and assess them myself. Oscar Wilde said socialism took up too many evenings. I fear the same is true of responsible capitalism.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

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 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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