Maria Miller in 2012. Photo: Getty
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Should Maria Miller resign over her expenses?

Culture secretary makes 32-second apology to Commons.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller was today censured by the Commons Committee on Standards for overcharging the taxpayer £5,800 on her London home mortgage. She had failed to revise her claims during a period of falling interest rates in 2009. That figure is small fry in the continuing saga of the parliamentary expenses scandal. And Miller was cleared of a more serious allegation regarding the housing of her parents in a taxpayer-funded property – the kind of allegation that brought down Lib Dem treasury minister David Laws in 2010. Nonetheless, Miller’s critics may yet take a scalp.

The standards committee recommended that Miller repay her overclaim and deliver an apology on the floor of the Commons. The minister complied, but did not exactly throw herself on the mercy of the House:

Battle lines are now being drawn. Miller is said to enjoy David Cameron’s “warm support”. Labour MP John Mann, who made the original complaint against the minister in December 2012, is calling for her resignation. The leader of the opposition has not yet commented.

The Conservatives will bank on this controversy burning itself out. Miller’s terse statement to the Commons was designed to avoid media attention. But critics will play up the presence of a benefit cheat in a government that takes a hard line against scroungers. Outside Westminster, knowingly failing to report a change of circumstance to obtain housing benefit is a crime punishable by up to three months imprisonment and a £5,000 fine. Questions will also surround the scale of the culture secretary’s transgression; the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Hudson, thinks the minister overclaimed in the region of £44,000.

Miller will find it especially difficult to deflect charges of dishonesty. The prime minister called her misdeed an “administrative error” on Sky News. Perhaps. But the standards committee damned the culture secretary for having obstructed their investigation:

As we have set out, Mrs Miller has also breached the current Code of Conduct by her attitude to this inquiry. That is more serious. The system relies on Members responding to the Commissioner’s inquiries fully and frankly, rather than trying to argue a case in a legalistic way. It should not have required our intervention to produce the material and explanations required to complete the investigation.

Cameron takes pride in having restored a measure of trust in politics after the bloodbath of 2009, when Labour ministers like Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith and Tony McNulty were forced to resign for having fudged their expenses. David Laws was abandoned when his improprieties threatened to damage the cabinet. Unlike Laws, Miller is one of the prime minister’s tribe. But the government may lack the will to defend her if she becomes a symbol of Tory hypocrisy on the welfare issue.

 

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Donald Tusk is merely calling out Tory hypocrisy on Brexit

And the President of the European Council has the upper hand. 

The pair of numbers that have driven the discussion about our future relationship with the EU since the referendum have been 48 to 52. 

"The majority have spoken", cry the Leavers. "It’s time to tell the EU what we want and get out." However, even as they push for triggering the process early next year, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s reply to a letter from Tory MPs, where he blamed British voters for the uncertain futures of expats, is a long overdue reminder that another pair of numbers will, from now on, dominate proceedings.

27 to 1.

For all the media speculation around Brexit in the past few months, over what kind of deal the government will decide to be seek from any future relationship, it is incredible just how little time and thought has been given to the fact that once Article 50 is triggered, we will effectively be negotiating with 27 other partners, not just one.

Of course some countries hold more sway than others, due to their relative economic strength and population, but one of the great equalising achievements of the EU is that all of its member states have a voice. We need look no further than the last minute objections from just one federal entity within Belgium last month over CETA, the huge EU-Canada trade deal, to be reminded how difficult and important it is to build consensus.

Yet the Tories are failing spectacularly to understand this.

During his short trip to Strasbourg last week, David Davis at best ignored, and at worse angered, many of the people he will have to get on-side to secure a deal. Although he did meet Michel Barnier, the senior negotiator for the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative at the future talks, he did not meet any representatives from the key Socialist Group in the European Parliament, nor the Parliament’s President, nor the Chair of its Constitutional Committee which will advise the Parliament on whether to ratify any future Brexit deal.

In parallel, Boris Johnson, to nobody’s surprise any more, continues to blunder from one debacle to the next, the most recent of which was to insult the Italians with glib remarks about prosecco sales.

On his side, Liam Fox caused astonishment by claiming that the EU would have to pay compensation to third countries across the world with which it has trade deals, to compensate them for Britain no longer being part of the EU with which they had signed their agreements!

And now, Theresa May has been embarrassingly rebuffed in her clumsy attempt to strike an early deal directly with Angela Merkel over the future residential status of EU citizens living and working in Britain and UK citizens in Europe. 

When May was campaigning to be Conservative party leader and thus PM, to appeal to the anti-european Tories, she argued that the future status of EU citizens would have to be part of the ongoing negotiations with the EU. Why then, four months later, are Tory MPs so quick to complain and call foul when Merkel and Tusk take the same position as May held in July? 

Because Theresa May has reversed her position. Our EU partners’ position remains the same - no negotiations before Article 50 is triggered and Britain sets out its stall. Merkel has said she can’t and won’t strike a pre-emptive deal.  In any case, she cannot make agreements on behalf of France,Netherlands and Austria, all of who have their own imminent elections to consider, let alone any other EU member. 

The hypocrisy of Tory MPs calling on the European Commission and national governments to end "the anxiety and uncertainty for UK and EU citizens living in one another's territories", while at the same time having caused and fuelled that same anxiety and uncertainty, has been called out by Tusk. 

With such an astounding level of Tory hypocrisy, incompetence and inconsistency, is it any wonder that our future negotiating partners are rapidly losing any residual goodwill towards the UK?

It is beholden on Theresa May’s government to start showing some awareness of the scale of the enormous task ahead, if the UK is to have any hope of striking a Brexit deal that is anything less than disastrous for Britain. The way they are handling this relatively simple issue does not augur well for the far more complex issues, involving difficult choices for Britain, that are looming on the horizon.

Richard Corbett is the Labour MEP for Yorkshire & Humber.