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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.