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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.