I first met David Laws aged 28. He had been working in the City on a top salary and had given it all up to work for the Liberal Democrats for £14,000 per year as an economics researcher. He was a total joy to work with: fantastically bright, horribly challenging and fanatically shy. He was always a loyal friend and colleague. He left the City because, in the end, making money wasn’t fulfilling enough; he hungered for a political career and he wanted to make a difference.
Nothing much has changed, except that now – because of a tragic error of judgement, for which he apologised a year ago, will apologise again in the House today and has already paid back £56,000 – he has been suspended.
The detail of the report is complex and requires understanding. It lacks the simplicity that trial by media often needs. But two fundamental principles remain true. As the British parliamentary commissioner for standards, John Lyon, says: “I have no reason to doubt that Mr Laws’s primary motivation was to keep secret the sexuality that he had hidden.”
Elsewhere, Matthew Parris in the Times today (£) writes: “I have no doubt that Mr Lyon will have concluded that it was a craving for privacy, not greed, that drove David Laws. I have no doubt because that is the truth.”
However descriptions such as “venal”, “moneygrubbing” and “greedy” were already being bandied about as killer facts in this showcase trial, even before the report was published. But again, as Commissioner Lyon says in the report: “I have no evidence that Mr. Laws made his claims with the intention of benefiting himself or his partner in conscious breach of the rules.”
So it is astonishing, when so many of the other politicians were given a slap on the wrist when their motivation was more money, that David Laws will be suspended for a week, even though there is a clear conclusion that benefiting himself financially was never the plan. The tragic irony is that, had he walked into the relevant Commons Office and explained to some anonymous clerk to the House, having never told a friend or family member, that he was gay and living with someone, the advice to him would have resulted in him claiming more money, not less.
The report says: “I believe that it is right to recognise that Mr Laws’s ACA claims were below the maxima provided by the allowance . . . and I recognise his evidence that, had he claimed for his Somerset property, and had he wished to do so, he could have claimed considerably more.”
If he had allocated his constituency home as his second home he would have still been in the cabinet, having claimed £30,000 more.
The whole situation has been further compounded by him downloading the wrong form from the internet. Laws downloaded a “lodging agreement”, which covers bedsits with no rights regarding eviction, rather than an “assured shorthold tenancy”, leading to a different assessment of rent levels. Yet even the committee says: “We agree that in reality Mr Laws’s living arrangements were more advantageous than the bare terms of the agreement.”
As Laws had already made his millions, why didn’t he just not claim if he wanted privacy that badly? Under the rules, to have claimed nothing at all would have also raised questions. It comes back to the issue of privacy. He worked for the party for £14,000 for three years, £25,000 for one year and then as a candidate fighting a constituency for no salary at all for two years. Of course he did not start life in parliament on a high financial base. This career path hardly describes someone who is in it for the money.
His error was poor judgement, but not avarice. This man was born to serve the public. Now that this year-long report has concluded, let’s allow him to get on with it.