Five days after Maria Miller’s non-apology, her position looks ever more vulnerable. Esther McVey, one of those tipped to replace her as culture secretary, last night became the first minister to criticise her actions, telling ITV’s The Agenda: “I can honestly say it wouldn’t be how I would have made an apology. But different people have different styles and do things in different ways.”
Meanwhile, Graham Brady, the head of the backbench 1922 committeee, has warned David Cameron that MPs from across the party want Miller to be sacked (with one describing the story as “absolutely toxic”), a change.org petition calling for her to “either pay back £45,000 in fraudulent expense claims or resign” has received more than 130,000 signatures, and, to top it all, David Laws has popped up on the Today programme to helpfully offer his “support”. By contrast, while expressing his “natural sympathy”, Boris Johnson declined to say she should remain in her post: “My natural sympathy goes out to people in a hounded situation – how about that?”
While refusing to criticise Miller directly, cabinet ministers are also making it clear that whether she stays or goes is a decision for Cameron alone. Dominic Grieve said: “She’s a valued colleague, as far as I’m concerned, but she has got to answer to her constituents and also answer for her responsibilities to the Prime Minister.” And Iain Duncan Smith commented: “No one is above the law, that is the only point I would make. There have been big sanctions and a number of people who have misrepresented themselves in the parliamentary system have now gone to prison…I’m not going to judge this particular case because this is a complex issue.”
The pressure on Cameron to dismiss Miller, and stem the bleeding, has certainly intensified over the last 24 hours. But it remains far from certain that the PM will be moved to act. Cameron is famously stubborn in his defence of under-fire colleagues (recall how long he stood by Andy Coulson) and rarely misses an opportunity not to wield the knife (as the continued cabinet presence of Andrew Lansley, Jeremy Hunt and Iain Duncan Smith demonstrates). That the blitzkrieg against Miller is partly (or even largely) due to her role in promoting press regulation and equal marriage is only likely toincrease his determination to protect her.
And while the complaints of the 1922 committee (which the PM will address tomorrow) cannot be dismissed out of hand, Cameron’s position, owing to the economic recovery and the narrowing of Labour’s poll lead, is stronger than it has been for years. Reflecting this changed reality, Tory rebel Andrew Bridgen yesterday wrote to Brady withdrawing his letter of no confidence in the PM.
But the longer the row persists, the harder it will be for Miller to reasonably remain in her post. The Culture Secretary has been pulling out of scheduled appearances and interviews and reportedly made the “quickest ever” entrance into Downing Street this morning. In these circumstances, Miller is surely now considering whether all sides would be best served by her falling on her sword.