David is… Mr Integrity. Integrity is the thing that drives him. I believe that he may have been caught, in a way, in the imprecise nature of the word ‘partnership’. The word is used in the House of Commons regulations… I think in good faith he concluded that it did not apply to him.
(Lord Ashdown, David Laws’ predecessor as Yeovil MP)
I have some personal sympathy for David Laws. What a month it has been. He was still campaigning for re-election at the beginning of the month. He didn’t expect then to help negotiate the first coalition government for 65 years. He didn’t expect to become Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He didn’t expect some of his closest friends and family to learn he was gay.
Now the Daily Telegraph suggests he broke parliamentary rules by claiming second home expenses to rent a room from his partner, James Lundie. Mr Laws’ defence is that Mr Lundie was not a ‘partner’ under the expenses rules.
He did not want his relationship revealed. He and Mr Lundie “are intensely private people. We made the decision to keep our relationship private and believed that was our right. Clearly that cannot now remain the case.”
How frustrating these revelations must be for him. But as the expenses saga unfolded last year, surely every MP must have considered how their own circumstances might have appeared under close scrutiny. It was clear they would be judged by their adherence to the spirit, not just the letter, of the rules.
Mr Laws says he will pay back £40,000 and refer himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. Surely it would have been prudent to refer himself last year? Surely that must have occurred to him last year? It may not have prevented the Telegraph uncovering the story, but it might have taken some of the steam out of it.
Now David Cameron and Nick Clegg have a rather awkward situation to deal with. In theory it is a matter for the Prime Minister to decide Mr Laws’ fate. But perhaps he will delegate the problem to his deputy. David Laws is a Lib Dem; he is Mr Clegg’s problem.
If he goes, would he have to be replaced by a Lib Dem? Or could he be replaced from either coalition party? It is an important question for the coalition. I suspect that resignations such as this (if it occurs) may often need to be followed by a minor reshuffle.
The pressure on Mr Laws will be all the greater for his ministerial responsibility. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury it is his job to wield the axe on public spending. His expenses claims may detract from his moral authority in one of the most crucial jobs in government.
Update: David Laws has resigned from the Cabinet. He is replaced by the Scottish Secretary Danny Alexander, perceived as a more awkward fit than Mr Laws. As the Times describes it: “Coalition wobbles in bid to keep its balance.”