The rule of Laws

The resignation of David Laws over his use of expenses has caused sadness among the commentariat – more than any other expenses-related casualty. This has baffled some in the blogosphere, who believe he broke the rules and so had to go.

The first reason for grief is simple: Mr Laws was an exceptionally able man with a staggering sense of public spirit. He left a serious City job to work in the Lib Dem research department. He appeared, as George Osborne put it, to have been put on Earth to take a job at the Treasury. By contrast, when Jacqui Smith was caught out, few cared enough to defend the not-very-convincing home secretary.

The second reason is that few journalists believe he did very much wrong. Unlike most of his peers, Mr Laws actually used the allowances system as an expenses regime, not as a secret source of income. He used the allowance to pay rent on a flat near the House of Commons, not to speculate on property. Mr Laws also did so cheaply: this MP for a distant west country seat never broke into the top half of MPs’ housing allowance claims.

The MP for Yeovil was caught out by the British lust for bone-headed box-ticking. In 2006, a rule was introduced that banned MPs from claiming money to rent housing from one’s partner. Mr Laws, who had been in such an arrangement since 2001, lived in breach of these rules for three years. This was only, however, because he wanted to avoid revealing the nature of his relationship with his landlord – and so his sexuality. Given the parliamentary authorities’ reputation for leaking details of “interesting” allowance claims, one can understand his desire to do nothing and so avoid drawing attention to himself.

Mr Laws’ rents were modest and at market rates. He was, therefore, in the odd position of having breached the letter of the rules while having stayed firmly within the spirit of what the public wanted from their MPs. Most of the cabinet were the other way round. They milked the allowances system dry, but did so “within the rules”. So, as Chris Dillow writes, the lesson of the Laws resignation is:

If you want to keep your job, following the rules has lexicographic priority over technical ability. Laws was widely regarded, even before the platitudes that followed his resignation, as a superbly able minister. This was not enough to keep him in a job. The message here is that it is better to be a prissy, priggish follower of rules than a man of any other virtues – which is a perfect recipe for mediocrity.

In truth, Mr Laws should never have been put in such a position. Any expenses regime that demands MPs reveal such intimate details of their personal lives – and judges their claims on the basis of them – is inexcusably intrusive. That Mr Laws’ frugal living arrangements could be deemed against the rules because the MP for Yeovil loves his landlord, and does not merely like him, is indefensible.

There is a further absurdity to Mr Laws’ resignation: he could have disguised his sexuality and stayed within the rules. He could have mortgaged his second home in Yeovil and paid his rent in London out of his own pocket, for example. To do so, however, would have cost the exchequer more. Moreover, had he been open about his relationship, he could have claimed bags more from the taxpayer, charging parliament for a chunk of the mortgage. He, not the taxpayer, bore the cost of his deception.

In truth, the only question regarding MPs’ housing allowances that is in the public interest is: “Is this a reasonable amount to allow this MP to pay each month towards the cost of living in two places at once?” The purpose of the rule that prevents MPs renting from partners is presumably to make sure the rental prices are set at market rates – which Mr Laws’ were. So, that fact established, Mr Laws should have had his knuckles rapped for breaking an administrative rule – and nothing more.

I agree whole-heartedly with Philip Stephens’ column in today’s FT. Trapped by this ridiculous system, the chief secretary should have been told off but stayed put. And the media should have reported his affairs in context, not as proof of some great fraud:

…the default position of the media remains that the country is governed by thieves and charlatans. The standards of behaviour demanded of politicians deny the possibility of human frailty. The media has decided that it prefers to throw rocks at elected representatives than to listen to or report their endeavours.

Mr Laws’ resignation was his own decision. The controversy, he said, would have been a distraction from his work at the Treasury and he wanted time to repair relations with the family and friends from whom he had concealed his sexuality. In leaving, he demonstrated his integrity.

It would have been much better, though, if he had stood his ground and if the prime minister (who has repaid several thousand pounds of his own expenses) had been more outspoken in his support for the chief secretary. At some point the politicians must face down the mob. Mr Laws has lost his job. The country has nothing to celebrate.

Bring Mr Laws back, I say.

He should never have gone in the first place.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.