The Daily Telegraph commanded widespread public support as it removed one political scalp after another during the expenses scandal last year. Will it do so now that it has finished off the reputedly brilliant and supposedly indispensable David Laws as Chief Secretary to the Treasury? There are mutterings about homophobia, and I have heard suggestions that the Telegraph, which has been suspicious of the coalition, was trying to damage it by doing down the Lib Dem Mr Laws.
His resignation speech will have certainly won him sympathy at the expense of the newspaper. It was done with much grace. I can't remember any politician ever publicly admitting that what he had done "was in some way wrong", as Mr Laws did on Saturday. Far from clinging on to power, he reportedly resisted the arguments of David Cameron and others that he could and should remain in office. He was honourably determined to admit fault, and go.
There was, however, one strand of self-delusion in his speech that needs to be tackled. This was that his "recent problems" were caused by his desire to "keep his sexuality secret". The implication – that he was in some way a victim of homophobia – will be eagerly developed by some pundits, and used against The Daily Telegraph. I was glad to see Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the Gay equality group Stonewall, puncturing this line of argument yesterday.
The truth is that Mr Laws's apparent breaking of parliamentary rules had nothing to do with his being gay, and I doubt the Telegraph was motivated by homophobia. He claimed up to £950 a month for eight years to rent rooms owned by his partner James Lundie. If there was any ambiguity at the start about the propriety of such an arrangement, it should have been removed in 2006 when parliamentary authorities told MPs that second-home allowances "must not be used to meet the costs of a mortgage or for leasing accommodation from ... a partner or family member."
That was the moment when he should have stopped claiming these expenses, and if he had done so there would not have been the slightest imputation of wrongdoing. I can't say why an evidently honourable and decent man did not take this course of action which would, by the by, have caused him little or no inconvenience since he is a millionaire. I can understand why he did not put up his hand last year when the expenses scandal was in full flood because to have done so might have drawn attention to his relationship, which he was at pains to conceal from his family. But there would have been no embarrassment if he had simply stopped claiming in 2006.
As for the Telegraph's motives, I obviously can't prove that they were untainted by homophobia or a desire to damage the coalition. All one can say is that in view of Mr Laws's expense claims – which were "wrong" in his own estimation – the paper was justified in running its piece. I feel sorry for him, and it is unfortunate that at a time of financial crisis the Government should have lost so clear-thinking an economist. But could we really expect a newspaper which has revealed the abuses of so many MPs of all parties to sit on this story?
Telegraph sources tell me they did not receive a tip-off about Mr Laws but decided to take a closer look at his claims (already in their possession with those of hundreds of MPs), following his sudden and unexpected promotion to high ministerial office. This may strengthen the suspicions of those who believe that the paper was out to get a Lib Dem so as to weaken the coalition, though as an economic "dry", Mr Laws would have been low on the paper's hit-list. But whatever one's speculations about motivation, the point stands: this story was justified in its own right. If Mr Laws had been a heterosexual Tory Cabinet minister, I expect the paper would have treated him in exactly the same way.
In the end, though, he did not do a great wrong, and he did not break any law. On Friday afternoon, after he had got wind of the Telegraph's intention to run a story, he issued a statement that was candid and honest and open. Neither then, nor in his dignified resignation speech, did David Laws attempt to run away from what he had done. It is not often in politics that in the act of resignation a man emerges with honour, and sets a standard for political behaviour, so that the instant response of many is to wish for his return.
H ow ironic to see the BBC leap to Campbell's defence
Downing Street was silly to have refused to field a Cabinet minister – ironically David Laws – for last Thursday's Question Time on BBC1 unless Alastair Campbell was dropped. David Cameron's communications chief, Andy Coulson, felt it was wrong of the BBC to invite an unelected former spin doctor to sit on the panel rather than a shadow minister. So the senior backbench Tory MP John Redwood was sent in Mr Laws's place.
What business is it of Mr Coulson's whom the BBC invites? It looks like bullying. The irony is that when he fulfilled the same role, Mr Campbell was a much bigger bully than Mr Coulson could ever be. He bullied journalists and he bullied ministers, telling them when and where they could appear, and often what they should say. Yet last Thursday the biggest thug in modern politics was able to present himself as a victim of bullying.
Above all, Mr Campbell bullied the BBC. It is fascinating to see the corporation bowing and scraping before the man who declared war on it after Andrew Gilligan's revelations about the "dodgy dossier" and New Labour's lies over Iraq. I can't work out whether the BBC is being noble or craven in constantly paying court to the monster who tried to destroy it.Reuse content