Sorry no longer seems to be the hardest word. Not when it’s done the Maria Miller way! “Perfunctory” hardly does justice to her 31-second performance today. This was apology-lite, the parliamentary equivalent of a five year old’s “allrighthensorrycanihavemyicecreamnow?”.
You might think that being the first serving cabinet minister in memory obliged to withdraw to the backbenches to make a personal statement about expenses – as well as paying back a four-figure sum to the taxpayer –without resigning would be a little humiliating. Today Ms Miller set an impressive example to any future ministers caught in the same position showing how it need not be so.
Here’s how it’s done, à la Miller. Be flanked by the Chief Whip (in this case the irreproachable Sir George Young) and another whip (today it was Anne Milton), by other MPs including cabinet colleagues (like Jeremy Hunt). Wear a black dress (with a tasteful white jacket to show there is nothing to grieve about). Start with the positive –which in her case was that the original allegation by the tiresome Labour MP John Mann (that she was using public money to meet her parents’ living costs) was rejected by the Commons Standards Committee. Keep it very short. And finally, don’t go into any detail, particularly on what you are “unreservedly” apologising about, beyond the baldest reference to “my attitude to the [Standards] Commissioner’s enquiries”.
So that anyone who hadn’t followed the story, let alone read the 113-page report issued an hour before she spoke, wouldn’t have had a clue what she was talking about. Or that a committee dominated by fellow MPs had criticised her for denying the Commissioner “the substantive information … and documentation she required”. Or that the committee had overturned the Commissioner’s own estimate that she had overclaimed for mortgage interest by £45,000.
The silent support, however orchestrated, for Ms Miller starkly contrasted with the indignant howls of protest from right-wing Tory backbenchers – “nanny state instincts” (Philip Davies) “taking away a freedom from the British people” (Jacob Rees-Mogg) at the previous statement by another woman minister, Jane Ellison. And the Public Health minister was only announcing she was “minded” to standardise cigarette packaging.
Luckily, two Tory knights, if not quite in shining armour, gallantly came to Ms Ellison’s rescue. Sir Tony Baldry said she was acting on “the basis of the best science”, while the dentist Sir Paul Beresford invited her critics “to come into an operating theatre and see the damage that oral cancer does to people”. Not even Ms Miller had that. Sir George Young is a mere hereditary baronet.