One of David Cameron's closest aides became the first head to roll in the scandal over MPs' expenses yesterday after admitting that he had "double claimed" for housing allowances.
Andrew MacKay admitted that for eight or nine years he claimed a full "second home" allowance on his London home while his wife, Julie Kirkbride, MP for Bromsgrove, claimed the same allowance for their house in her constituency. Although they lived together, they had no "first home" for Commons expenses but two "second homes" between them. Mr MacKay may have to repay about £140,000 he has overclaimed.
Ironically, he had been poring over expenses claims by other senior Tories who had been exposed by The Daily Telegraph, in his role as Mr Cameron's senior political and parliamentary adviser. Although his own dark secret was not about to be revealed by the newspaper, when he checked his own claims he discovered a potential problem. He decided to come clean – perhaps in the hope that he would then be able to keep his job as the Tory leader's consigliere.
He submitted his papers to Tory officials, but they judged otherwise. Mr Cameron was telephoned at home at 8pm on Wednesday night. When he spoke to Mr MacKay at 7am yesterday, he accepted his offer to resign as his aide.
Mr MacKay admitted that, with hindsight, his arrangement looked "strange" but insisted that it had been approved by Commons officials. He now realised it did not pass Mr Cameron's "reasonableness" test. "Due to an error of judgement in accepting advice from the [Commons] Fees Office, I have let a lot of people down," he said.
He admitted his mistake had damaged Parliament's reputation but said his future was up to his constituents in Bracknell. He will hold a public meeting next week so that voters can cross-examine him. Mr MacKay, who stopped "double-claiming" in April, said he had apologised to Mr Cameron for "causing any hurt or difficulties" and had offered to repay the money.
The Tory leader said yesterday his former aide's claims were not "reasonable or acceptable", adding: "It is not enough just to say the system is to blame. Consequences have to follow." Despite that, Tory sources suggested he was unlikely to remove the whip from Mr MacKay because he had promised to accept the verdict from a party scrutiny panel being set up by Mr Cameron to look at previous expenses claims.
Senior Tories do not expect to take any action against Ms Kirkbride, a former Telegraph political correspondent. They said "for the time being she is in the clear" because she had a genuine "second home" in her constituency.
Mr MacKay became the youngest MP at the age of 27 when he won a surprise victory at a 1977 by-election in Birmingham Stechford, a safe Labour seat, in a contest caused by Roy Jenkins' decision to become President of the European Commission. He lost the seat in 1979 but returned to the Commons in 1983 in Berkshire East. He rose up the ranks to become deputy chief whip in John Major's government.
After the Tories lost power, he became shadow Northern Ireland secretary. A man famous for his Savile Row suits and permatan, he was criticised for failing to cut short his summer holiday in Greece after the Omagh bombings in 1998.
In 2001, he was on the moderniser Michael Portillo's campaign team for his ill-fated bid to become Tory leader. Under Michael Howard's term as leader, Mr MacKay was made a deputy Tory chairman with a brief to modernise the party's face by ensuring that more women and ethnic minority candidates were chosen in winnable parliamentary seats. In 2005 he backed Mr Cameron, an outsider at the outset of the leadership race.
In his most recent role as consigliere, the 49-year-old MP was an influential figure, attending the 9.15am daily strategy session of the Cameron inner circle as well as Shadow Cabinet meetings. Insiders say his experience as a Westminster "mover and shaker" with friends in all parties was a great help to a relatively inexperienced Conservative leader.
"David valued his advice highly," said one Tory aide. Some Tory MPs were less flattering about Mr MacKay, describing him as "something of a Rasputin figure".
Crime & Punishment
Andrew MacKay claimed a second home allowance totalling £140,000 on a London home, while his wife, the Conservative MP Julie Kirkbride, claimed the allowance on another address.
MacKay resigned as a key aide to David Cameron yesterday, but he is not expected to lose the party whip. Faces grassroots pressure within his constituency to stand down as an MP. Will appear before the Tory scrutiny panel, which will decide how much money must be repaid. Police investigation unlikely as the arrangement was agreed with the Fees Office.