The husband of Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, made a shame-faced public apology to his wife yesterday – but not to the taxpayer – for claiming the cost of watching two pornographic films on parliamentary expenses.
Downing Street led a desperate attempt to protect Ms Smith, already facing a parliamentary inquiry over her housing claims, from speculation about her survival as Home Secretary.
Cabinet ministers rallied around her in the face of calls from opposition MPs for her to consider resigning. Ms Smith now has to cope with a toxic combination of anger over her expenses claims and the humiliating disclosure of her husband's taste in television.
Friends said she was "mortified and furious" over the disclosure that a £67 claim for television expenses included the cost of viewing two 18-rated movie sessions. They said the Home Secretary, who promised to pay the money back, has no intention of resigning.
The films were viewed by her husband, Richard Timney, when Ms Smith was away from their home in Redditch, Worcestershire. He is paid £40,000 a year from the public purse to run his wife's constituency office.
In a brief 22-second statement outside the house yesterday, Mr Timney said: "I am really sorry for any embarrassment I have caused Jacqui. I can fully understand why people might be angry and offended by this. Quite obviously, a claim should never have been made for these films, and as you know that money is being paid back."
The episode is particularly embarrassing to Ms Smith, the first female Home Secretary, as she is leading moves to strengthen legislation on the sex industry by bringing in tougher licensing rules for lap-dancing clubs.
The charge for ordering each of the adult film channel nightly subscriptions was £5. The leaked bill disclosed that an 18-rated "additional feature" was viewed at 11.18pm on 1 April last year and another at 11.19pm on 6 April.
It also showed that the George Clooney crime caper Ocean's 13 was viewed on two consecutive evenings, at £3.75 each time, as well as the computer-animated film Surf's Up.
The claims would have been prepared by Mr Timney in his function as her office manager, but would have been countersigned by her.
Ms Smith said yesterday: "I am sorry that in claiming for my internet connection, I mistakenly claimed for a television package alongside it.
"As soon as the matter was brought to my attention, I took immediate steps to contact the relevant parliamentary authorities and rectify the situation. All money claimed for the television package will be paid back in full."
Aides hope the rapid action, and Mr Timney's public apology to his wife, will help win her sympathy.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "Jacqui Smith has done the right thing by taking steps to rectify this inadvertent mistake as soon as she became aware of it. She is doing a great job as Home Secretary and will not let this issue detract from her determination to ensure we protect the public and make our neighbourhoods safer."
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, refused to be drawn on the row, but stressed: "What I am absolutely confident of is that Jacqui Smith is doing an outstanding job as the Home Secretary with some of the toughest responsibilities in government."
But Philip Davies, a Tory MP, said: "It is surely not legitimate to use Commons second-home allowances to buy blue movies. If this is true, I cannot see how she can survive."
Angus Robertson, the Scottish National Party's leader at Westminster, said there were "real questions" over her future as Home Secretary as her credibility was "in tatters". He said: "These are serious allegations and only add to the impression that Labour is becoming engulfed in expenses sleaze."
Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik said: "This is immensely embarrassing for Jacqui on a personal and domestic level. I haven't got any particular issue about what they watch in their own time. I do have an issue about the fact that he has compromised her."
The leak of Ms Smith's parliamentary expenses contained a wealth of detail that will fuel claims that MPs are milking the system to furnish second homes. Ms Smith has designated her Redditch property, where Mr Timney and their two sons live, as her second home, entitling her to claim allowances for it. She has claimed more than £150,000 for the cost of running the home over the past five years.
The cash covers not just utility bills and council tax, but also furniture and fittings. She claimed £1,000 for an antique fireplace, £704 for a sofabed and £460 for a table. The kitchen was kitted out with a £399 Hotpoint cooker, a Hotpoint tumble dryer at £189 and two washing machines. Ms Smith, who earns £141,866 a year as a cabinet minister, even claimed 88p for a bath plug.
Ms Smith insists her main home is her sister's house in south London where she stays during the week. She said the Commons authorities had approved the arrangements. John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, is investigating her claims. Last week a former home secretary, Charles Clarke, said her case regarding housing expenses looked "terrible".