Maria Miller's as mimsy as a borogove with 'attitude'

Even if the Culture Secretary thinks she did no wrong, she should know the import of a show of contrition

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It was said of William Shawn, one-time editor of The New Yorker, that he had moral perfect pitch. Unfortunately, he died in 1992, so we have to rely on other arbiters to judge the wrongness of Maria Miller. Somewhere, between the popular rage about "snouts in the trough" and the self-serving attempt by the Prime Minister to brush it aside ("I think we should leave it there") lies the truth of Miller's culpability; but I doubt it will ever be located.

What can be said is that her perfunctory and insincere apology was unhelpful to the Government, the Tory Party and the reputation of MPs generally. Even if she thinks she has done nothing wrong, as she appears to do, she should surely know the importance of a show of contrition. Bear in mind that she had been ordered by the Committee on Standards, with its Tory majority, to apologise for obstructing the inquiries of its Commissioner.

The money she had inadvertently overclaimed was not the reason why she was censured. The Commissioner initially thought it was £45,000 but later accepted that it was £5,800 – after a late flurry of documents from Miller. That is quite a lot of money to "overlook" until journalists draw it to your attention, but the committee decided that repaying should be the end of the matter. What she had to apologise for, on the other hand, was her failure to "provide the Commissioner with the substantive information and supporting documentation she required".

No doubt, Miller thought that a fuller apology would have been taken as an admission of guilt rather than cussedness, and would have made it more likely that David Cameron would sack her. If so, she calculated badly: the surest way to madden the bull of public opinion is to prick it with the knives of disdain and right-to-govern.

Still, she will survive in the Cabinet for now, not primarily because she is a woman, although that comes into it, but because Cameron has learned well at the feet of "The Master". Tony Blair was bad at reshuffles, and thinks that he gave in to media frenzies too easily. If he had held his nerve, perhaps, Peter Mandelson need never have resigned once, let alone twice.

Cameron, naturally, has made the opposite mistake of sometimes leaving poorly performing ministers in post too long, such as Andrew Lansley. It is true that Cameron is short of female ministers, but Miller could easily be replaced at Culture, Media and Sport by Esther McVey, Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry or Jane Ellison. She may have been helped more by the fact that Harriet Harman, her shadow, held back, possibly out of a sense of women's solidarity.

Miller might even survive Cameron's last big planned reshuffle later this year. Remember, Jeremy Hunt, whom many of us had given up for dead, survived his travails in the same department only to be promoted to take over from the overdue Lansley at Health. Miller has not been a terrible minister. The Leveson stuff was complicated, but no one understands it. Like Hunt, she has got into trouble over a special adviser. Hunt's adviser got too close to Rupert Murdoch's people when discussing the Sky TV takeover, which intersected awkwardly with the Leveson inquiry. Hers, Jo Hindley, told The Daily Telegraph she was going to "flag up" her boss's connection with press regulation "for you to think about". Personally, I am unshocked by this so-called "threat": she was talking about the rules on harassment after The Telegraph knocked on the door and spoke to Miller's father, who had been ill. The Telegraph was entitled to do so; Miller was entitled to be annoyed about it.

In the House of Commons, Miller is as mimsy as a borogove. She sticks to her brief and, if challenged, repeats it. In dealing with the philosophical and legal complexities of the Government's response to the Leveson report, she often seemed out of her depth without ever actually drowning. When it came to splitting the difference between a role for politicians in regulating the press and no role for politicians, the compromise of a Royal Charter was not her own idea, but she got it through Parliament without needless drama.

She lists a single recreation in Who's Who: "Three children." But she has cultivated her conventional hinterland since taking the Culture job a year and a half ago. She is a "huge theatre fan", I am told, most recently having been to see 1984 at the Almeida. She is a "big fan" of John Tavener's music and enjoyed the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum.

Great reforming visionary she is not, but if there isn't a "bang to rights" moment she can survive, and she has been found bang to rights on the charge of being unhelpful rather than of knowingly taking money to which she was not entitled. The committee's finding against her was "for her attitude" to the Commissioner's inquiries – a criticism more fitted for the classroom than a court of law. But it is that that might do for her in the end.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

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