A personal tragedy and a national loss

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The Independent Online

The resignation of David Laws needs to be seen, first and foremost, as a personal tragedy. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury has become the latest victim of the long-running Parliamentary expenses scandal, yet his behaviour does not appear to have been motivated by personal greed or entitlement, but fear. Mr Laws was apparently faced with an invidious choice between making public his sexuality, something he had gone to great lengths to keep secret, and breaking the letter of the rules on expenses which forbid MPs from leasing accommodation from partners.

Mr Laws apparently convinced himself that since there was a degree of ambiguity in his relationship with his landlord, James Lundie (they are not civil partners or a couple in social circles), the arrangement remained within the rules. That was a misjudgement, as Mr Laws now accepts. But any fair-minded person examining Mr Laws's conduct would conclude that it was an understandable one.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this affair is the fact that Mr Laws felt that he could not be open about his sexuality. That fear of being "outed" evidently paralysed his better judgement. Mr Laws must, of course, take personal responsibility for his mistake. And he has done precisely that with his speedy resignation from the Government. But this business can hardly be said to reflect well on our society. Mr Laws will not be the only public figure who is petrified by the prospect of coming out as homosexual. The unpalatable truth is that the forces of bigotry and intolerance still exist in modern Britain.

Mr Laws's departure is a serious and untimely blow for the Government. He has been the most effective Cabinet minister in the brief life of this coalition. As Mr Laws said in his resignation statement, Chief Secretary to the Treasury was a job for which his whole life seemed to have prepared him. He had the economic experience, the intellect, and the determination to accomplish the serious work of repairing the national finances. Indeed, Mr Laws had begun to make his boss, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, seem like the junior figure at the Treasury. His evident competence in the job was also helping to bind the two wings of the coalition together.

But, crucially, Mr Laws also appeared to have the social conscience and principles to reduce the deficit in a manner that would look after the interests of the most vulnerable. This was, we should remember, someone who gave up a lucrative career in the City of London to become a lowly adviser to the Liberal Democrats at a time when a role for the third party in Government was an unlikely dream. All politicians can claim to be motivated by public service to some degree. But Mr Laws's claim is stronger than most.

Danny Alexander, Mr Laws's Liberal Democrat colleague who will replace him in the Treasury, should not be underestimated. Though he may lack much of a public profile, his role in helping to broker the coaltion deal is testament to his abilities. And we should not forget that few people had heard of Mr Laws before last month. Nevertheless, Mr Alexander will surely find it difficult to fill the shoes of his predecessor.

Already, there is talk of a return for Mr Laws. This is understandable. This is not a Government so blessed with talent that it can afford to shed its best people without considerable regret. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, have expressed the hope that Mr Laws could come back to the Cabinet in time. It is to be hoped that the relatively mild nature of Mr Laws's offence and the honourable manner of his departure will hasten that day.

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