Leading article: A needless resignation

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is a great pity that David Laws, in these more liberal times and as a leading figure in a party that lays claim to liberalism, should have failed, as he said, "to be honest about my sexuality". It is even more of a pity that he should have felt that this lack of honesty, and its attendant complications, required his resignation. Of course, we understand how difficult it can be for some people, even for him and even now, to be open with his parents, family and friends. But it is a shame. He is a successful, charismatic politician who had made an impressive start last week on the difficult task of cutting public spending.

We believe that, on balance, he deserved to be allowed to continue in his post as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. But his conduct was disappointing, and he was foolish and disingenuous in trying to use his embarrassment about his private life as an excuse.

He did not pretend that he was ignorant of the rules, which changed in 2006 to prohibit payments to partners, but seemed to have taken it upon himself to define "partner". The House of Commons Green Book defines it as "one of a couple... who although not married to each other or civil partners are living together and treat each other as spouses". Mr Laws's defence was that, "although we were living together, we did not treat each other as spouses - for example we do not share bank accounts and indeed have separate social lives". He must have known, even as he wrote those words, that he was demeaning himself and insulting us, the general public.

He should not have claimed for the rent he paid to James Lundie, as he admits by promising to repay the money. This is nothing to do with his being a rich man, having made his fortune as a banker by the age of 28, but to do with abiding by the rules designed to ensure propriety in the use of public money.

Indeed, Mr Laws's is a remarkable morality tale, an example of how untruths in one's private life have consequences in the public sphere. This newspaper is as fierce as any in defending the right of public figures to privacy. We are fiercer than many in defending the right of gay people to choose to be open or not about their sexuality, although we do notice that few who come out as gay say that they regret their decision. But Mr Laws made a mistake to think that his desire for personal secrecy justified bending the rules.

It is a paradox, not a defence, that, had he been honest about his personal life, he could have legitimately claimed more from the public purse, as Mr Lundie's housing costs would have been claimable as his property would have been the couple's second home.

More surprising, perhaps, was that Mr Laws thought he would get away with something that must have made him feel queasy. He must have known that when he joined the Cabinet his expenses claims would come under greater scrutiny. Even at that late stage he could have pre-empted The Daily Telegraph and saved his job by coming clean and paying the money back.

All the same, The Independent on Sunday believes that his resignation is a heavy price to pay. His apology and repayment should be sufficient. But perhaps the most damaging effect of the disclosure has been on Mr Laws's reputation. First, it calls into question his judgement. But more importantly, perhaps, it diminishes his authority as the custodian of public funds. He, of all people, cannot argue that the rules on MPs' expenses are wrong or unfair because they pry into people's private lives. They do so no more than the rules for social security benefits, and the important point is that the Chief Secretary, of all people, has to enforce the rules intended to prevent the misuse of taxpayers' money.

That said, however, there is no doubt that Mr Laws was well qualified for the job. Nothing in the past 24 hours has suggested that he would do anything but build on his good start, binding the coalition government together, being deputed by George Osborne to take the lead on setting out the details of spending cuts.

Yet Mr Laws's feeling that his private life overwhelmed his public duties seems to have prevailed. In a way, it is impossible to argue that he should have carried on if he felt strongly that he was not in a position to do so.

But his departure, though dignified, adds further to a climate in which people may feel that politics is incompatible with a private life. That would be an unfortunate lesson to draw from Mr Laws's 18 days of fame, in which his career burned so bright but so briefly.