I am among those who has been very impressed by David Laws’ performance in his brief ministerial career. And I have read carefully the Lib Dems blogs – which seem universally to be defending him, like this.
The difficulty is that the Commons rules stated quite unequivocally that an MP could not claim to rent a room in a home owned by their partner. In 2006 a specific amendment was made to make that crystal clear. Laws does not deny he broke the rules, and is paying the money back.
The point made by Lib Dems throughout the blogosphere is that, if Laws and his partner had owned the homes jointly, he could have claimed the mortgage payments. That is of course true. But Laws did not do that, and the rules are explicit that the alternative of paying rent to your partner is not allowed.
Laws’ explanation for his behaviour is that he did not wish to come out as gay. That is his right. Had he therefore not made any second home expenses claims, he would have forfeited £40,000 and deserved great sympathy for the sacrifice made to his domestic privacy. Nobody would have launched an investigation into why the very wealthy David Laws did not make a second home claim.
To “protect your privacy” by making taxpayer funded rent payments to your partner against the rules, was always going to be counter-productive. It also involved what I presume (and I do not know) is a further little lie to the Commons that he was renting a bedroom in his partner’s house, when it is surely more likely that they share one.
It is, to say the least, extremely unfortunate that this revelation about David Laws should come out at this moment – and the Telegraph’s timing opens a whole raft of other questions. And what Laws has done is less bad, for example, than Michael Gove’s second home flipping. But there is no point to the Liberal Democrats if we do not aspire to higher standards than Labour and the Conservatives, and it is deeply disappointing to see the LibDem blogs’ tribal rally around Laws.
Laws has just announced a public sector pay freeze. He is the man who would have to announce cuts next year that will inflict very real pain upon public sector workers, benefit recipients and public service users. Having a millionaire to do that is already difficult. Having a millionaire, who broke the rules on expenses claims and trousered £40,000 he had to pay back, to do that is simply untenable.
Laws should do the decent thing now.