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David Cameron’s fledging coalition has come to its first major hurdle after only a few weeks in office. The old beast of MPs expenses has reared its head once again, reminding us that the heralded era of “new politics” still has firm links with the old.
The resignation of Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws came after it emerged he was claiming rent for rooms in homes owned by his partner. According to the Daily Telegraph, the amount claimed was £40,000. So, what does this mean for the promised age of change sounded by David Cameron and Nick Clegg after the sealing of their historic deal?
In terms of policy, the hammer blow could not have fallen in a more vital era. David Laws held the vital responsibility for spending cuts, the pledged mantra the coalition has pledged to use to reduce most of the record deficit the United Kingdom holds. Laws had been praised by many for the frankness in the setting out of initial cuts. There is no doubt that the latest in the series of damaging expenses revelations has tarnished the public perception of a man who needed to be perceived as trustworthy.
However, any fall out will have greater implications beyond the new government’s top policy priority. This represents the first test of the dynamic between the two governing parties and the working relationship of their leaders.
During the delicate power-sharing negotiations, David Laws emerged as a key figure among the Liberal Democrat team. A former City highflyer, he was seen by many as a representation of how a marriage between the centre-left and centre-right parties could function. This importance was reflected in his appointment as the second top official in the Treasury and equal presence alongside Chancellor George Osbourne in setting out the first in a long line of austerity measures to come. Consequentially, he held a pivotal role in the coalition and was one of the precious points of contact needed for a long and happy political partnership.
However, his decision to stand down reflects the need to prove another relationship, that between government and citizen. With their lofty promises of change, Cameron and Clegg are now under pressure to prove they can deliver. Part of this new era is demonstrating transparency and firmness in the handling of their MPs and ministers.
Yet we must resist the urge to level that abhorrent charge at politicians that “they are all the same.” In the case of MPs, the media (in particular the Daily Telegraph) has created a public furore over a few well-known cases of duck islands and moats. Already, new Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has had aspects of his own finances racked over. Ultimately, this issue boils down to the question; do public servants have to live public lives?
Whilst there can be no doubt that David Laws did abuse the rules, and therefore must face the appropriate consequences, his motives must be carefully examined.
“My motivation throughout has not been to maximise profit but to simply protect our privacy and my wish not to reveal my sexuality.”
In this case, far from being a sleaze ridden case from the Major years, is he simply be a private man wishing to keep an area of his life undisclosed?
Reading through the media reports, his sexuality is inevitably mentioned. This particular disclosure should not obscure the truly significant issue, which is the fight for the restoration of public trust. In his resignation, David Laws has done enough to justify that struggle.
We live in delicate times and media sensationalism, over issues like expenses, risks depriving this country of those we elected to lead us through it.