The gruesome finale to Maria Miller’s seven-day struggle to hang on to her cabinet post as Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport was a text book example of the high-wire political news management that blighted the Blair years.
Her resignation within a few hours of the start of Prime Minister’s questions mirrored that of Peter Mandelson’s second on-off resignation from Tony Blair’s government in January 2001.
He finally stood down from his position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland less than an hour before the start of questions in the House of Commons, allowing Blair the chance to wipe the slate clean when he was challenged at the despatch box.
Mrs Miller was only too well aware that David Cameron would have had to face a near impossible task trying once again to fend off criticism of her own inept handling of the investigation into her claims for parliamentary expenses.
Her resignation was announced at 7.18am on Wednesday 9 April; she had given Cameron the benefit of almost five hours in which to prepare himself before he had to face the Labour leader Ed Miliband.
The weekly session of Prime Minister’s questions is a critical moment in political news management at Westminster. If Cameron had stood loyally by Mrs Miller yet again, only for her to quit a few days later, the story line could have become even more toxic for the Conservative Party because the Prime Minister’s judgement would then have become the over-riding issue.
Sometimes self sacrifice is the only option for a minister, MP or political appointee who is being accused of bringing the party into disrepute. By blithely hanging and by refusing to accept the inevitable, the “victim” of a media witch hunt only makes matters worse for all concerned.
Mrs Miller’s only consolation was that the 7.18am release of her resignation letter deprived daily newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and The Times of the chance to claim her scalp in front-page headlines on what had become the seventh day of their relentless investigation into the complaint that she had overcharged the taxpayer by thousands of pounds in allowances for help with mortgage payments on her second home.
In the end her hand was forced by a rising tide of anger among Conservative MPs elected in 2010 who felt their position was being tarnished by a legacy case from the 2009 expenses scandal which should and could have been resolved immediately rather than dragged out for over a year.
As with David Cameron’s agonising over Mrs Miller’s fate, the timing of Mandelson’s exit was all-important. Tony Blair was desperate to draw a line under what had become known as the highly-embarrassing “Hinduja passports-for-cash affair” and the allegation that Mandelson had given a misleading answer.
In the judgement of Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, Mandelson’s resignation was the only way to put a stop to an endless run of damaging headlines and to avoid further collateral harm to the Prime Minister’s reputation.
Mandelson took it to the wire; he waited until after the lunchtime news bulletins were off the air which left less than an hour before the start of questions at 2.30pm which were first to his own department and then to Blair himself.
Tuesday became the preferred day for saying “sorry” and then resigning, thus giving the Blair a full twenty-fours in which to clear the decks.
Jo Moore, the beleaguered press secretary to Stephen Byers, who took the blame for coining the phrase “burying bad news”, resigned on a Tuesday in October 2002. Cherie Blair made her apology on a Tuesday in December 2002 for her role in the confusion over the family’s purchase of a flat in Bristol; her televised statement was an emotional show of contrition which included the memorable line, “I am not a superwoman.”
In some ways Maria Miller had become the victim of a continuing tug of war that dated back to the start of the 2009 expenses scandal when Speaker Michael Martin stood down after it emerged MPs had made a desperate, last-ditch attempt to keep their financial affairs secret by thwarting scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act.
By deciding five years later to flex their muscles once again and by appearing to overturn the recommendations of the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards Kathryn Hudson, the MPs who make up the House of Commons Committee on Standards re-opened a gaping wound and left the Culture Secretary swinging in the Westminster wind.
Thankfully MPs have now lost the power to interfere in IPSA’s application of their expenses system but the writ of the standards commissioner lacks the same authority.
As long as a shadowy committee of MPs can continue to pick and choose which judgements to accept they will perpetuate the public’s perception that when it comes to alleged abuses of their pay and allowances they remain judge and jury.
Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, in effect acknowledged there had been a misjudgement on Cameron’s part in standing by Mrs Miller in the teeth of public disgust and the re-opening of the expenses scandal and the failure of the MPs to relinquish the right to second guess the commissioner.
Gove faced up to the need for further reform: “The political class as a whole need to reflect on the events of the last few days. It reinforces in my mind the fact that the public still feel a degree of anger about the expenses scandal.
“This is a judgement on the political class overall and Westminster overall. It is a warning to us to take these issues incredibly seriously and to recognise that there is a question of public trust in the political process and the capacity of politicians to police themselves which requires to be addressed.”
Illustrations: London Evening Standard 9.4.2014; I 10.4.2014: Daily Mirror 10.4.2014; Sun 11.12.2002; I 8.4.2014.