Maria Miller: Resigning is ‘the right thing to do’

Yet again, the Conservative Party has reminded us that it is quite capable of losing the next election. The Maria Miller episode is entirely consistent with a party that is so gauche, so addicted to self-harm that it can make Ed Miliband seem positively presidential by comparison. It’s right that she resigned, but had she and her superiors thought more about all this beforehand the calamity of the last week could have been avoided and the party could have emerged from this with credit. David Cameron should have dropped her, or mounted a proper operation to defend her. He did neither –  hence the mess that stands before us now.

The was supposed to be the week where government would have a single theme, highlighting its striking success with welfare reform. Instead, the theme has been one of Tory chaos as MPs publicly debated whether or not the Culture Secretary should walk the plank.

The blame starts with the Prime Minister. He should need no telling about expenses scandals. Not so long ago, he dealt quickly and forcefully with Tory MPs who had been exposed by the Daily Telegraph’s investigation – in stark contrast with the prevaricating Gordon Brown. Now it seems it was Mr Cameron’s turn to misread this as being chiefly a battle with the press, rather than as a simple matter of probity. He raised no questions about her behaviour, not did he insist on a semi-decent apology. His “move along, nothing to see here” response did her no favours.

The idea of a press ‘witch hunt’ for Ms Miller, to avenge her role in the politicians’ charter for press regulation, is hogwash. When her Parliamentary Private Secretary publicly suggested this, with a text message on the front page of today’s Guardian, it was another sign of things falling apart. Few would flatter Ms Millar to believe that she was a decisive actor in the Leveson drama. Or the gay marriage legislation. The link between her expenses and Leveson was first made by her own special adviser, when trying to warn the Telegraph off a fresh investigation.

The explanation for the public outrage always was far simpler. Ms Miller is guilty of breaching the parliamentary code of conduct and had been ordered to repay wrongly claimed money.

Having chosen to fight, No10 seem to have had no plan for winning. Normally, the drill is to line up Ministers and MPs who can go out to defend the embattled minister. No such arrangements were made. I’ve spoken to MPs who have been stunned at the sheer disorder in No10, the utter absence of a basic political operation – or the ability to even guess how all this would play out. The Cabinet has been noticeable by its silence – aware of just how toxic it is to be seen defending someone seen to have been on the hey-diddle-diddle.

Esther McVey, the welfare minister, was allowed to go on to ITV’s The Agenda and admit that she would not have fiddled her expenses – stoking the row further. Perhaps she was being mischievous. But it’s more likely that she alerted No10 about her position before going to the programme, and was not discouraged. Yet again, an abject failure of party management has been exposed.

And then there was Ms Millar’s 32-second apology – perhaps, the most aggravating factor of this whole farce. Uttered in the Commons without a hint of contrition, she could not have done more to stoke the controversy if she tried. In her graceless statement, she failed to even express regret for the flawed nature of the pre-2010 expenses system or to explain that the Commissioner had agreed to the reduction in the amount she was expected to repay. The Prime Minister ought, at the very least, to have insisted upon contrition.

The explanation given by her aides afterwards was that she kept it short so as to ‘keep it together’ – that is, to avoid crying. Playing this card has infuriated Tory women, and understandably. It is hard to imagine hard-headed members of the government like Theresa May, Nicky Morgan or Margot James breaking into tears.

She is right to have quit now, and stop infliction further damage on her party – with just a month to go until the European elections and a year to the general election. But had anyone in No10 thought this through properly, she could have been seen to have resign with dignity and honour – rather than the fracas of the last few days.

George Osborne’s budget had put the wind back into the sails of the Conservative Party. Now, the ship seems to have steered itself back into the winds and one of the crew has just jumped overboard. Lucky old Miliband.

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