The pot plant anecdote was broken by ConHome on Friday, and served only to augment his hero status. In this way, Laws was helping to glue together the coalition: Tory MPs uncertain about the whole thing were delighted to have him as an articulate and committed Chief Secretary to the Treasury. With just four weeks to go until the emergency budget, it seemed Osborne had the very best person in place implementing cuts. As the most powerful LibDem for decades, Laws was set to make history.
Now, he has: as the shortest-lived Cabinet member in modern British politics. It’s tragic. I can’t understand those who say Laws should have ‘come out’ – it was his
right, his private life, his concern. Sure, it wasn’t the great secret he seems to think: his sexuality was an open secret in Westminster. Everyone knew. No one cared. But when there’s £40,000 of taxpayers’ money involved, it becomes everyone’s business. Since 2005 the Commons has banned MPs from renting rooms from partners. Laws was a fool to think this rule was open to interpretation. He was on very thin ground when he said he did not regard Jamie Lundie as a “partner” because they had separate bank accounts and they kept their relationship secret. This sounded horribly link a Clintonesque denial (“I did not have partner relations with that man, Mr Lundie”) It was obvious the Commissioner would find against him: it was a straightforward violation of the rules.
Laws had simply fallen in love with his landlord, started a relationship – but in his desire to keep it secret, he did not stop claiming rent as he should have. He’s a millionaire, he can (and has) written a £40,000 cheque in a second. Neither he nor Jamie Lundie needed the cash. But for various reasons, Laws didn’t fancy telling the Commons clerks that he no longer wishes to charge for a property in London – thinking this would bring attention to his relationship. This was his error. I know many MPs who are staying for free in friends rooms right now, to save the taxpayer money. Like many man in love, Laws wasn’t thinking straight. This tiny miscalculation – not in the same league as the moat dredging or mortgage scams - has cost him his job. Few people care nowadays if an MP is gay. But fiddling expenses? This is beyond the pale.
We’re hardly so overflowing with political talent in Britain that we can afford to lose someone as able as Laws. Osborne was not exaggerating much when he said, “it was as if he had been put on earth to do the job that was asked of him”. It is difficult of him saying this of 38-year-old Danny Alexander, of whom more later. Cameron and Clegg could probably have kept Laws, by saying how the nation badly needs his talent. I suspect they tried to do all they could.
And how will he be missed? I picked up a story last week, that gives an example. I’m told that Treasury officials informed Laws that there was a soft option. Tax revenue is churning in faster than expected, the deficit could well drop to £100bn by 2012-13 without any extra fiscal tightening – so he could, if he wanted, go a bit easier. Nonsense, replied Laws, full steam ahead. And if the deficit falls faster than expected, so be it. It takes courage to make these decisions. Courage which we can’t expect Alexander to show, plunged into the deep end with four weeks to produce a Budget with zero expertise in economics or numbers. I feel for him. Nowhere in the real world would someone with no experience be asked to carry out a job as crucial as drafting the Emergency Budget.
Just why Alexander was chosen over Chris Huhne, who used to run firm of economic consultants, of Vince Cable, the former chief economist at Shell, is another story. It’s a shame this coalition is so structured that it had to be a LibDem. Philip Hammond has spent two years preparing for this job and would be ideally suited.
This whole story is a tragedy. No one, in any party, can doubt that an honourable and able man has gone. Those who had wanted fast fiscal consolidation have lost a trusted advocate. The government will be all the weaker for it.