Her adviser should probably not have issued a reminder to the paper, but Miller may feel it is she who is being picked on
Should Maria Miller’s special adviser have reminded – “flagged up” was the verb of choice – the Daily Telegraph that the boss is currently involved in discussions over the new post-Leveson regime for press regulation when the paper started sniffing around her expenses claims over her London home, the one where her parents also live?
Probably not in the current inflamed climate, I’d say.
Should the Telegraph have made an issue of its hurt feelings in today’s edition? Probably not. These things happen. Politicians and their bagmen and women try to bribe (with information) or bully newspapers, the press does the same – as everyone who listened to much of the evidence presented to Lord Justice Leveson in court 73 knows.
Pressure, improper or otherwise, occurs in many walks of life, including convents (“If you persist with your spiritual doubts, Sister Theresa, I would not be surprised if a plank goes missing from your wooden bed”), I don’t doubt. The healthy reaction is best summed up in Private Eye’s immortal response to a legal complaint from a Mr Arkell in 1971. You can read a pithy summary of Arkell vs Pressdram here, though Sister Theresa should not because it’s rude.
What seems to have happened is that the Telegraph was tipped off (by a “reliable source”) over Miller’s domestic arrangements, whereby she claims expenses on her “second home” in London – where her family and parents (“dependants”) all live, while declaring her constituency rental in Basingstoke as her primary residence. After the case was checked and reported, John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, who sees himself as a one-man sheriff’s office, duly asked for an investigation by Sir John Lyons, parliamentary commissioner for standards.
Mann seems to have an unattractive sense of his own virtue, which must be a burden to him. But he’s not the only MP – or wannabe – who does this sort of thing to other MPs. Around £90,000 since 2005 is at issue – so it’s not chicken feed. The Millers – her husband is a City lawyer – bought the house in Wimbledon, south London in 1996 and shortly after her parents – the Lewises – sold up in Wales and moved in. There are three children.
That sounds like a wholesome case of three-generational mutual support and dependence, just the sort of humane and efficient use of property in an age of shortage that housing ministers are trying to encourage. The complication is using taxpayer funds to sustain the arrangement.
Miller says she is compliant with the rules, both before and after the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, and her arrangements have been approved as such. But her critics point to the case of Tony McNulty, then a Labour MP, criticised for housing his parents in such a property. So it looks as if she might be in a spot of bother, despite getting the OK. The goalposts keep being moved.
There again, a couple of points are worth making. We don’t know all the details which may come out, though, as I recall, McNulty’s extenuating circumstances never did. Politicians are fair game these days. Many voters would prefer to believe a burglar than an MP.
But what of the politics? Miller is at the centre of a double row which put her at odds with the Telegraph’s editorial positions. There are minor details to the row which need not detain us here. Did the paper’s reporters harass her elderly father or fail to identify themselves to her special adviser (whom I do not know), Jo Hindley? Did Hindley tell the reporter to check with people higher up the Telegraph food chain? And so on.
But Miller’s stance on same-sex marriage and Leveson could put her at odds with the Telegraph and much of Fleet Street. So she and her spad may have felt they were being picked on: that the timing of the expenses row was designed (it’s denied) to damage her and distract from the case she seeks to make to Telegraph readers. Hence the testy exchanges.
I don’t know. What I do know is that the Telegraph’s technical handling of the bootlegged CD containing details of MPs expenses was thorough and brilliant – the team did a good job. The politics of the story were more suspect, because it was presented in ways that damaged Labour – Gordon Brown in particular, though he later got a correction – and also the Lib Dems, even the hair-shirted Vince Cable. The Cameroons got an easier run.
That’s politics and MPs shouldn’t grumble too much, though the paper exaggerated the scale of the dishonesty in my view and provided no mitigating context, namely that an ambiguous “allowances” regime to ease pay policy problems dated back to the Thatcher era. The public’s confidence in politics was unfairly undermined. It was bad enough without the exaggeration.
Yet we see similar exaggeration over Leveson law. Even Cameron admitted this week that statutory underpinning for the new regulator would “not be the end of the world”. He’s right.
Since the expenses scandal a costly new system of dubious efficiency has been installed, run by Ipsa and independent of MPs. Ipsa is not above leaking against elected politicians for reasons of its own, timing its leaks for tactical advantage. It is still all a bit of a mess.
Until I read more detail of what Lyons unearths – and perhaps even beyond then – I am inclined to give Miller the benefit of the doubt.