Until yesterday, David Laws was barely known outside Westminster. But the revelation that he claimed £40,000 over eight years to rent a room from his gay lover soon put paid to that.
David Laws is hardly the only gay in the Westminster Village. But he is perhaps the only one who thought his relationship could escape the glare of media scrutiny.
This rather quaint belief might have been reasonable had he not been thrust into the public limelight as a Cabinet Minister. After all, a backbench Lib Dem MP in a gay relationship is almost considered par for the course.
But through his stellar performance as Chief Secretary to the Treasury during the first three weeks of the coalition, Laws made himself a target.
David Laws announcing his resignation at the Treasury this evening after it was revealed he had claimed expenses for rent paid to his gay lover
Firstly, he made public the private note left on his desk by his predecessor, Liam Byrne, which said: ‘I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left.’
And secondly, he pulled out of Question Time last week after Labour refused to withdraw Alastair Campbell as its spokesman on the programme.
This accusation may be way off beam, but it wouldn’t at all surprise me if somebody’s tricks department had tipped off The Daily Telegraph about the nature of his relationship with James Lundie and it was that which provoked them to trawl through their expenses files again.
It is a sad fact that without the ‘gay’ element, this story would not be so big. It just shows that if you go into politics nowadays and you are not open about your private life, it may come back to haunt you in a big way.
It’s healthy to be open and completely transparent, and I am sure that now David Laws has taken that massive step to ‘out’ himself, he will wonder why he didn’t do it years ago.
But we need to understand why he didn’t before we rush to judge him. Intensely private people – and yes, some politicians are just that – recoil from talking about their sexual proclivities.
David Laws pulled out of Question Time last week when Labour refused to withdraw Alastair Campbell as its spokesperson on the programme
There are some things you just don’t do. We’re not Americans. We don’t like baring our souls. And, most of all, we don’t like hurting our families. I know. I have been there.
I have wanted to be an MP all my adult life. But the thing that stopped me going for it was my own homosexuality. I grew up in a small village, among a community with very conservative views.
Despite attending a Left-wing university in the early Eighties, I did nothing to act on my ‘inner gay’. I went through most of my 20s not acknowledging my own sexuality to anyone but myself, let alone my own family.
In the mid-Nineties I started a relationship with my now civil partner, John. He would often visit my parents’ home and they all got on like a house on fire.
To my family he was my ‘friend’. Nothing more. But when I reached the age of 40 and decided I wanted a political career,
I knew I would have to be open. I certainly didn’t want anyone to ‘have’ anything on me.
Everyone told me that my parents would already know. But they didn’t. It proved to be one of the most difficult conversations of my life. I then told several long-standing friends, all of whom I felt I had let down by not having said anything before.
No one who hasn’t been through that experience can comprehend the trauma I went through. The same trauma David Laws is going through this weekend.
So I understand his wish to remain private and not have to tell his family. But in this age of transparency, openness, blogs and Twitter, it is simply not possible to maintain that veil of secrecy over such an intensely personal part of your life.
It’s all very well for people to assert that times have changed and there is a greater acceptance of different lifestyles in society.
Of course that is true, but it doesn’t make it any easier for family members with devout religious beliefs to accept a lifestyle they have been taught is both wrong and will result in eternal damnation.
And that’s the same whether you’re a gay politician, gay welder or a gay chairman of a FTSE 500 company. Just saying that ‘times have changed’ is overly simplistic and ignores personal realities.
By all accounts, David Laws was a broken man yesterday. I suspect he wanted to resign there and then. I believe David Cameron was right to try to dissuade him. After all, what exactly is he accused of? Claiming up to £950 a month for renting a room in a flat in Kennington. I’d say that was very good value for the taxpayer. I tried to do the same thing last year and couldn’t find anything for less than £1,200.
What his critics are saying is that in 2006 he should have moved out of the flat he shared with his partner when the parliamentary rules changed to ban financial relationships between spouses or civil partners.
Laws and Lundie weren’t and aren’t spouses or civil partners, so why should Laws have moved out? If he had, it would have cost the taxpayer more money.
If Laws had been seeking to maximise his expenses, he would have surely made his constituency home in Somerset his second home and claimed mortgage interest on that, or he would have bought a flat in London himself.
David Laws has said that he and James Lundie do not consider themselves partners in the conventional sense. They do not share bank accounts and have different social circles.
They clearly don’t entertain together or go out in public together. What legally constitutes a ‘partnership’ is an area fraught with legal difficulties.
For instance – and I hesitate to even venture here – it is perfectly possible that despite what John Humphrys asserted on the Today programme yesterday, they do not even share a bed. Some people don’t. Would that mean that under the law they are not ‘partners’?
I don’t envy the Standards Commissioner in some of the questions he is going to have to ask.
But even if David Laws has transgressed the rules in a minor way, are we really saying that one of the most talented members of the Cabinet should have been sacrificed?
Are we really insisting that if all our politicians aren’t whiter than white, they should quit? It’s a very strange logic. If that rule had applied in the 20th Century we would certainly have been deprived of the services of both Lloyd George and Churchill.
We must beware of moving to a situation where only single, white, rich, straight, blameless males can go into politics, because believe me, that’s where we’re heading.
Yesterday morning, I thought the tremendous goodwill in the country towards the coalition could have saved David Laws’s career. His resignation last night meant I was not correct.
When I was presenting LBC’s Breakfast Show I detected no appetite for a ‘scalp’ from the listeners, and even my blog readers – a fairly judgmental bunch – seem to be split 50-50 on whether he should resign.
In the end, the whole sorry farrago comes down to this: Did David Laws defraud the taxpayer or did he intend to? The answer to both questions is no. But in the end, for his personal reasons, he could not tough it out and decided to quit.