Cameron’s obstinate defence of Maria Miller against the large majority of his own party and the public who want to be rid of her for her greed, arrogance and sheer callous disregard for decent standards in public life needs some explaining. Maybe he doesn’t want to be pushed, he wants to put in the knife himself in his own time in the reshuffle after the European elections. Maybe he doesn’t want to be pushed around by the media or his own party (again), and prefers to tough it out. But he’s shedding political goodwill by the gallon over this shoddy episode. Sooner or later he’ll call it a day. The rule for Prime Ministers is, if the media keep up a barrage for 5 days or more and if the political hostility in Westminster is still growing, he’ll staunch his losses and cut her loose.
But it’s not just this tawdry saga itself, it’s the way that judgement on it within Westminster has been manipulated. The Commons Committee on Standards has 10 MPs on it plus 3 lay members (none of whom have a vote), and the MPs split 5 Tory, 4 Labour and 1 LibDem. Why did they deal so excessively leniently with Miller, reducing by nine-tenths the payback required by their own independent standards commissioner? And why was the tone of their admonition of Miller so mild when that can be politically weighted and can carry great influence – their vigorous condemnation of Denis McShane MP for over-claiming £12,000 led to his resignation from the House (and possible imprisonment) while their exoneration of David Laws MP on a pretext for wrongly claiming £40,000 allowed him to stay in Parliament and now return to ministerial office.
It is clear that the handling of MPs’ misdemeanours should be taken out of the hands of MPs themselves and given to a wholly independent body. But the same applies to other occupations within the power structure. The string of police abuses in recent years surrounding the Stephen Lawrence murder, Hillsborough, phone-hacking, under-cover activity against environmental campaigners, some very suspicious deaths in custody, etc., have finally been aired (often after years of concealment), but the police officers concerned are almost never held to account by a prison sentence. Similarly editors and reporters in the media who regularly breach the PCC code “not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information” are almost never brought to book and lose their job for the substantial damage they inflict. And of course bankers are a law unto themselves, stealing vast quantities of money through fraud (euphemistically called fraud) or rate-rigging or money-laundering or fixing up artificial and elaborate tax avoidance/evasion schemes, and though the financial regulators have been (belatedly) handing down enormous fines on banks as institutions, those executives or traders responsible for these crimes are rarely if ever prosecuted and imprisoned.
Britain needs a root and branch restructuring of its dilapidated (or non-existent) system of accountability across the whole range of the exercise of power.