The story of how David Laws, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, came to step down from his post at the weekend after just a couple of weeks in the job, is a curious one, to say the least.
Ostensibly, his departure was a straightforward “expenses scandal” tale. The Daily Telegraph revealed on Saturday that Laws had claimed £40,000 in Parliamentary expenses which had been used to pay rent for rooms in properties owned by his long-term, but secret, partner. The cabinet minister for cuts had used the expenses to hide the fact that he was gay.
By the end of the evening, the outed Laws – who immediately sent his own case for investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards – had quit the Lib-Con coalition government, which was severely weakened as a result. Laws was an architect of the coalition agreement and the man put in charge of cutting the massive budget deficit.
He was replaced by Danny Alexander, a much younger and inexperienced politician. Lo and behold, he was next in the firing line. Today’s Telegraph accused Alexander of avoiding tax on the sale of a second home, something the Lib-Dem MP hotly disputed.
One of the questions in this murky affair is why did the Telegraph choose to publish their investigation at this particular time? And where did they get the information from? We ask, not because we hold any brief for the reactionary coalition government, but simply to check if something more serious than a scandal is involved.
The Telegraph, for example, is deeply ambivalent about the coalition. This leading Tory newspaper has columnists like Simon Heffer and Lord Tebbit who would like to see Cameron’s government collapse. They despise Cameron who they see as “not one of us” and who, the paper believes, used the election stalemate to form a coalition that would distance itself from “traditional Tory values”.
Last week, the Telegaph launched a campaign to defeat the coalition’s plans to raise the rate of capital gains tax and widen its scope. Some Tory backbenchers have also threatened to block the coalition’s plans for a referendum on the voting system and other policies they don’t like. They also reversed Cameron’s plans for a takeover of their backbench committee.
So the obvious question is: is there a systematic campaign by the Tory right-wing to destabilise the government. Who fed the Telegraph the closely-guarded information about Laws? Undoubtedly the paper has friends in high (and low) places, such as MI5 who presumably vetted Laws before he joined the cabinet. The paper has already said that its original investigation into Parliamentary expenses did not reveal what Laws had done. I am sure no one is readily going to provide the answers to these questions, but they are worth asking.
A major post-election political crisis was kept in the box only by Cameron and Clegg deciding to ditch their own programmes and party rank-and-files to form Britain’s first peacetime, full-scale coalition. The fact that the British state is near bankrupt, as one Tory cabinet member admitted over the weekend, will not stop its enemies from plotting against it..
These are uncharted, dangerous political times for the British state. There are signs that it is at war with itself, as well as ordinary people whose jobs and living standards are now in the coalition’s sights. Don’t be surprised if the Laws affair is only the first of many such stories.