“HOW do you solve a problem like Maria?” the Labour veteran Dennis Skinner quipped in the House of Commons last week, as pressure mounted on the Culture Secretary over her expenses claims.
The answer, we can now say with some assurance, is not like this.
Even for a Downing Street operation whose cack-handed approach to dealing with the Press is legendary within Westminster, the Maria Miller affair has been an abject lesson in how not to handle a crisis.
Mrs Miller, clearly, must take much of the blame – something she has been patently unwilling to do throughout this sorry saga until finally falling on her sword late on Tuesday night.
First, she made some very serious mistakes in her expenses claims, failing to adjust for fluctuating interest rates when reclaiming mortgage payments on her second home.
Initially, it was suggested she may have profited by more than £30,000. In the end, she was ordered by her fellow MPs to repay £5,000.
And there were other aspects of her behaviour which, although within the rules of the time, certainly do not look good in the cold light of day – the parents living in the taxpayer-funded home; the huge profits she enjoyed when her house was sold.
But other MPs had to repay money. Other MPs have profited from their second homes. What did for Mrs Miller, ultimately, was her attitude towards the investigation into her affairs.
The moment the inquiry was launched, she should have realised the seriousness of the situation and acted accordingly. Instead, the inquiry was met with obfuscation.
Furthermore, the apology she was ordered to make in the House of Commons was breathtakingly arrogant – 29 seconds long, bereft of sincerity.
And this was not coming from just any backbench MP. This was a Secretary of State treating Parliament with blatant contempt.
Even as late as Tuesday, with the brickbats continuing to fly and the pressure mounting for her to resign, Mrs Miller’s second apology – to her constituents in Basingstoke, via a statement to the local paper – still smacked of a refusal to accept she had actually done much wrong. But for all the Culture Secretary’s failings, the Prime Minister’s judgement, too, is surely in question.
Last Friday he assured us the matter was over. The apology – however brief – had been made. The money – albeit a fraction of the initial amount – had been repaid. “I think we should leave it there,” Mr Cameron said.
From that moment, Downing Street has been on the back foot, allowing Labour to accuse the PM of a failure to act. It got worse for Mr Cameron yesterday with his decision to hand Mrs Miller’s job to Sajid Javid, a close ally of George Osborne, rather than promote another woman in her place.
The PM now has just three female Cabinet Ministers, out of a possible 22. It is not a good look for a man – and indeed a party – perceived by voters to have a “women problem”.
He made matters worse with his decision to hand Mrs Miller’s other brief – Minister for Women and Equalities – to Nicky Morgan, an up-and-coming Treasury Minister. Ms Morgan is strongly opposed to gay marriage. The equalities brief was quickly handed back to Mr Javid. It was a mess.
To be fair to Mr Cameron, he believes passionately in standing by his Ministers when they’re under fire. Witness his handling of Mrs Miller’s predecessor as Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, whose career looked dead and buried two summers ago when his office’s close links with News International were revealed at the Leveson Inquiry. Few expected the “Minister for Murdoch” to last until the end of the week.
But Mr Cameron dug in his heels, and a few months later was merrily promoting Mr Hunt to run the Department of Health.
Nonetheless, he refused to deny that one of his aides had a quiet word in Mrs Miller’s ear on Tuesday that perhaps, now, it was time to go.
What Mr Cameron may finally have recognised is just how deep the public anger over the MPs’ expenses scandal still runs. Cynicism about politics, and indeed politicians in general, slumps to a new low.
And for this reason it is not Ed Miliband who will be the big winner from the Maria Miller affair. After all, the expenses scandal was probably more damaging for Labour than any other party.
No, it is Nigel Farage who was rubbing his hands with glee.
Ukip, having successfully positioned itself as the “anti-politics” party, picks up more support each time our MPs disgrace themselves.
For that reason, perhaps more than any other, Mr Cameron must be praying that the loss of the fourth Cabinet Minister of his Government will be the last.