LONDON, United Kingdom – British culture minister Maria Miller, an ally of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, was forced to quit her post on Wednesday following a row over her parliamentary expenses.
Miller, who oversaw the legalization of gay marriage and new plans to regulate the press, said she feared she had become a “distraction” for voters ahead of European and local elections next month.
She had come under intense pressure after overclaiming for a mortgage on her London home, re-opening the toxic issue of expenses that caused a major scandal in 2009, after which seven lawmakers were jailed.
Cameron had strongly backed his minister as she was condemned by newspapers and the opposition Labour party, but when her fellow Tories joined in, it all proved too much.
In his weekly question-and-answer session in the House of Commons, Labour leader Ed Miliband accused Cameron of a “terrible error of judgment” in supporting Miller over the past week.
The prime minister retorted that while she had been censured by the Commons standards committee, it had cleared her of the more serious charge that she had funded a home for her parents at taxpayers’ expense.
“I thought it was right, in those circumstances, to allow her to make her apology and continue with her job,” he said.
Miller’s resignation eases the pressure on Cameron, and at a meeting of senior Tory lawmakers on Wednesday evening the mood was reportedly of relief that the issue was resolved.
However, a new ComRes survey found 63% thought the premier had handled the issue badly, while 49% said the affair had made them trust politicians less.
Miller oversaw the ongoing negotiations on creating a new system of press regulation, following a damning public inquiry sparked by the phone-hacking row.
Asked if she believed she was victim of a media witch-hunt, Miller said in a television interview: “I fully accept the findings of the parliamentary report. This is about that.”
Expenses issue ‘very raw’
She also steered through gay marriage, a policy strongly opposed by many members of the Conservative party, and some of her allies have suggested this made her a target.
But the issue of expenses remains political dynamite, as Cameron acknowledged.
“There is still very deep public concern that is very raw about the expenses scandal. The biggest lesson I learned (is) that that anger is still very raw and it needs to be acted on,” the prime minister said.
The row over Miller’s expenses related to mortgage payments she claimed before a new, tighter system was introduced in the wake of the 2009 scandal.
There are now calls for further reform, after her case revealed how lawmakers are still able to judge for themselves whether MPs have broken the rules.
The independent parliamentary commissioner for standards found Miller should pay back £45,000 ($75,400, 54,600 euros) in overclaimed accommodation allowances, but that was cut to £5,800 by a committee of lawmakers.
In a sign of the public anger over the issue, more than 185,000 people had signed an online petition calling for Miller to pay back the larger sum or resign.
On Tuesday, she told her local newspaper she was “devastated” by the furore and that she had “let down” her constituents, but stopped short of resigning at that point.
Yet the number of openly critical Tory MPs grew, and a poll published on Tuesday found two-thirds of Conservative Party members thought she should stand down.
Labour lawmaker John Mann, who made the original allegations against Miller which triggered the standards investigation, responded to her resignation by saying: “About time too.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by Conservative vice-chairman Michael Fabricant. Already a thorn in the government’s side with his criticism of a new high-speed rail project, he was subsequently sacked.
Miller was replaced by Sajid Javid, who is considered a rising star of the Conservative Party and was promoted to the cabinet from the number three role in the finance ministry. – Rappler.com