What is most criminal about David Laws’ now infamous expense claims was that he didn’t need the money.
Most people in Britain have utmost sympathy with the exceptionally talented new minister who was caught out only for trying to preserve his privacy, and who claimed no more money than he would’ve done were he married and claiming for a joint mortgage.
Yet what seems so wrong is that he could afford it himself, and with his millions in City-earned cash, had no need for reimbursement from the public purse.
The problem is that Laws, like all other ministers, is not an employee of the public but their representative. Were Laws employed as Chief Secretary to the Treasury then this all would’ve been different. He would’ve paid back the money, got a slap on the wrist, but ultimately not have lost the job he was so clearly the best man for. In reality, he is primarily a representative of his constituents, a projection of the ordinary man onto Westminster. As such his betrayal of trust was simply too much.
This highlights a damaging contradiction in British politics. Our ministers are simultaneously representatives in Parliament and heads of government departments. The pressures of personal politics, where The Telegraph can delve through your private life and exposes your relationships against your will, are derived from the representative function. But as Laws said, he was unable to fulfil his ministerial duties with the spectre of this investigation hanging over him.
If we want to have the very best people running our country, these will not always be the ones most appealing to the public. Indeed they will often be put off by their wish to remain private, or to focus on the job in hand rather than public image management.
A system like America’s, where the executive branch of government are unelected employees chosen by the President but ratified by Congress, seems to manage the problem better. There you can truly focus on your job, without having to worry incessantly about seeming accessible to the ordinary man.
Why do we think somebody like Andrew Adonis was such a good minister? Because he sat in the Lords, and could spend his time planning Britain’s rail infrastructure rather than doing interviews with local newspapers. He could never have proposed a high speed rail system had he been an MP for a huge number of constituencies nearby to the planned route – in which case the entire country would have to suffer.
A better system than today’s would be one where we select the best people for the job, and let them get on with it.