What on earth was the Downing Street political operation thinking? Maria Miller had been damaging the government for a week before she resigned. Single handedly, she’d ended a run of positive news coverage for the government, reignited the expenses scandal, and created an impression of the government as a bunch of bungling bullies, trying desperately to throw their weight around to save one of their own from justified criticism.
I asked myself, Why on earth not just cut her loose?
I actually want to read defence of Maria Miller that explains why No 10 are resisting sacking her. It baffles me. There must be some reason?
— Hopi Sen (@hopisen) April 8, 2014
Cutting Miller loose fast and viciously seemed the obvious political move.
Maria Miller is hardly a household name. Few people know who she is, even fewer could pick her out of a line-up of MPs. If she’d gone straight away, there would have been barely a susurration. Nor did she have a significant following in the Tory party. There were few Miller partisans who needed placating before the grim dispatch.
I couldn’t understand why the Downing Street operation decided to put so much on the line to defend a minister marginal in popularity, in cabinet significance, and in factional power.
When political operations do apparently suicidal things, there’s usually a semi-comprehensible reason. It seemed not so this time. That mysterious defence of a doomed minister is, for me, as interesting as the scandal itself, because it says something about a group of people who do matter, the Downing street political team, and how they see their priorities.
So here is my attempt to justify a stupid decision, and answer my own question: Why try to save a doomed minister?
1. Leave no (wo)man behind.
This government is often accused of neglecting their dull loyalists, those willing to do the drudge work of keeping the government going. The wealthy, the connected and the flashy, such as a Johnson, a Dorries or a Goldsmith can get headlines by making waves, but what does the loyal PPS get? Patronised and ignored, used and exploited, then dumped on when things get ugly.
It’s not an attractive proposition. Made to feel sufficiently disposable, maybe your middle ranking plodder will stop waiting patiently for a promotion to higher office and begin to return the calls from that nice chap from the Telegraph.
The very least you can offer a loyalist is a bit of loyalty in return.If you don’t the next minister will know that when it comes down to it, they’ll be on their own. If they think that, you can say goodbye to any chance of them taking any risks on your behalf. At least this way every Minister in the Cabinet will think that the Prime Minister will expend some political capital on their behalf.
2. This too could have passed.
Jeremy Hunt went through this fire. People like me said he should resign as culture secretary.
@hopisen Hunt's dreams are probably still scuppered by the weak way he dealt with Adam Smith
— Jim the Hedgehog (@jimthehedgehog) June 13, 2012
But he survived, and prospered.1 Why did the Hunt story run out of steam? Because other things came along, and there wasn’t much more to say, and Hunt could put together a half credible account of his own actions. A special adviser had to be dunked, but the main man was kept.
So could Maria. If events had intervened, everyone might have forgotten about her again. Unfortunately, only Ukraine and Peaches Geldof were huge stories, and both were imperfect substitutes for Broadsheet headlines and pen-sucking leader-writers.
3. It could have been you.
Forget the briefing to the papers. I’d bet that a lot of Tory MPs are heartily sick of the expenses regime and the various guardians of public morality getting a decent wedge from the taxpayer for popping up on TV to tell the world how awful MPs are.
I bet they’re even more annoyed by the fact former commissioners os parliamentary sin, no matter how bumptious, incompetent or self aggrandising they were in the actual job, are always quoted in newspapers with the sort of awed reverence normally reserved for the pope, or Davina McCall.
So even Tory MPs they can’t quite believe how badly Maria Miller handled the complaint against her, they might be privately pleased that Downing Street is willing to take some heat on this issue. She might have messed up, they’ll be thinking, looking at their receipt for petrol, gum and a can of beans, but at least she was a good human shield for the rest of us.
4. Even given the inevitable, your actions can control the consequences thereof.
If Maria Miller was always going to have to go, it’s arguable that the government was only then right to appear to defend her to the last ditch. That way, she leaves believing that the government carried her for as long as they could, and is in no position to brief the press about the incompetence or duplicity of No10.
You never know the whole story about a scandal. Maybe Miller had enjoyed several detailed conversations with No 10 advisers about how to protect her career and manage her case.
If she’d left angry and embittered, maybe some of these would have found their way into the papers. A week of stonewalling before conceding the inevitable might have bought months of silence, without affecting the outcome either way.
5. If it walks like a Tu Quoque…
David Cameron is running for election against Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, not the editor of the Telegraph. Does it really matter if a Cabinet Minister looks bad if your opponents are chary of pushing the dagger in too deep?
If Ed Miliband wants to raise Maria Miller, fine, let’s break out that picture of Denis MacShane’s cake, eh? This is a war no-one can win, so no-one will want to fight too hard. That makes it easy to defend, because you’re not defending against your real enemy.
So, that’s my rationale for the inexplicable.
Does all of this wash? Sort of. But it was still a terrible strategy.
Here’s my alternative defence strategy:
1. Apologise unreservedly, even if you don’t mean it. Do it at length and really explain where you went wrong. Don’t be afraid of criticizing your own actions, once you’ve given them some context. That way at least you’ll get the context in.
2. Sack the SpAd (and find them a nice job in three months). Sorry, but they’ve got to go. ‘I’ll answer for my mistakes in the court of public opinion, but no-one should have tried to shush the free press’
3. Apologise again, and only then mawkishly point to the family stress you were under.
4. Once you’ve grovelled, phone a friend and get them to ask why the focus is on poor average anonymous you, not for example wealthy, more famous politicians who don’t pay inheritance taxes on their expenses paid property, or wealthy people who claimed big mortgages.
5. As soon as the storm seems so have eased, do a big interview with the Spectator, or perhaps ConservativeHome. ‘The Maria story you don’t know” Once you’ve grovelled, you might just have people in a position to with sympathise you. You’ll need to exploit your family story shamelessly and cynically, but it’s your last line of defence.
- I still think he’s an ex-future leader though [↩]