British PM David Cameron faces Euro poll backlash from expenses storm

Premier's wavering in expenses storm that led to culture secretary's resignation could see right-wing UKIP benefit at Conservative's expense

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 8:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 4:40pm

British Prime Minister David Cameron was yesterday due to launch his Conservative Party's European election campaign, hoping that this week's resignation of Culture Secretary Maria Miller will not help push his party into third place.

Cameron's authority appeared weakened in parliament on Wednesday as backbench lawmakers questioned his ability to read the public mood in supporting Miller for six days after she had been found guilty of wrongly claiming £5,800 (HK$75,325) in expenses.

The prime minister put on a show of discipline on Wednesday night by sacking the party's vice-chairman Michael Fabricant for injudicious tweets, including one welcoming Miller's departure.

Miller resigned early on Wednesday, shattered by the scale of the week-long media and public attack over her expenses claims.

She said she was the victim of a witch-hunt that made it impossible to secure a public hearing for the fact that the House of Commons standards committee had acquitted her of the main charges against her.

She added in a brief interview: "It is not right that I am distracting from the incredible achievements of the government."

The prime minister's office insisted the resignation was entirely her decision, but officials refused to deny that an emissary - believed to be the chief whip, Sir George Young - went to see her to discuss the absence of support among lawmakers and the public. Miller herself said she took "full responsibility" for her decision to resign.

Conservatives, including the Education Secretary Michael Gove, acknowledged that public anger with the political class over the expenses issue remained more raw than his party had recognised.

Labour also privately conceded that the immediate beneficiary of the past week in next month's European election is likely to be the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) as the party of the outsider.

Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, rushed to Miller's constituency in Basingstoke, Hampshire, yesterday to demand a proper law allowing voters to recall lawmakers found guilty of serious misconduct and hold a by-election. The Labour Party opposition leader Ed Miliband accused Cameron of "a terrible error of judgment" in trying to keep Miller and of not understanding the public's anger.

He asked the prime minister: "If it had happened in any other business, there would have been no question about her staying in her job. Why were you the last person in the country to realise her position was untenable?"

Cameron accused Miliband of playing party politics and took the risky step of defending parliament's reputation as full of "good and honest" lawmakers. He said to get rid of someone "at the first sign of trouble" would be a sign of weakness, not leadership.

Miller was replaced as culture secretary by Sajid Javid, the Treasury Financial Secretary, reducing the number of women in the cabinet to three, the lowest figure since 1992. The jumpy mood over lawmakers' behaviour was heightened when Fabricant was suddenly sacked for his tweets, including one saying it was about time Miller was sacked.

Cameron is determined that the Miller episode does not lead to an outbreak of indiscipline, the last thing he needs in the European elections after weeks trying to bring his party's most prominent rebels back into the fold.

But he is facing further embarrassment over sleaze allegations. It is understood that Kathryn Hudson, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, has finished a highly critical report into lawmaker Patrick Mercer, who allegedly failed to declare thousands of pounds paid to him by a fake lobbying company set up by a BBC journalist.

Mercer was elected as a Conservative but resigned from the party when the allegations became public last year.