Huffpost UK Politics uk
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Max Wind-Cowie Headshot

Double Standards and David Laws

Posted: Updated:

For the avoidance of any doubt, let me make something clear. I like David Laws. He's a clever, interesting and politically astute man. His efforts in the run-up to, and early days of, the Coalition Government were essential to overcoming the natural suspicion and mutual antagonism that arises when two parties are forced to work together - I and many others will be eternally grateful to him for that.

But, and there is a 'but', he was right to resign when he did and efforts to resurrect his Cabinet career are troubling. Of course, the real-politic of the current choices available to the Prime Minister may dictate Laws' rehabilitation. It would certainly be temporarily popular. According to the Mail on Sunday, 44% of voters want Laws to return to Cabinet - rising to 55% amongst members of the Conservative Party.

In the face of perceived drift in the government's mission, it seems, the ideological clarity of Mr. Laws is admirable and desirable as far as the electorate is concerned. But what would such a move say about our government's commitment to both cleaning-up our politics and to continuing the UK's unique tolerance and normalisation of homosexuality?

For those who have forgotten - many of us, it seems - David Laws broke Parliamentary rules by paying his lover rent from the public purse. He then reacted to exposure by explaining that he had only done so because, as a gay man in the public eye, he felt the need to keep the nature of his relationship with his 'landlord' secret. Apparently, had Mr. Laws paid rent out of his own pocket - or not paid rent at all - we may have caught on to the fact that he was more than a roommate to the man with whom he shared a home. For many of the commentariat this line worked a treat - Mr. Laws was mourned as a man wronged and, even as he read out his resignation speech, many had already begun baying for a glorious return.

Like many of those Westminster-watchers, I'm happy to take Mr. Laws at his word. I'm content to believe that he never intended personal or corrupt gain, that his motive was not greed but was a desire to conceal his sexuality. But that doesn't excuse him or his behaviour.

There are many gay men and women on the front-line of British politics. In the Conservative Party, Alan Duncan, Greg Barker, Nick Herbert and Crispin Blunt all occupy Ministerial office whilst being straightforward about their sexuality. On our backbenches, two of our most hotly-tipped rising stars, Nick Boles and Margot James, are openly gay. Prior to the 2010 election, the most powerful man in the country (excluding, debatably, the Prime Minister) was gay. None of these individuals have sought to involve the taxpayer in funding a cover-up. The powerful, wonderful truth is that they didn't need to. Britain is now a country with a tolerant and accepting attitude towards homosexuality - a country where to be gay is not to be disadvantaged in the eyes of either the law or the electorate. It is frankly an affront to the bravery of people like Alan Duncan - who have made the bold decision to come out publicly - to blame one's lack of financial probity on being gay.

In his excuse, David Laws risked undermining much of the progress that openly gay politicians have made for us all. He cast homosexuality, once more, as a hidden, dirty secret - as an impairment to decent and honest service of one's country. Gay men and women have not needed to hide who we are or who we love for some time, that has meant politicians open and comfortable about their homosexuality and a virtuous circle of acceptance and transparency. Laws threatened that with his behaviour and his explanation.

Mr. Laws cannot have been ignorant of Britain's lack of concern about his love for his partner. He cannot have been unaware that that Peter Mandelson's relationship was common and unimportant knowledge or that the Conservative Party was in the process of electing a record number of openly gay Members of Parliament.

He has made the case that he believes himself entitled to a private life. That is true, of course. But the privacy he sought was surely his own to pay for, not ours. For nine years, Mr. Laws kept his longstanding relationship with a man secret from his constituents, his colleagues and the public - that is his decision - but the fact that he did so by misusing public funds undermines his right to defend his 'personal' life: When an MP expects the public to pay for something, it surely ceases to be 'personal'?

As I say, I like David Laws. He has much to contribute. But such a swift return to the Cabinet seems to jar with this government's treatment of others who have behaved questionably - no-one expects Liam Fox to be holding a red box aloft after the reshuffle. And it smacks of undeserved special treatment - as though the 'I'm gay' line excuses the mundane sin of misusing the public's money in a way that no other justification would.

But there is no real moral justification for his actions - no circumstantial or contextual mitigation - in fact the reverse; our society is amongst the most liberal in the world with regard to homosexuality - it is in this society that David Laws lives. Whatever his personal and private reasons for wishing to remain in the closet - and we must accept that it is harder for some people to be open than it is for others - there was no larger, existential need for secrecy - certainly none that would excuse his use of public funds to maintain it.

David Cameron has promised to clean up politics and to restore some of the trust that was lost when so many of our Parliamentarians were caught with their hands in the till. He has also helped the Conservative Party catch-up in terms of its attitude to homosexuality and, through his gay marriage proposals, helped reframe the debate in order to emphasise the normalisation of gay relationships and (rightly) to demand that they conform to the same responsibilities and expectations we apply to others.

David Laws' use of his expense to avoid his apparent embarrassment about his homosexuality put at risk both this government's attempt to move on from the sleaze of the past and the progress our society has made on gay rights. Returning him to the Cabinet might be the practical thing to do, but for many gay people such as myself it will nonetheless leave a bad taste in the mouth.