Maria Miller: When sorry just isn’t good enough

Former culture secretary Maria Miller’s ministerial career came to an end this week amid a row over her expenses, despite prime minister David Cameron’s public backing.

Miller had been cleared by Kathryn Hudson, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, of abusing the expenses system between 2005 and 2009. However, Hudson also concluded that Miller had over-claimed for mortgage interest payments and council tax by £45,000, and recommended she repay this.

Instead, the MP-staffed Commons Committee on Standards – which gets final say in such matters – decided she should repay just £5,800.

It was her apology that did for Miller, says Matthew Engel in the Financial Times. “She apologised, for just 34 seconds, sounding somewhere between a hostage at gunpoint and a stroppy teenager.” As a result, “an issue that had barely even registered with the public” has “dominated the headlines ever since”.

While her behaviour was “hardly out of keeping with the culture among MPs a few years back”, her lack of genuine contrition “almost certainly wrecked both her ministerial career and what little public reputation she has acquired in her 18 months in the cabinet”.

“It is one of the characteristics of the modern politician that he, or she, has become adept at what has become known as the ‘non-apology apology’,” agrees Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail. “This is an aspect of modern Western culture, which tends to put the individual before the collective.”

In Japan, by contrast, “if the general view is that the individual has done something wrong, then he will abase himself, by bowing to the floor and begging forgiveness”.

But Miller “paid the fine she was asked to pay”, says Steve Richards in The Independent, and “issued the humiliating apology”, even though there was no suggestion that she had “made financial gain fraudulently”. The press has been particularly hypocritical in this case.

While bashing Miller – who worked on the reforms to newspaper regulation arising from the Leveson inquiry – “from pillar to post, calling for her departure”, they themselves “continue to insist on self-regulation, while condemning MPs for partially regulating their own affairs”.

Yet, Miller “tried to prevent questions being asked by evoking the spectre of the Leveson Report at precisely the moment she had ministerial responsibility for crafting the legislation arising from it,” says Daniel Hodges in The Daily Telegraph. “It’s hard to think of a more blatant conflict of interest.”

Even as she steps down, “the threat to press freedom will remain”. Politicians have already warned of plans “to extend their remit into other areas”.

This all misses the point, says The Daily’s Mirror’s Fleet Street Fox. “It’s not that MPs have to live in two different places, or employ staff, or eat breakfast, which bothers people.”

The real problem is that “they seriously expect to make laws for other people which they have no intention of following themselves… they genuinely cannot see a fiddle on their second homes puts them in the same category as a housing benefits cheat”. The law should either apply to everyone – or not at all.