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Saturday, May 29, 2010 

Question Time, spin and the downfall of Laws.

The Telegraph's accusations regarding David Laws' expenses certainly put the debacle over Thursday's Question Time into a whole new light. Did Downing Street or indeed Laws himself already have an inkling of what was to come, and so came up with the pretty feeble excuse of not appearing unless Alastair Campbell was shunted off and replaced with a member of the shadow cabinet, knowing full well the BBC was never going to acquiesce to such a demand from the government? Or rather did they believe that Campbell had been tipped off about what was shortly going to appear, and so prevent the possibility of him confronting Laws with it on national television?

If Campbell did know, then he certainly isn't letting on. Neither his blog or Twitter mentions any such suspicions of the scandal in the offing, and he's even written a rather sympathetic post on the matter, although he does make clear that Laws' sexuality, having been inadvertently "outed" in the process, was another of those "open secrets" at Westminster.

It could of course just have been Andy Coulson and friends starting as they mean to go on, as was first assumed, already prepared to dictate just what is and isn't permissible as far as our new overlords go. The BBC has always been strangely indulgent of Campbell, especially considering how he was determined to bring it as close to its knees as possible after the whitewash delivered by Lord Hutton, and they did have something approaching a point that putting a former spin doctor rather than an actual politician up on the panel to represent Labour was a strange choice. Less convincing was the claim that the BBC was helping Campbell to promote the first volume of his unexpurgated diaries, which he didn't so much as mention once and neither did David Dimbleby.

Regardless of whether all this was just a happy coincidence, the response of the right-wing press to Downing Street's attempt to tell an impartial broadcaster just who it can and can't have on a political panel discussion programme has been instructive: you can guarantee if Campbell and cronies had tried the same during their tenure that they would have done their usual impression of Violet Elizabeth Bott. Distracted as they currently are by the "crossbow cannibal", they've been remarkably reticent about it. Spin it seems, as with so much else, is fine as long as it's your side doing it. Combined with Con-Dems attitude towards parliament, as shown by announcing the £5.7 billion of cuts to a press conference rather that in the Commons, it hardly shows that this new politics they've eulogised about it is any different to the old style we'd become so accustomed to.

Even more unnerving for Cameron must be that we haven't even had three weeks yet of this new fabled coalition and already it has its first "scandal" on its hands. New Labour managed to go almost six months before the Ecclestone affair punctured the party's political honeymoon, and while that involved money, it didn't also involve sex as a theme. It's not even as if Laws needed the cash: we've been treated ever since his appointment to tales of how phenomenally clever and hard-working he is, a millionaire at 28 who could be making even more dosh had he not decided to dedicate himself to the Liberal Democrats and to a public life. He's also fallen straight into the Hazel Blears trap, immediately paying back the money before any investigation has taken place, which only encourages the view that he must be feeling guilty and regrets having been caught, rather than even attempting to clear his name. That he's also the man wielding the axe, almost taking delight in slashing public spending, and yet has apparently been more than prepared to take what he thought he was entitled to also bodes ill for his ability to stay in his position.

The Ecclestone affair went on for weeks, led to Blair doing his now infamous "pretty straight sort of guy" routine, yet had no impact whatsoever on the polls. Whether the same will be the case this time round, with the public clearly prepared for the moment to give the Con-Dems the benefit of the doubt remains to be seen. It is depressing though, as Alastair Campbell himself pointed out, that already expenses seems to be impossible to break away from. The very last thing we need is another parliament defined not by its politics but by the extracurricular activities of its MPs. Even more reason for Cameron to be rid of a minister whom he owes absolutely nothing to; just what impact it will have on the Lib Dems and the coalition itself through them, already defending Laws to the hilt, is equally difficult to predict.

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