U.K. Culture Secretary Maria Miller resigned from the cabinet after six days of pressure from the media, the opposition and members of her own Conservative Party over her handling of an expenses probe.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who had resisted calls to replace Miller, said in his reply to her resignation letter he was sorry she was quitting, while accepting her decision. She’s the sixth cabinet minister to resign since Cameron took power in 2010.
“I am very grateful to you for your personal support but it has become clear to me that the present situation has become a distraction from the vital work this government is doing to turn our country around,” Miller wrote in her letter to the premier, released by Cameron’s office in London today.
Miller, 50, gave a 32-second apology to Parliament last week and agreed to hand back 5,800 pounds ($9,700) in expenses that a parliamentary committee accepted she had inadvertently overclaimed on her London home. The affair evoked memories of the 2009 expenses scandal that damaged the reputation of politicians from all the main parties and led to five members of Parliament serving jail terms for filing fraudulent claims.
The committee criticized Miller for failing to cooperate with an independent probe into her expenses, though it watered down a recommendation that she should pay back the full 45,000 pounds overclaimed due to a rapid fall in interest rates in 2008 and 2009.
The Labour opposition described Miller’s apology last week as “contemptuous.” The party said in an e-mailed statement today her resignation showed Cameron’s “judgment had been found wanting”. Pressure on Miller mounted over the last two days when her Conservative colleagues started to criticize her publicly.
Labour lawmaker John Mann, whose complaint sparked the inquiry into Miller’s financial affairs, told BBC radio’s “Today” program that “my reaction is: about time too. Where’s the prime minister been for the last five days, not sacking Maria Miller?”
“The cynical truth is that this is hurting the Conservative party on the doorstep and there are elections coming up,” Mann said, referring to local and European Parliament polls on May 22.
Conservative lawmaker Zac Goldsmith told fellow Tories yesterday he was “surprised” Miller hadn’t quit. Another Tory member of Parliament, Philip Davies, said the matter was “damaging” for the government, while a third, Mark Field, said Miller’s apology had been “unacceptably perfunctory,” adding “this has become a toxic issue that will run and run.”
On April 7, Employment Minister Esther McVey became the first member of the government to criticize Miller publicly. “I can honestly say it wouldn’t be how I would have made an apology,” McVey told ITV’s “The Agenda” program.
Newspapers accused Miller and government aides of trying to bully both the parliamentary investigator and journalists who were looking at her expenses. A Survation poll published April 6 in the Mail on Sunday newspaper found 82 percent of Tory voters said she should resign.
Miller, a former advertising and marketing executive, became a Conservative lawmaker at the 2005 general election, when Tony Blair’s Labour Party won a third term with a sharply reduced majority.
She was appointed culture secretary in 2012 in the Tory- Liberal Democrat coalition, overseeing the introduction of gay marriage in the U.K. and helping to draw up tougher regulation of the press in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. She is married with three children.
“She had to go because she had become the story and there were clearly misgivings about how she handled the issue,” Mark Wickham-Jones, professor of politics at Bristol University, said in a telephone interview. “This highlights how bad the coalition, and Cameron in particular, is at getting rid of damaging elements. Under Blair and New Labour it was a ruthless machine and individuals were sacrificed for that machine.”
Education Secretary Michael Gove, an ally of Cameron, said the premier’s reluctance to fire Miller shows he demonstrates the virtue of loyalty.
“It’s not a weakness in my eyes, it’s a strength,” Gove told the “Today” program. He said he was “saddened” by her departure.
“There are any number of other occasions where the prime minister has shown that he is tough and decisive -- in foreign policy and in economic policy, it’s clear that he’s taken some very, very difficult decisions,” Gove said.
“It’s important to recognize that actually the political class as a whole needs to reflect on the events of the last few days,” he said. “It reinforces in my mind the fact that the public still feel a degree of anger about the expenses scandal.”