Maria Miller’s downfall shows how personal British politics has become

Out to dry. Sean Dempsey/PA

Maria Miller has resigned as Culture secretary. Until today, she was one of the most powerful women in the Conservative Party; she has been described as “efficient and low-key”, and rapidly climbed the ranks since she was first elected in 2005. But she’s now the victim of a political storm over an investigation into her parliamentary expenses, originally publicised in a Daily Telegraph article in December 2012.

So, what is the substance of the controversy? What is its significance for Miller and the government? And what does it tell us about the importance of public probity in today’s politics?

Miller’s problems arose over what was alleged to have been a breach of the rules in force between 2005 and 2009, when her questionable expenses claims were made. In essence, MPs were at the time allowed to claim back the costs of having to maintain a second home near Westminster so they could more easily perform their parliamentary duties.

Miller was cleared of having abused the system to advantage her parents, but did find that she had made unjustified mortgage interest claims, and recommended that the minister repay £45,000. The recommendations were then passed for decision, to the House of Commons Committee for Standards, which reduced the repayments required to £5,800.

The committee also deemed Miller to have broken the MPs’ code of conduct by being less than co-operative with the commissioner’s investigations, demanding an apology to the House – an apology which, when made in the houses of Parliament, was widely deemed inadequate both in substance and length (32 seconds).

Miller found herself at the heart of a classic scandal, a power struggle revolving around her reputation for honesty and integrity (a vital source of political power). As in any scandal, her fate was decided not by the empirical facts of the case than by the turn of public opinion – the universal currency of democratic politics.

Personality politics

When a public figure of Miller’s stature is accused of wrongdoing, the outcome is hardly inevitable. Public opinion hinges on perceptions of the accuser, their motives in making the allegation, and how believable the allegations are. Opinions will also depend on perceptions of the alleged wrongdoer, their motives in acting the way they supposedly did, the extent to which they could have acted differently, the repercussions of their action, and so forth.

Miller’s present predicament is a coda to the 2009 expenses scandal and the universal condemnation of the behaviour revealed five years ago. Given these circumstances, one might have expected her reaction and apology to have been somewhat more circumspect.

Ultimately, Miller’s problems are not just her own. David Cameron stood by her, but he would have been all too aware that he and his government have a lot to lose in the run-up to next month’s European elections. Parties such as UKIP have been fuelled not just by the specific issue of Europe, but more significantly by the spread of anti-political sentiments and growing disenchantment with established politics and politicians in general.

This episode is a telling demonstration of the importance of probity in 21st-century politics. There seems little doubt that public concerns have been growing in recent years; survey data, media reports and the growing volume of government initiatives all betray a growing level of public anxiety about the integrity of public office holders since the early 1990s.

The causes help throw light on the consequences. The post-Cold War lack of deep-seated ideological conflict between left and right has shifted the terrain of political conflict to valence issues. The personal qualities of the individual politicians who will deal with those issues have therefore assumed centre stage, while the explosion of the mass media has made their lives more visible than ever.

In today’s extremely personalised and mediated politics, parties increasingly attempt to compete with each other by throwing mud and attempting to damage each other by fomenting scandal – a phenomenon that Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter have called “politics by other means”. And arising as it did from a complaint by an opposition MP, the Miller affair is a classic example.