Independent Thinking

Maria Miller and The Canterbury Tales

5th April 2014

When the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, I actually leapt to their defence. Sure, there were some snouts in troughs. Sure, all that stuff about duck houses seemed – but turned out not to be – beyond parody. Did MPs really need to claim for bath plugs? Couldn’t they buy a packet of biscuits and not claim it back? But when the reports went on and on and on and on, I decided to speak – on Sky News and in a column – in their defence.

I can’t find that column now, so I’ve no idea what arguments I used. But one thing I do know, from the ones I’ve met and spent some time with, is that most MPs work pretty damn hard. Yes, they earn more than two and a half times the national average. And no, they shouldn’t get an 11 per cent rise when most people are struggling to hang on to basic pay. But most MPs work a seven-day week, and most of those days aren’t short. The squire in the shires who drops into his constituency, like a Saudi king greeting his subjects, now sounds as quaint as a world without Twitter.

Working hard is, of course, no excuse for diddling the tax payer out of patio heaters and porn. And it’s certainly no excuse for claiming your son is working for you when the parties he’s interested in are the kind where you stand around clutching a glass. Some politicians did seem to be as creative in their claims as Starbucks were in paying their taxes. But most thought they were doing what the system told them to do. They were encouraged by IPSA (the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) to claim what they could. They all told each other that MPs were badly paid, and so this was a way – with nods and winks and no nasty questions from the taxpayer – of inching their pay up.

It’s not noble, but it was certainly the culture, and most of us, if we’re honest, adapt to our working culture. Journalists now dream of boozy lunches at El Vino’s. Many even dream about having a job. But there was a time when the long liquid lunch was a normal part of a normal day. If you didn’t have it, and charge it to your employer, you were probably letting the side down.

Which brings us, I’m afraid, to Maria Miller. I can’t hear her name without thinking of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s miller sounds like quite a laugh. He says his tale is “noble”, but he can’t be held to account for it, as he’s drunk. It is, it turns out, a tale about a carpenter who rents out a room to make a bit of extra money. His lodger hatches a plot against his landlord and what happens next involves red hot pokers and what English teachers used to call a lot of “bawdy” fun. At one point, a parish clerk kisses, “full savorly”, Mrs Miller’s “naked arse”. He only realises it isn’t a face when he smells the stink.

There is, of course, no connection whatsoever between Chaucer’s miller and the woman who addressed the House of Commons this week. Nobody has been kissing her “arse”. She certainly hasn’t been kissing anyone else’s. And she doesn’t sound, when she speaks, like the kind of person who often gets drunk. She doesn’t sound, in fact, like someone who’s ever been near a pub. What she sounds like, in her stiff little emails full of veiled threats, is a bully. To mention Leveson – or encourage your special adviser to mention Leveson – when your own behaviour is under investigation, is the sign of a bully. It’s certainly not the sign of someone who feels confident that what they did was right.

Maria Miller made a profit of more than £1m on the house she funded largely on expenses, which she claimed was her “second home”. You don’t need to be the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to think this is “pretty shocking”. Miller suggested, and the committee accepted, that she pay £5,800 back. She was told to apologise to the House of Commons. Her “personal statement” lasted less than 40 seconds.

David Cameron says he’s backing her. This may be because he thinks she’s good at her job. This may also be because he’s noticed that only four of his 22 cabinet members are women. Lose one, and you start thinking of handbags and Oscar Wilde.

In The Miller’s Tale, by the way, the lodger suggests to the landlord that the only way to avoid the flood that’s on its way is to sit in a bathtub hanging from the rafters. Compared to some of the strategies that have been tried by Maria Miller, that sounds like good advice.

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