So David Laws, Chief Secretary of the Treasury, is gay. The revelation was exploded forth by the Telegraph and has all the appeal and grace of a Friday night expulsion of cheap lager from the guts of a inebriated teenager. There are already rumours circulating around the internet that Alistair Campbell, New Labour’s chief bile merchant, is responsible: if so, this would hardly be a surprise. There is a grubbiness, a griminess that surrounds this entire episode which speaks of New Labour’s once formidable spin machine. It says much that after its defeat, it is reduced to spewing tawdry gossip.
There are financial issues, of course. Laws claimed rent for a room in his partner’s home, which is apparently a breach of rules set out in 2006. However, had he not claimed, it is entirely possible that he feared the tabloids might start asking questions: there is no doubt that he was firmly ensconced in the closet and had no desire to leave its confines. Every newspaper I’ve read so far suggests that he had hidden his orientation from everyone, including his family. People who feel bound up by secrets tend to do silly things in order to keep them: I recall Harold Wilson’s peculiar attempts to mask some of his communications with Barbara Castle by assigning zoological nicknames for various people. Castle was labelled “Peacock”, for example, and Harold Wilson was “Eagle”. We laugh at this in retrospect, but it proves a point: absurdity and secrecy go often go hand in hand. The absurdity has been revealed, secrecy is no more, Laws is going to pay the money back. Job done? Well, hardly.
At the time of writing, it does not appear that any senior member of the Government, David Cameron or George Osborne or even Nick Clegg, have stepped up and defended their colleague. This may change of course, but this speaks of a serious issue within the Government, much more problematic than a failure to report expenses accurately. The question should be asked: are you, Coalition, a team or not? If you are, do you not realise that a failure to stand up for each other is out of order?
I have experience of managing employees, and I am well aware that people make mistakes, sometimes very serious ones. However, teams are made or broken by how errors are handled. If they are treated as learning experiences, then the atmosphere is improved: solidarity creates an opportunity for sharing and discussing problems before they become more grave. If the reaction of the leaders of a particular team is to throw those who make mistakes to the wolves, this engenders a jumpy, nervous and fearful environment, hardly conducive to creativity or productivity.
More importantly, the team leader should be willing to defend the individual who made the error. I look over my work history in private industry with some satisfaction, but the one episode of which I am most proud occurred after an employee had made a perceived (rather than actual) mistake. At that time, a manager more senior than I was going to go to the CEO of the company to lay the blame at his door. Enraged, I made a point of going down to the company head office and getting in the senior manager’s face to lay out the facts. After a period of silence on his part, I set them out again. In the end, he relented; the crisis passed. Afterwards, the team was more “together” than it had been hitherto; we were also more productive. To this day, we still are in contact with each other.
George Osborne, theoretically at least, is David Laws’ boss. What he should be doing, provided there are no further facts to scrutinise, is stepping outside the door of Number 11 and calling down the thunder. He should tell the press that his faith in Laws’ ability is undimmed. He should say that forcing Laws out of the closet was to the press’ shame. He should say that he believes that Laws has made and will make sound and prudent judgements about the economy and looks forward to continuing to work with him through a very difficult period. In other words, he should be willing to step into the line of fire for his colleague. Showing this amount of courage could turn the Coalition into a team; the spectacle of a Conservative defending a Liberal Democrat would do nothing but cement trust. It would also be an eloquent statement to the Alistair Campbells of this world that their form of political discourse no longer works. Campbell may rant and scream and rave about it, as is apparently his wont, but in essence, he is a very small man in an ever diminishing circle.
Personally, I disagree with Laws and the Coalition on a large number of issues, including the cuts they intend to make; the £6 billion already taken out is going to have a very detrimental effect. However, unlike Alistair Campbell, I believe such arguments should be addressed through reasoned discourse, not by trawling through the back alleys and dark corners of a man’s life. We gain nothing by continuing to allow this kind of politics to live and breathe; indeed, our democracy will only be improved if “governance by spin” is utterly destroyed. The Coalition has a chance to put public debate back into order by defending David Laws: they should take it.