Are her days as Chairwoman of the Conservative Party numbered?
Several of today’s Sunday Papers are running with stories that Caroline Spelman (Con – Meriden) used Â£100,000 of taxpayers’ money to top-up the salary of her Chief of Staff, Simon Cawte. This would be allowed if his work had been confined solely to supporting her work as an MP, but he apparently was engaged in political work on behalf of the Conservative Party through Mrs Spelman’s role as the then Shadow Local Government Secretary.
This is not the first funding scandal to hit Spelman, who is being investigated over claims that she used her staffing allowance to pay for someone whose duties involved nannying her children rather than working as a Constituency secretary. David Cameron, who has taken a strict line on financial sleaze in his party (namely the Derek Conway and Den Dover scandals) has not asked Spelman to resign her position, even though some in the party feel that this issue has distracted her from fulfilling her role at a crucial time. Should be be forced to step down, many have cited Eric Pickles as the man who should replace her.
In and of itself, this is not as serious a scandal as the payments made to Derek Conway’s son, but coming on the back of previous allegations, it is curious that David Cameron has kept faith with Caroline Spelman. Even if she is completely absolved, there is inevitably political fall-out from the linking of the words ‘Tory’ and ‘sleaze’ in the newspapers, and Labour would relish any opportunity to link Cameron’s new model Conservatives to the Major days of ‘Back to Basics’.
The Labour MP who is pursuing this matter, as well as the PRU funding issue and sparked the inquiries into George Osborne’s expenses and Derek Conway, is John Mann who represents the Bassetlaw constituency in the midlands which Caroline Spelman unsuccessfully fought at the 1992 election. I have met John Mann (I was a scrutineer at his re-election in 2005) and after seeing his campaign against the scamming of mineworkers by their Union and Solicitors, he is not an attack dog that I would want to face.
So why is Cameron (for the moment) standing behind Spelman? Perhaps she is helped by her gender in this case. Harriet Harman, in her two outings at PMQs, has remarked on the lack of women on the Tory front bench, and upbraided Theresa May for allowing William Hague to stand in for David Cameron, when Harman was there in her capacity as Leader of the House. David Cameron has done more than any previous leader to increase the number of female candidates, but his Shadow Cabinet is decidedly male. Can he afford to lose one of the only senior women in his party?
It may be that Caroline Spelman represents a branch of the party that David Cameron needs to keep onside. An active Christian, she is also a trustee of the Conservative Christian Fellowship – given how far Cameron has moved his party on issues such as gay rights, he may not wish to antagonise those in his party who still consider it Britain’s answer to the Christian Democratic Union in Germany.
The third, and to my mind most compelling, reason is that if Spelman is asked to step down now, it cannot be in relation to the payments made to her nanny – to have delayed would undermine the attacks on Brown for ‘dithering’. Any request for her resignation will be linked to the payments to Cawte, and that opens up a world of trouble for the Conservatives.
If a member of staff funded by the public purse engaged in party political activity, then the rules have technically been broken. However, it is naive to imagine that many of the people filling those pulically-funded roles are not also politically active in line with their employers’ partisan allegiances.
If Caroline Spelman is sacrificed for her chief of staff’s ovestepping of the line, then all the 150 Conservative MPs who receive support from the Parliamentary Resources Unit (a pooling of staff resources, exclusively for the Conservative Party) might find themselves in something of a pickle. An investigation into the PRU was demanded by John Mann last month, and if Spelman goes, that investigation could be brutal.