IT’S said that a week is a long time in politics, and for under-fire Basingstoke MP Maria Miller the last seven days have been a very long week.
Two weeks ago, the Culture Secretary was singled out by parliamentary colleagues as “the one to watch” when she scooped the rising star accolade in The House Awards.
But now there is much speculation about her future in the Coalition Cabinet, amid mounting scrutiny of her expenses and living arrangements in London and Basingstoke, and following claims that her special adviser “warned” The Daily Telegraph to consider Mrs Miller’s role in deciding the future of press regulation before running a story about her expenses.
Last Thursday, sleaze watchdog John Lyon, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, opened an inquiry into the MP’s claims between 2005 and 2009.
Labour MP John Mann submitted a complaint on Wednesday – the day after The Daily Telegraph reported that Mrs Miller had claimed £90,718 in expenses relating to a second home in Wimbledon, where her parents also live.
The Telegraph story reignited scrutiny of the MP’s expenses, which were the focus of a detailed report in The Gazette on May 18, 2009. The Gazette report sparked criticism of Mrs Miller’s second home allowance claims from some constituents – and within a fortnight she had decided to forego any further allowances on her Wimbledon home.
Despite the standards inquiry announcement, and speculation over her future, Mrs Miller was relaxed as she met youngsters at Sony’s headquarters in Jay’s Close, Basingstoke, last Friday.
She looked delighted during the screening of two films, created by pupils celebrating the town, and praised their efforts in a speech.
But afterwards she declined to answer any questions when approached by The Gazette. She said: “I’m too busy” before being whisked away into a private meeting.
A further request for an interview, left on the voicemail of her mobile phone, was not returned. But on Friday evening, a spokeswoman for Mrs Miller said the launch of the expenses inquiry had prevented her from commenting.
“John Lyon is looking into these matters,” said the spokeswoman. “It would be wrong to have a running commentary at the moment until he has concluded his inquiry.”
The Daily Telegraph detailed how the mother-of-three had claimed more than £90,000 across four years including mortgage interest payments, utilities, and council tax on her Wimbledon family home.
The newspaper reported that having her parents living there was apparently at “odds with parliamentary rules”. In response, Mrs Miller stated that her expenses had been audited twice and were “wholly proper and above board”.
Further fuel was added to the fire when allegations surfaced that both Mrs Miller’s special adviser Joanna Hindley, and the Prime Minister’s director of communications Craig Oliver, had contacted the Telegraph during the course of the newspaper team’s investigation to “flag up” Mrs Miller’s role in press regulation following publication of the Leveson Report into press standards.
The Telegraph said the involvement of the pair was treated as a “threat”, and a “warning”. But a press spokesman at Number 10 said Mr Oliver was not seeking to influence the paper, and added that Miss Hindley had not broken any rules.
The scrutiny surrounding Mrs Miller intensified with a Telegraph report that her Basingstoke “main home” between 2005 and 2009 was rented from former chairman of the Basingstoke Conservative Assoc-iation Nigel McNair Scott at a £6,000-a-year discounted rate.
Ministers are under a duty to declare any “perceived” conflict of interest to Whitehall officials. Mr McNair Scott has been both treasurer and chairman of Mrs Miller’s local constituency party, and has donated money to her campaign. The property company he chairs, Helical Bar, is also a major supporter of the Tories.
In a statement to The Gazette last week, Mrs Miller said she had explained her living arrangements to the Government’s fees office, and stated that she had not gained a financial advantage from either home.
She said: “After I was first elected as an MP, I explained my family circumstances to the House of Commons fees office.
“They advised that I should designate Basingstoke as my main home as this is where I spent most time as a backbencher.
“The cost of maintaining each home was more than I claimed in relation to expenses.
“There was no financial advantage as to which home was designated.”
A further statement to The Gazette from the Cabinet Office on Friday added that Prime Minister David Cameron was satisfied no rules had been broken in relation to the renting of the Basingstoke property.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “In the light of media allegations relating to Maria Miller, the Prime Minister, having consulted the Cabinet Secretary, is satisfied that there is no evidence of the property being rented on preferential terms, and therefore no breach of the Ministerial Code.”