Secret that brought down Treasury star David Laws
With his trademark clarity, David Laws neatly summed up the events of the past week.
"In a way, this is not an expenses story, although it has come across as that," he said in the garden of his home near Chard.
"It is more about the mess that I have got into because of my desire to be dishonest about my sexuality."
The Yeovil MP, 44, resigned as Chief Secretary to the Treasury on Saturday after The Daily Telegraph alleged earlier that day that he had claimed £40,000 in expenses for renting accommodation from his partner, James Lundie, breaking parliamentary rules.
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"I could have challenged the Telegraph and they might have found it difficult to prove there was a relationship, but it felt like the truth about who I am and my sexuality had finally caught up with me," he explained.
"I did wonder when I got the email [from the Telegraph] whether I shouldn't just tell them to clear off and that this was none of their business. That might buy me 24 hours, or a week or a month, of respite but it would mean living in fear forever.
"I felt that telling more lies about these things would just make for a worse situation in the future. It might have got me through Friday and got me through Saturday, but did I then want the Telegraph and all the other newspapers following me around on holiday and taking photographs, trying to establish that there was a relationship?
"I would never have been able to be comfortable again and the only way we could have dealt with that would be not to have the relationship, to end it, and that is the one thing I would not be willing to do."
It was not then, as it first appeared, another story of abuse of MPs' expenses – but important because it involved the new Government, whose leaders had pledged to clean up politics, and because it centred on the Cabinet minister whose job was to take charge of the nation's purse strings.
Mr Laws explained how he became caught in the scandal that has seen him give up his dream job at the Treasury and rob Prime Minister David Cameron of one of the linchpins of the coalition.
"To me, what is really important for people to understand is that none of the things that we did were done to make financial gain. They were done to protect our privacy," he said.
Before he was elected as MP for Yeovil in 2001, Mr Laws had sold a house he had near London. He had a main home in Somerset and he rented accommodation in London from a landlord, Mr Lundie, who was working for the Lib Dems. He struck up a relationship with Mr Lundie after the 2001 election.
He said: "He had previously been renting out that property, he wasn't on a high income, and it seemed reasonable to pay rent to him for the property. People assume that I am incredibly rich but actually the money that I had earned in the City went to pay for my living costs after I left the City and went to work for the Lib Dems on about £14,000 a year.
"And when I was the prospective candidate here in Yeovil I lived without any income at all when I was working alongside Paddy Ashdown. It seemed reasonable to pay (James) rent, it was permitted under the rules at the time and it was well inside the maximum available.
"And that was all fine until 2006 when the rules changed, and when you were no longer allowed to rent from partners. And I guess I must have been conscious of that but in my mind we were not formally partners, we didn't have a joint bank account, we didn't have a will, we didn't have a joint mortgage on anything, we never went out together with anybody else, our families didn't know about us, so I suppose privately we were partners but publicly we were just landlord and friend, and I suppose I naively thought that was acceptable.
"If James came down to the constituency he did not take advantage of the free travel available to partners, so it is not as if we were trying to be partners in one way and not in another. We were conscious that this was a much more expensive way of managing our lives than if we had just been honest about our relationship, because if we had been, we could have claimed a significantly greater amount of money than we did.
"We would often say to ourselves, 'this is ridiculous, as a consequence of having this bizarre private life, we are costing ourselves far more than if we had just been honest about things'. To me in particular it seemed that was a price worth paying to protect our privacy."
Mr Laws, who referred himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner and said he would pay back the £40,000 after the Telegraph revelations, said the commissioner would have to decide on the definition of partner, but said of his relationship: "We were in a strange no-man's land that most people are not in, I suppose privately behaving as partners but not publicly in any way.
"But when the Telegraph made the statement I thought the only thing to do was to acknowledge the relationship and that I would have to pay the money back, even though the intention behind it and the effect of it was not to maximise financial reward. It was done for reasons of privacy."
In 2007 Mr Lundie bought a London property where he and Mr Laws currently live.
"We could have bought that as a couple and I could have taken out a mortgage which would have been paid for by the taxpayer, along with the utilities and renovation costs, but that would have required us to have a joint mortgage and joint ownership, and that would have affected our privacy," he said.
So Mr Laws increased the mortgage on his home in the Yeovil constituency to raise funds to help Mr Lundie.
He pointed out: "I don't receive any taxpayer funding for this home in Somerset, and I don't think there's anything improper about that at all.
"We were incredibly close, effectively privately partners, but publicly we weren't. He is more relaxed about these issues than I am but it has always been something that I have wanted to keep private, and when you are in politics it is something that you always get a lot of scrutiny about, and so what we were trying to do was to battle to keep our relationship to ourselves.
"Taking an extra mortgage out on your house to give the money to somebody with no legal guarantees in any way clearly indicates a great closeness and trust between us.
"In some ways it may not matter that if I had done it in a different way, the amount of money claimed might have been 50 per cent more, because I claim quite a low amount as an MP, because the fact is the rules were broken."
Mr Laws went on: "When I was born it was less than ten years or so after homosexuality was decriminalised, and there was still a lot of prejudice in society, as there is now, although a lot less now.
"And at school, among family and everybody I knew, it was not regarded as something that was acceptable or easily understood. When you are young you are afraid of being seen to be different and it is easier to lie, and that was easy given that I didn't have any relationships for a large part of my life.
"You more you lie to people the more difficult it becomes to un-lie and tell the truth. I have always been quite a shy and private person. I wanted to go into politics and public service but didn't want to have to tell people about my sexuality.
"I guess it was pretty stupid really, because all of the people I have spoken to since Friday have accepted it without hesitation – my parents, family and friends.
"Not being honest with them has meant a huge price over recent years. I have had to keep a large part of my life secret. My family and friends have never been able to meet my partner, and it's meant that I have had a growing distance between some of these people because of the inability to be honest with them.
"And also I feel, as a politician, a bit of shame not to have set a better example to people who have the same issues and who might expect a bit more leadership from the top."
He feels some relief that this secret is out.
"I have heard from lots of friends over the past few days who said it didn't matter to them, or they didn't care about my sexuality, and to be able to meet them in the future, to be honest with them, to meet them with James, will be a huge relief," he said.
"I will always owe The Daily Telegraph that they have allowed me to be more honest about who I am and that part of it will lead to a greater happiness and sense of reconciliation in my personal life."
The support and understanding of friends and family has clearly made a strong impression.
He said: "They've been great about it and it makes me feel a bit silly about being so secretive about it for so long.
"I have always been worried about the relationship being revealed, not just in relation to the expenses but in relation to our privacy. Because I felt before, that the claims themselves were fine, and that I'd claimed pretty low amounts of money, and not for some of the extravagant things that people had claimed for, that it would be OK.
"And because in my own mind I always had taken the view that we would be able to keep that expenses relationship separate from our own private relationship, and so I suppose that in that way I had persuaded myself there was nothing formally wrong with it. It was not something that was formalised in terms of our financial situation or our ownership of property or anything."
Conspiracy theorists have pointed at the timing of the Telegraph's disclosure to explain a plot to destabilise the coalition Government, unpopular with some on the right wing of the Conservative party. Mr Laws appears not to be one of them.
"There are people who have conspiracy views. It is true that I think the role I have been playing in the coalition has been an important one at being some of the glue that kind of binds it together.
"But the truth is the Telegraph did pick at something which was an issue. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to find lots of excuses and blame the media but a lot of these problems relate to my inability to confront the truth and the means that I used to try to maintain the privacy of my life and relationships. I think I have to take responsibility for these things myself.
"It's very difficult to leave the Chief Secretary job but I'll adjust to that, and it was very difficult to have my sexuality and private life come out in 24 hours – but I can deal with that. The most difficult thing has been the sense of losing some self-respect and integrity, and wanting to be able to demonstrate to people that what I did was not about trying to abuse the expenses systems but was about trying to maintain privacy, and that even though I am paying money back if I had been honest and open then I could legitimately have claimed a far greater amount of money," he said.
If he was, as he put it, "shredded" at times over the past week, Mr Laws has recovered his focus and is thinking calmly and clearly about the future. And he can reflect with objectivity about the top political post he lost.
"I have enjoyed the job so much, and then to lose it is hard, especially with the Budget and the spending review coming up and being able to be in there at the centre of the Treasury, shaping those decisions, figuring out how to sort out the deficit without hurting people on low incomes and without damaging key public services. But nobody is irreplaceable. Danny Alexander will, with the Chancellor, make the right decisions, and it could be that what comes out will be pretty similar to what would have come out if I had been there."
He revealed that he left his successor a note, slightly more helpful than that left by his predecessor at the Treasury, Liam Byrne, for him.
It said: "Dear Chief Secretary, good luck, carry on cutting, but with care."
Mr Laws added: "I left him something that was given to me by a Lib Dem member, a few weeks ago, a knife sharpener with a Lib Dem rosette on it, and they gave it to me and said this is to help you in your kind of 'scalpel job' and the rosette is a reminder of the values that the party stands for, and make sure you have those values in mind when you do your job."
As the Western Daily Press reported, earlier this week, Mr Laws will listen to the views of his constituents before making a decision whether to continue as their MP.
"The job of MP is no less important to me than being in the Cabinet, and perhaps more so," he said.
"It is a huge honour to represent tens of thousands of people and I feel incredibly sad at having let down those people after having such a huge mandate in the election. There may be some people who may be upset about that.
"I wouldn't want to do this job if I didn't feel I had the support of people in the constituency. I haven't taken any decision to stand down. I love the constituency case work and want to continue it but I want to hear the constituency views and listen to people."