The Caroline Spelman situation does not look good for the Tories. In fact, it looks absolutely bloody awful. Not only does it come hot on the heels of yet another MEP being caught taking full advantage of the over-generous expenses and under-regulation of the European parliament, it also comes at what is, paradoxically, the worst possible time. Currently, they are riding high in the polls, but much of this support is new and shallow: it can evaporate as suddenly as it appeared. Voters who have in recent elections dipped a cautious toe in Conservative blue waters, as fading memories of Tory malpractice were replaced by newer ones of Labour's illiberalism and incompetence, haven't yet internalised the Tory habit. Every cross in a Conservative box is, for these essential swing-voters, a tentative one. If they are repelled now they may never want to come back.
This, moreover, is the time of greatest weakness for Gordon Brown. Take the heat off now, and it might not get hot enough again. Indeed, so ghastly is the timing that some commenters on Conservative Home suspect a classic BBC stitch-up designed to distract attention from the mess Labour is in. Labour MPs and ministers, not excluding Brown himself, have their own expenses embarrassments - and their silence over the exposure of the latest Tory MEP's season ticket on the gravy train has been louder than the denunciations which they could once be relied on to produce. It's at least arguable that childcare for a young female MP is a higher public priority than Gordon Brown's satellite TV.
Spelman's explanations for her conduct, though, seem far from convincing. Trying to be charitable, it would appear that she baulked at the cost of a nanny and didn't have much in the way of constituency business to require the services of a full-time secretary (perhaps the greatest indictment of all). Yet by her own admission there was a huge backlog of mail to deal with from the previous MP. She was new in Parliament and might not have understood the full implications of the rules; and she did seek to clarify the matter with the chief whip after a few months. Presumably she was too busy to sort things out earlier. After all, as George Osbourne told the BBC, Spelman is "someone of enormous integrity and honesty".
It is possible to see why the front bench are anxious to support her. For a start, her misconduct, if such it was, took place eleven years ago, at a time when she was a new and obscure backbencher. Moreover, the chief whip at the time clearly did not approve the situation and made sure that Spelman's arrangements were changed. Although the matter did not come to public notice at the time, it's clear that even at that stage, when a decimated Conservative party was synonymous with sleaze, internal party rules frowned on such conduct (even if it was, as Spelman insists, "within the rules"). If it had come to public attention ten years ago, Spelman would have apologised; and that would have been that. She might even have made a good case to be made that child-care provision should be paid for out of Parliamentary expenses. And ten years on, her brush with controversy might have made her seem an ideal person to oversee the push for transparency in Europe.
Moreover, Spelman is also that rare thing, a Conservative woman in a prominent position. With so few to choose from, yet the political necessity of showing a "diverse" front bench, there are inevitable dangers of over-promotion. She is not particularly well-regarded by many grassroots activists. She does, though, have the wholehearted backing of Iain Dale:
The baying mob is once again in evidence. Its victim this time is Caroline Spelman. A more unlikely candidate for condemnation is difficult to think of. No one seriously believes Caroline Spelman is - or ever was - on the make.
Dale also tried to defend Derek Conway from the baying mob back in January.