LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron’s handling of an expenses scandal engulfing one of his ministers has put him under pressure before European elections, threatening his Conservative party’s already clouded electoral outlook.
Cameron, whose party risks being beaten into third place in next month’s European Parliament elections behind the anti-EU UKIP, has stood by Maria Miller, the minister for culture, since a parliamentary report ordered her to pay back wrongly claimed expenses last week.
But the media and public backlash against Miller shows no sign of abating despite Cameron’s efforts to end it. Many of his own MPs have privately questioned his judgement over the issue and he is under growing pressure to rethink his decision.
At a time when he is trying to take on UKIP and woo voters by claiming credit for Britain’s economic recovery, he instead finds himself being asked every day why he hasn’t sacked Miller.
The issue is a sensitive one in Britain after lawmakers’ expenses claims were leaked to the media in 2009, exposing widespread real and perceived abuse, shaking the political establishment and denting public confidence in politics.
“Maria Miller is in her job and she is doing a good job as culture secretary,” Cameron said on Monday, refusing to cave in to calls to fire her.
Conservative MPs are uneasy about the way the case has come to dominate politics so close to the May 22 European poll.
Nicola Blackwood, a Conservative lawmaker and ministerial aide, was one of the few willing to publicly comment on Monday.
“Clearly it’s very unhelpful for this to drag on in the way that it is,” she told BBC Radio Oxford.
Norman Tebbit, a prominent former chairman of the Conservative party, has called on Miller to resign as has an organisation representing grassroots party activists.
The two top-selling newspapers that the Conservatives usually rely on to deliver votes - The Sun and The Daily Mail - have turned on Cameron over the scandal too.
UKIP, which wants Britain to leave the EU and an end to ‘open door immigration’, has repeatedly accused the Conservatives and Britain’s other main political parties of being part of an “out of touch” elite.
It has pointed to the Miller scandal as a case in point.
A YouGov opinion poll on Sunday found that the Conservatives were on course to come third in the elections to the European Parliament, behind UKIP and the opposition Labour party which the survey suggested would battle it out for first place.
If accurate, it would be the first time in their history that the Conservatives had come third in a national election, in this case for the European parliament.
The Conservatives might fare much better if an election to the British parliament were held. British voters often use European elections to vent their frustration at mainstream parties, while returning to vote for them in UK-only polls.
YouGov said debating victories by Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, in two recent TV debates on Europe against Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and leader of the Lib Dems, Cameron’s junior coalition partner, had put UKIP on course to win the European vote.
However, it predicted UKIP would struggle to convert its success into seats at a British national election in 2015, where the voting system favours the bigger more established parties.
Miller, who helped push through new laws legalising gay marriage, was cleared by an investigation of the central allegation against her - that she has used parliamentary allowances to cover her parents’ living costs.
But she was found to have tried to hinder the inquiry into her expenses and to have inadvertently over-claimed mortgage interest payments.
One inquiry put the amount she had over-claimed at 45,000 pounds, another at 5,800 pounds.
Miller apologised to parliament about her attitude towards the inquiry. But the brevity of her apology - 32 seconds - angered her critics.
Editing by Ralph Boulton