by Kevin Meagher
Ever since Norman Fowler resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s government claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family (although he didn’t quite use that phrase) resigning from ministerial office for reasons other than sexual exposure, financial corruption or manifest incompetence has been something of a curiosity in Westminster.
Yesterday, foreign office minister Mark Simmonds “did a Fowler,” quitting the government in the pursuit of a happier life. At just 50 and with a desirable job and safe seat (from which he had previously announced he was retiring at the next election), Simmonds seemed to have it all going for him. Yet his farewell to politics is evidence that he does not have it all; certainly not the balanced existence he craves.
For him, the ephemeral buzz of high office gave way to the practicalities of family life. Explaining his move, Simmonds said:
“The allowances that enable Members of Parliament to stay in London while they are away from their families – my family lives in Lincolnshire in my constituency – does not allow me to rent a flat which can accommodate my family, so I very rarely see my family and I have to put family life first.”
“Mr Simmonds” reported the BBC “said the idea of spending another five years rarely seeing his children and staying in a different hotel room each night “’fills me with horror’”.
It’s easy to mock his decision – 90k minister can’t rent a plush London crash pad – but Simmonds has exposed an unsayable aspect at the heart of life in Westminster – that so many MPs, on all sides, are deeply unhappy people.
Many feel they are trying to juggle an important job that doesn’t pay particularly well (sorry, it doesn’t) while clinging on to some kind of a family life and, usually, running two homes (or, in Simmonds’s case a home and a procession of hotel rooms). To this add in the perennial demands of constituents, party workers, and whips, the nagging worry of electoral defeat and the glare of unrelenting media scrutiny.
Of course, MPs will never say any of this for two perfectly understandable reasons. The first is that a hundred other people would happily crawl across broken glass (and much worse besides) to replace them. The second is that the public simply doesn’t give a stuff about how miserable their MPs are. In fact, the more disconsolate they are, the better.
Forget about work-life balance; the political life is all-consuming. It’s a wonder that any MPs’ marriages hold together or that there kids even recognise them. This is why so many compensate by having spouses and children work for them. (This, in turn, earns them a bucket of ordure for milking the expenses system and turning their office into a family business).
Sunday’s Observer reported that 15 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party will resign at next year’s election – twice the rate that retired before Labour’s 1997 landslide. There will of course be a range of individual reasons, but more and more MPs seem to be realising that the all-too-common experience of resentful partners and distant children are sacrifices that are not, in the final analysis, worth making.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut