Demanding job that has to bring its own reward

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As leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague is permitted the comparative luxury of a private secretary, two assistant private secretaries, a diary secretary and a personal secretary in addition to his team of press secretaries, researchers and volunteers. But as former Conservative Cabinet ministers have recently been reminded, such back-up is well beyond the means of the ordinary MP, for his or her modest salary will stretch only to one Commons secretary and a researcher. The average Commons secretary can expect long hours and a punishing workload. Her role tends to be an all-consuming, highly sensitive and in many ways precarious one, requiring a level of dedication and devotion which to many may appear nothing short of a labour of love.

Yet dissatisfaction appears to be rare and loyalties strong. Ask a member of staff what's in it for her and she - it is usually a she - will almost certainly answer that there can be few jobs as fun or as theatrical as working for an MP in the Palace of Westminister. The fact that any slip-up on a secretary's part may be seized upon by political commentators and opposing parties appears only to add to the excitement.

Linda McDougal, author of the recently televised Westminster Women and wife of MP Austin Mitchell, is so fascinated by the impenetrable world of Commons secretaries that she intends to devote an entire programme to it. "It is a very different role to that of the average PA," she says. "Nowadays their duties tend to be more than just secretarial, for they combine administration with research. On any summer's evening the Terrace is crowded with young secretaries chatting with their MPs. They work very closely with their bosses, most of whom spend the week away from their homes, and quite often their role is to keep the likes of you and me away from the MP."

Is it any wonder that such devotion to a boss can stretch to extracurricular activities? Yet if past indiscretions teach us anything it is that should amorous encounters come to light, the secretary is more likely to suffer than her boss. Witness Sara Keays, struggling lone parent, cast out into the political wilderness while Cecil Parkinson, the child's father, after a token period of contrition, bounced back into the political limelight. Attempts to ridicule Paddy Ashdown for his affair with his Commons secretary Tricia Howard backfired, while Robin Cook steadfastly refuses to be shamed over his affair with his secretary Gaynor Regan. It appears that only when an MP makes a complete fool of himself by getting caught with a doting "bimbo", as in the case of former Tory MP Piers Merchant, can one expect his resignation.

Today's Commons Secretary needs to have her wits about her to survive in the cut-throat and still very blokey world of Westminster. The old breed of long-suffering and curiously apolitical Commons secretary is almost extinct. Secretaries now tend to be ambitious, as in the case of Claire Whelan, former secretary to Edwina Currie. Claire stood as a candidate herself at the last election, displaying an enthusiasm for political life which Edwina admits outshone her own. "A well-trained PA is worth her weight in gold," says Edwina. "Although many secretaries working for male MPs are in love with them, the best secretary maintains an independent mind. Hero worship is no good."

Claire Whelan admits having been initially in awe of Edwina, but says she quickly learnt not to be a doormat. "You have to be able to tell your boss when you think he or she should be doing things differently." She adds: "In public I was very careful not to break confidences." Edwina says: "Staff tend to be secretive and protective, even more paranoid and hostile towards the press than their bosses." Commons secretaries often want to be close to the famous rather than being famous themselves, becoming in Edwina's words "an office wife".

In a world where fortunes are often reversed, one can only pity the Conservative staff whose loyalty was rewarded with unemployability following election defeat. According to Claire Whelan, Peter Mandelson issued an edict to all Labour MPs that on no account were they to employ a secretary who had worked for a Tory MP. The days of a secretary being able to move across the parties with impunity seem long gone.

Christine Hamilton exemplifies the politically loyal nature of the Commons secretary. "When I began working at the House 21 years ago aged 21, I initially wanted to be an MP but soon realised I didn't want to be in the firing line." Married to Neil Hamilton, she has also worked as his secretary for 13 years. "I always describe politics as being like a mistress - it consumes all the time, energies and passions that should belong to a wife. One of the most problematic areas for any secretary is liaising between MP and wife - one can easily understand how resentments can build up."

According to Christine there is no such thing as the average MP's secretary, for although a bright young thing will naturally look for a bright young MP, in reality there are 650 MPs and 650 different kinds of Commons secretary. Dealing with so many people you have to be able to find out what everyone wants, from Mrs Bloggs to the PM, you have to be prepared to be flexible. Small wonder that when Labour MP Jimmy Wray sacked his constituency secretary, who also happened to be his wife, she took him to an industrial tribunal and won. President Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie, has been reported as telling Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor investigating claims of a cover-up, that Clinton had coached her to give a testimony consistent with his own. Whether she gets the better of the president, only time will tell.