Election time means more for MPs than tub-thumping, door-stepping and soft-soaping. It means clearing the desk, the office, the flat. And fast. By Kathy Harvey
The Treasury minister Angela Knight - soon to become the rather less grandly titled Conservative parliamentary candidate for Erewash - opens the first draw of the antique desk in her Whitehall office and takes out two crumpled plastic Sainsbury's bags. The debris and ephemera of her 20 months in office must be removed by the time Parliament is formally dissolved after Easter, but she cannot fit all of her personal belongings into the cardboard box that civil servants have thoughtfully provided.

Most MPs and ministers heading for home today won't be coming back to London until after polling day. That's if they are re-elected, of course. Angela Knight knows that it would only take a 41/2 per cent swing away from the Conservatives to wipe out her majority of just under 6,000 in her constituency on the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire borders. "I keep seeing myself featuring in the swingometers on election night. I keep thinking, `Is this the last time I will do this?' And there's actually a lot of things which have to be completed quickly. One of the priorities is outstanding letters from MPs. Yesterday I signed well over 200 who had inquiries on behalf of constituents."

Although Angela Knight remains one of Her Majesty's ministers until the results of the general election are revealed, she won't be able to enjoy any of the trappings of office. The rules state that she must pack her bags. Among the items destined for the Sainsbury's bags are a photograph of her two sons, Alex, 11, and Robin, 8; the painted pot they made for their mother's office; a bottle of hairspray (invaluable for TV interviews); and a copy of the memorandum of understanding signed with China and given to her by officials there last October as a personal gift. It is one of the few reminders of her life at the Treasury that she can take away with her. She is less sure what to do with the Chinese compass, which doesn't work but also doesn't belong to the Treasury.

"Once I am in the constituency, I won't be back for the duration, and if there is any work for me to do a red box will be sent up to me. In many respects, business goes on hold at a time like this - you can only work on those things which were set in motion before the election was called - so the likelihood of a large problem arising is quite small. If I had to come back to Whitehall I would have to go to the front desk and ask to be let in."

Angela Knight knows that she was lucky to have been given a job in the Treasury as her first taste of ministerial office. Other hopefuls on the ministerial ladder have had to wait much longer to be summoned inside the imposing Whitehall building. "I never expected to be made a minister during my first term in Parliament, and it's been a great experience. There actually isn't time now to stop and think it's sad that I am moving out. Irrespective of the election result, I probably wouldn't be returned as a minister to this department anyway. I think that after the election is the time one stops to take breath."

While Angela Knight moves back to Erewash for the next six weeks, one of her constituents who has offered to work for the Prime Minister's campaign team is moving into her flat in Victoria. Every party worker, no matter how senior, is expected to contribute to the election machine.

Ten minutes' taxi drive away in Kennington, south London, two Labour MPs are also preparing to give up their usual weekday accommodation. The business of packing up for home is a weekly routine for Ann Coffey and Jane Kennedy, both of whom spend three days of the week in London and at least two travelling the motorway network back and forth from their north-west constituencies. But this time they're taking more than the usual overnight bags: like Angela Knight, they are giving their flat to their party's campaign team for the next six weeks.

Jane Kennedy's teddy and Ann Coffey's cassette recorder are being loaded up for the return journey. Smart suits and shoes are all stuffed into the bags for the journey. Meanwhile, Ann Coffey's attempts to make a cup of coffee for herself are sabotaged when she discovers that the milk in the fridge is at least two weeks out of date.

Like Angela Knight, Jane Kennedy and Ann Coffey both entered Parliament at the last election - and have shadow responsibilities, Jane as a whip and Ann as a member of the health team. Labour's huge lead in the opinion polls means that both women can enter the six-week campaign with real enthusiasm, but the fact that Ann Coffey is defending a majority of less than 1,500 in Stockport means she is taking nothing for granted. "I think that if you've ever fought a marginal seat you never feel safe in your job as an MP. This coming six weeks will be a period of enormous anxiety because the future is so uncertain. Everything focuses on 1 May, and I am just concentrating on getting over the finishing line."

Ann Coffey, a single mother with a 19-year-old daughter, and Jane Kennedy, married to a national organiser for the Co-op party, and fighting a Liverpool seat, combined resources to take out a mortgage on their Kennington flat two years ago, a decision which they say had more to do with high rental prices than with confidence in the outcome of the 1997 election. If their electors fail to return either of them to Parliament, they will probably advertise their accommodation among the new intake of MPs, who will be struggling to find somewhere to live. There is often a scramble to find the best floor space when a new intake arrives, one reason why Coffey and Kennedy ended up renting a flat as far away as Hampstead for the first two years of their parliamentary careers.

If they retain their seats, living quarters won't be a problem, but the thorny issue of office space will still have to be argued over afresh. From the moment that Parliament is dissolved they cease to be MPs, and lose the right to their Commons offices.

Jane Kennedy has opted for a wholesale removal. "I am taking all my computer equipment with me, because it is so useful for accessing information during the campaign. Although candidates can go back to their Commons offices if they really need to, they have no rights of access and have to be escorted throughout the Palace of Westminster. Things can be made very difficult."

Ann Coffey has moved up in the world of parliamentary office politics since being allocated a cubby hole in a corridor when she arrived. But she loses her prime spot now.

"I was really pleased to get an office to myself in the new Millbank block last October - but I have no idea if I will be that lucky next time."

Luck may not have as much to do with things, of course, as patronage and pecking orders. Every MP knows that the issue of office space can only be settled after lengthy negotiations with the whips' office. Who you know and how many favours you are owed often determine your fate, and for years Labour have complained that the Opposition's allocation of space is inferior. Jane Kennedy and Ann Coffey have learnt the ropes in the past five years, and say that if they are re-elected, the early days of the next Parliament will be much easier to negotiate than the last time.

Ann likens the experience to that of a first-year college student. "All the difficulties are in the little practical things, finding somewhere to live, somewhere to eat cheaply - even the best bus routes to Westminster. It won't be that difficult if I win this time."

Just as ministers retain their responsibilities during the campaign, so do Opposition frontbenchers such as Ann Coffey. So-called "key campaigners" are being given a schedule of events that they must attend as party representatives, regardless of their own constituency campaigns. There will be little respite from the treadmill until polling day. Then, those lucky enough to be voted back can begin the rounds of horse-trading over accommodation and office space, while those without a seat consider whether to join the next queue of hopefuls on the list of candidates for a by-election. Only those with Herculean stamina need applyn