MPs' secretaries send flowers, cancel lunches and humour furious consti tuents, but they draw the line at working unpaid for their bosses' private busi ness interests. Perhaps that's because they have political ambitions of their o wn. Vicky Ward reports
Eight years ago, when Fiona Rippon, daughter of the former cabinet minister Lord Rippon, resigned as secretary to the Tory MP James Arbuthnot, she was labelled hysterical and unreasonable. "He has asked too much of me," she was quoted as saying, referring to her boss's requests that she organise his holidays and parties. She received little sympathy, in public at least, from her Westminster counterparts. "There was nothing in Mr Arbuthnot's list I wouldn't do," one Commons secretary spouted frostily, while others let it be known that they would be jostling to replace her.

Yet now the tables have turned. The secretaries are rising up against their masters, albeit behind closed doors. As the Independent reported yesterday, the 15-strong body which represents the bulk of the 651 MPs' staff has taken the unprecedented step ofagreeing to raise the issue of private work with the Commons authorities. If MPs ask their secretaries to handle work related to their extra-parliamentary interests, they are supposed to pay them for it. In practice, it seems, this rarely happens, and now the secretaries intend to do something about it.

The change in their attitude is remarkable. For years, parliamentary secretaries have conformed to their perceived stereotype: fearsome, hairsprayed blue-stockings, ready to die for their masters - or at least work regularly until four in the morning forthem. "Loyalty," one of them clucked yesterday, "loyalty is the key word."

Loyalty, and much, much more. For while their roles vary from MP to MP, many secretaries not only organise their bosses' diaries, they also yank them out of restaurants when they are needed in the House; they cure their hangovers before parliamentary question time; they protect them from irascible and persistent constituents; they put the phone down on the press; they walk their masters' dogs; they have been known to go flat-hunting for them, and some have even - brace yourselves - accompanied them on three-mile jogs at 7am.

But if knowledge is power - and there is not much that a good secretary does not know about every area of a boss's life - an MP's secretary has the potential to be a Napoleon of the Commons corridors. One only has to read Alan Clark's diaries to understand the fear and respect that they command. "Offend your secretary? You must be joking," one MP once quipped privately. "We know which side our bread is buttered on."

Unlike other businesses, Parliament does not prescribe a set role for secretaries. The job description depends entirely upon the MP who is hiring, as does the pay, which ranges from as little as £12,000 a year to as much as £40,000. Every MP has an office-costs allowance of £42,000 a year, out of which, unless he or she has private funds, he or she must pay for the entire office (constituency affairs included), from the fax paper to the staff.

"We are mostly hired internally, or by word of mouth," says Margaret McGavin, who has been secretary to the Liberal Democrat MP Sir Russell Johnston for 30 years. "There is a clearing system which tries to relocate those whose bosses lose their seat in an election. The jobs are very rarely advertised."

Not that too many vacancies crop up: once a Commons secretary, always a Commons secretary, it seems. "If your boss loses his seat in the election, then there is a clearing system and with a bit of luck you will be redeployed," one secretary chirped.

Just how arduous is this sheltered and secure life, we might fairly ask? The food is subsidised, the working environment challenging, the location first rate: one researcher in the House of Commons described working there as being like a member of "the best club in London". Some secretaries, as we know, even end up marrying MPs (Douglas Hurd, Matthew Banks, Hugo Summerson, for example), though secretaries are quick to refute the idea that this happens more than in any other comparably sized business.

Christine Hamilton, who works for her husband, Neil, the Conservative MP for Tatton, says: "Some secretaries just do typing, some run the MP's diary and the constituency cases, and some want to be fully involved in the research - ie, help table questions, write amendments to bills, draft speeches - it varies enormously from MP to MP."

But, she adds, as did several other Commons secretaries, that the workload, regardless of specific job description, has got much more onerous over the years. The media has made MPs much more familiar to the public, and fax machines have made them more accessible. MPs, every secretary agreed, now get at least 1,000 letters a day.

Angela Mortimer, who runs one of London's top secretarial recruitment agencies, says: "MPs have always had private work, and this has always comprised part of a secretary's work - to be able to juggle an MP's diary has always been and should be the primeskill of a parliamentary PA.

"The archetypal PA is a person who dedicates her life to making her boss's life easier. If some of those who want to use their secretarial skills en route to something else have entered Westminster and are unhappy, they should have discussed the role more fully at interview."

Secretaries who are employed solely for administrative purposes are often helped by keen young graduates, fresh from university, nominally hired as "researchers". Usually, researchers are aspiring politicos looking to gain some experience and political contacts for a career later on as a MP - Giles Radice and Michael Portillo, for example, both held research posts.

Probably as a consequence of their ambition, many researchers like to think of themselves as being more intellectually gifted than the secretaries with whom they work - and many MPs delegate the task of drafting bills, amendments, speeches and parliamentary questions to their researchers.

In practice, however, the researchers would be lost without the secretaries. "Undoubtedly, the researchers play second fiddle to the secretaries," explained Simon Murray, 20, who did a stint for a Tory MP in his gap year between school and university. "If there's a queue for the photocopier, the secretaries take precedence. Without them, the whole operation would collapse. Quite often you find the researcher doing the grunt work and the secretary doing the interesting stuff, because they have known the MP for so much longer and know where he stands on various issues, so the difference in the nominal job descriptions is worthless."

If the traditional distinction between secretaries and researchers is the latter's long-term ambition, that now appears to be changing. Increasingly, there is a new breed of secretary visible in the House of Commons with an express interest in politics, the appearance of which just may help to explain the recent revolt.

"More secretaries are joining us in the Red Lion," one researcher explained, referring to the Whitehall pub where she and her colleagues tend to meet after work. "I would say that people are now becoming secretaries in order to go into politics - no one has managed it yet, but these things take time. Ten years ago, though, you would not have found any secretaries with political ambition."

In addition, many secretaries have started to attend the weekly meetings of the Association of All Conservative Parliamentary Staff. Each week a different minister speaks about what he or she has been doing and then the staff ask questions. But in the old days, according to a former researcher now in his thirties, "most secretaries rather looked down their nose at the actual nitty gritty of politics".

The loyalty exhibited by the women I spoke to - and they remain predominantly women, with the possible sole exception of Ian Phelps, secretary to the Tory MP Edward Leigh - was unwavering: all of them said they believed in their bosses' politics.

Few, therefore, were rushing to explain why the secretaries should have suddenly decided to take issue with their bosses' demands that they perform private work for them. "Slaves is what we are," said one. "I had to give my boss's arthritic mother a guided tour of the Commons - it took four hours," moaned another. "Most of us could not imagine having normal nine-to-five jobs," said another - but, she added quickly, "we wouldn't want them."

Some MPs' secretaries may be so confident that their bosses cannot live without them that they will push their demand for extra payment for private work until it is conceded. The problem, of course, is that some fear for their jobs, while those with political ambitions are unlikely to want to scupper their political contacts by complaining. They might, however, console themselves with the thought that they are gaining a first-class, insider lesson in confrontational politics.