At last - Tories understand life on the dole

Ex-MPs' payoff money stops today, writes Jojo Moyes
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The Independent Online
Six months ago today, 127 Conservative MPs found themselves out of a job. This weekend, when the minimum "resettlement" payment of half their annual salary runs out, many will also find themselves without an income.

In the past, Tories could expect to walk into well-paid jobs in quangos, health trusts or corporate boardrooms. The Establishment looked after its own.

But under Labour, former Tory MPs have found fewer welcoming arms; in City boardrooms, supporters of Her Majesty's Opposition cannot claim influence with the party in power.

And while former ministers such as Kenneth Clarke still attract consultancies, and political "celebrities" such as Neil Hamilton complain about impending poverty, there are many lesser-known MPs who have struggled unnoticed to rejoin civilian life.

James Couchman is typical. The Conservative MP for Gillingham since 1983, he missed out by a year on the maximum "resettlement" grant of one year's salary awarded to MPs who are aged 55-64 and who have served for more than 15 years.

His grant, he says, has paid for "Mr Sainsbury's but not a lot else," while most of his "winding-up allowance" (maximum pounds 15,000) went to his secretary.

Perhaps this is less likely to prompt sympathy than calls of "get on your bike", but Mr Couchman has done that - and found that having "former Tory MP" on one's CV is not the greatest magnet for highly paid work.

"It's very difficult to find any work. No one seems to want to know," he said last week. "I've made 60 applications for jobs which I could do and am qualified to do, but so far I've had two interviews - one of which is live, the other dead."

Mr Couchman believes he is well qualified, having experience of running a family business for 25 years. "I've gone for directorships, chief executives of charities, trade associations, school bursarships. I've even sent in applications for the public sector, but one has this dark suspicion..." He pauses. "Let's say I'm sure that being a Tory MP is not an asset on your CV."

Mr Couchman says he is better off than many. His children have left university, and his house is paid for. "I know that I'm in much less trouble than some of my colleagues ... whose commitments would be much greater than mine," he says.

"But it's finding something to do with one's time. One misses the companionship of the Commons quite a lot... All MPs work long hours, and not just five days a week. And then there were all the functions. One misses being part of the local scene." The invitations, he says, have largely dried up, except for "some of the more thoughtful", which he has been at pains to attend.

And it is not just the MPs who suffer. MPs' partners, used to spending long periods alone,have to adjust to having their spouse under their feet. "My wife says 'For goodness sake, I wish you'd get back to work. I can't stand the lunches.' But she's been very supportive through a very difficult six months. It's been a strain on both of us."

Mr Couchman, although a little dispirited, is determined to find a job. He and his wife, he says, are "vaguely contemplating going back into business".

Mr Couchman's experience is far from unique among former Conservative MPs, although he is one of the few willing to talk on the record. Most reported to be seeking employment failed to return calls, while at least two contacted for this article declined to talk.

Sir Graham Bright, former MP for Luton South and vice- chairman of the party, who also lost his seat, recognises how difficult many MPs have found the transition. He set up a support group which keeps displaced Tory MPs in touch with the party, and in some cases, has found them paid work within it.

Realising immediately the "talent and experience" about to be wasted, he says, he set up a telephone directory so that former MPs could still remain in touch - both with each other, and with the party.

"Having worked with people for 18 years you don't even have their phone number," he says. "So you're cut off."

Now he has approximately 70 former MPs actively involved in constituency and party activities. Some, such as Sebastian Coe (now deputy chief of staff in William Hague's office), have come "right back in".

Sir Graham is financially secure, as the chairman of a family company. Others, he admits, have not been so lucky: "A lot have had a stretch of trying to build themselves up an income." But the group, he says, has a wider purpose.

"Apart from getting them out and about we keep them informed. We do seminars with front-bench spokespeople to update them. We don't want them to get out of touch."

As Mr Couchman adds, somewhat wistfully: "The next general election is a long way away."