The women of Westminster: Why do so many MPs seem to end up in bed with their female colleagues? Julia Langdon meets women who know

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The Independent Online
Not many people who work in the Palace of Westminster regard it as just another job. It is not like anywhere else. There is a peculiar attraction to it, both for politicians and for those who are attracted by power. That is as true for the barmaid who listens to the drunken midnight maunderings of ministers - and who respects their confidences with as much discretion as the most fastidious lobby correspondent - as it is for the dedicated political sophisticate. It is an immensely interesting place, full of eccentric, exceptional people - and things happen there.

MPs are used to promoting their own attractions. They set out to make themselves appear desirable in order to get selected and elected in the first place. They also have to deal with difficult people - and are used to applying a little practised charm. This may explain why some male MPs who do not exactly look like Lotharios clearly have potent appeal to women.

There is an excitement about all this which creates a palpable tension in the air. Because politics is about power, it is also about risk. This cocktail becomes even more potent when sexual tension is added.

And it is added. The Commons is still a place of weighty masculinity. The Lords is far worse. For some women this is part of the attraction, for others it has to be allowed for, however tiresome. All this is not to say that women MPs, married and unmarried, do not sometimes get caught up in tangled love affairs. But most women, and particularly married MPs with children, are probably too busy.

The moral crusade launched at the Conservative conference last autumn was not meant to be about sexual mores, but the policy has rebounded because politicians are sometimes caught up in sexually unconventional behaviour. Politicians are not ordinary people. In the first place, they choose this odd way of life. They subject themselves to humiliation to secure election and if they are successful they are likely to encounter a great deal more of it when they arrive at Westminster.

Most of them are surrounded by the illusion of power, but in reality they are kicked around by the Whips and harassed by their constituents. They work in uncomfortable conditions, at extraordinary hours of the day and night and usually hundreds of miles from their hearth, not to mention their heart's desire. Often they drink too much and then frequently find themselves in the company of like-minded, sympathetic people of the opposite sex, who admire them and share their taste for risks. And they have a bona fide excuse for being seen together: she's a researcher, or a secretary or a journalist. The rest is predictable.

THE MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT

It's so sexless - the men are deeply unattractive

Since I've been an MP I haven't felt the sexual pull of men towards me because of what I am doing - but I have felt the power pull. They don't know quite how they're going to handle you; they're not used to responding to women in a situation of power and it's worrying for them. Sometimes they will bring a woman with them because they think it might make me less likely to put them down. It's not a sexual thing: it's about them not being used to treating women as powerful.

I get away with murder because I'm a woman. At social functions they don't have the mechanism to control me as they could a man, so I can dominate and put points that a man could never get over. There are clear benefits which are power- related. But then their pricks may be the size of their brains and one may not be able to work without the other.

If you want to change policy, have a positive impact on people's lives, then you have to go to awful Westminster to do it - if you can. Once you're here you have to believe it makes a difference or you wouldn't sit it out week after week. But the longer you are here, the greater hurry you are in and the greater the desire to change the place so it's more welcoming to women MPs. And men MPs.

There's no doubt that once you are here there is some sort of survival instinct. You will see MPs of different parties talk to each other in preference to punters. There's something about the place which makes you want to keep together. It's very difficult to get across to people the camaraderie between politicians.

It's such a sexless place for women because most of the men are deeply unattractive - and they're usually deeply smelly by Thursday. You know when they've had a tough weekend at home or when they're tired - but it doesn't make for a power- sex thing for women.

Male MPs respond to you as a woman because they are lonely, they respond to you as someone who knows their life. Women tend to turn to other women. If I was uptight, or threatened, or miserable at home I'd talk to one of the close women I know here. I wouldn't talk to a man.

THE MEP's ASSISTANT

Just a spot of harmless fun in a busy life

We were making a programme about the European Community. It was decided to bring a British MP along to compare the different way things were done. He came out ahead of the others to recce and we spent a couple of days on our own. The first evening we were on best behaviour, but on the second we had dinner with lots of wine and ended up in bed.

Forget what they look like: MPs are professional charmers. It's part of the job. He was in a four-star hotel with all expenses paid, away from base: later we admitted that we'd known from the first hour what would happen. I was between relationships and needed a morale boost. He only saw his wife for the odd night or two: what was he supposed to do with his sex drive?

When he came back to Brussels a fortnight later with the crew in tow it was more complicated. We usually ate together in the evenings, but he would slip away early saying he had work to catch up on and let himself into my room unobserved. When I went up later I had to knock on the door, which led to one narrow escape when the reporter suddenly appeared and started nuzzling my ear, saying why didn't I come to his room?

Anyway, the MP and I had a great time that week - raiding the mini-bar and giggling in bed - and as far as I know nobody sussed us. When he got back to London he did ring a few times, but the zip had gone out of it. It was never going to be a heavy affair; just a spot of harmless fun in a very busy life. It happens all the time.

THE NEWSPAPER JOURNALIST

My 'affair' with the cabinet minister

I suppose Westminster is quite a romantic place - I don't mean in the sex sense. Here is this great Gothic building with outdated rituals and unsatisfactory conditions. It has a mystique which it is attractive to be part of: you're an insider, you belong to the club.

One former MP said that when he was here the place was practically celibate - but now it's absolutely chock-full of secretaries and researchers and you can't move for what he called nubilia, so of course they misbehave. Even if you don't play around, people think you do.

There was one rumour about me having an affair with a cabinet minister that I gather was terribly well known for about two years before I heard about it. I was at a dinner party and a colleague rang up to speak to me urgently. He was meaning to be nice and said he felt he ought to warn me that this rumour was abroad about me and because of the man involved there was some fishing around going on. He was very careful how he put it because he obviously thought it might be true. So when I gave a hoot of laughter and said 'Who]' he said, with a mixture of relief and disappointment, 'Oh, isn't it true, then?'.

Male MPs like being cornered by women journalists, it brings out their flirtatiousness, and it's fairly easy to strike up a relationship with them. Politicians are very easy to flatter at the best of times - and easier still if you're a woman.

The women working at Westminster vary a lot: there are some who are foreign; some who really don't know whether it's Wednesday or Christmas and some who are really bright. But if you're only 20, you are much more easily seduced by the atmosphere of the place.

The journalists realise it's not actually glamorous - but if you're 20 and you're taken for lunch on the terrace you think it's wonderful.

It's fun and exciting and obviously there's power there. You know you're a member of this exclusive club. You don't very often meet the Prime Minister wandering down the corridor, but you might. And never mind the issues, it's a place for gossip: Who's up? Who's down? Who's been screwing whom, metaphorically or literally? It's all fascinating and it's all there. Politics is about power and power is a magnetism. It's very beguiling.

THE TELEVISION REPORTER

Everyone assumed we were discussing work

Some years ago I was doing a story about the launch of a new British product that was going to be a world-beater. It was manufactured in this MP's constituency, so I went to interview him and as soon as we set eyes on each other we clicked. He was married, but I admired his energy and expertise - yes, and his looks and sex appeal - and luckily we were on the same side of the political divide. I don't think it would have got off the ground otherwise.

He rang me the day after the report was transmitted to say how balanced and well-informed it was, adding casually that if ever I found myself in the House I should let him know and he'd buy me a drink. A few days later I did find myself there (it's never difficult to find an excuse) so I gave my name to one of the attendants in the central lobby, who went off to look for him. He came out beaming, and took me to the members' guest room for a drink. I found him electrifying. He was booked for dinner, but he said if I could give him a few days' notice next time, he'd give me a meal in the Churchill Room (one of the smart dining rooms in the House of Commons).

Well, obviously, I took him up on it, and he gave me a lavish dinner. It wasn't necessary to be secretive because my face was fairly well known, so if any MP came up to speak to him he just said: 'Do you know Janine?' and everyone would answer: 'Yes, I've seen you on television.' They took it for granted that we were discussing some future programme. It meant we never had to lie - but we couldn't exactly hold hands, either.

His constituency is up in the North so he had a service flat in London and only went home at weekends. Nevertheless it was nearly two months after our first meeting before we actually made love. I was madly in love with him by then and had begun to think he would never ask. I knew he fancied me, but I thought he was too afraid of scandal to make a move. As the risk was all on his side, I didn't feel I could pounce on him.

When it finally started it quickly became a real, full-blown love affair. He even talked of divorcing his wife. We met whenever we possibly could for two years, but then he delivered a bombshell by saying his wife was pregnant. That hurt me terribly.

By then I quite desperately wanted to marry him. He made other men seem colourless and mundane by comparison with his energy and inside knowledge and capacity to live a 24-hour day.

After that we stopped sleeping together for a year, but after the next general election we began to see each other again. Now it's turned into a really good, close friendship. I tell him about my problems at work and I sometimes wonder if he confides in his wife as much as he does me.

I have to admit, he's a really useful contact for political information. I can always rely on him for the off-the-record insider version of what's going on in the House. But that makes me sound cold-blooded, whereas I really love him still, just not in such an erotic way any more.

I think we'll always be friends and - who knows? If his wife dies before I do, he might even make an honest woman of me.

THE SECRETARY

Politicians seem to have extra sex drive

Some secretaries do come here for the social life. They're out to dinner every night, at the opera, in and out of cocktail parties. You do come across some quite glitzy people, not just MPs, who rather like having a glamorous woman to take out for the evening - not necessarily to sleep with, although obviously that can be a part of it.

I shared an office with one once who never did any work. She was on the telephone the whole time organising balls and drinks with smart City friends and then she went off to lunch with journalists.

Politicians seem to have an extra gene, or chromosome, that gives them a sex drive which can be something of a handicap: President Kennedy, for example, and others I could mention closer to home. Alan Clark didn't hide his interest in his diaries, did he? Perhaps it's a lust for life. Politicians are usually amusing and witty and they do some good - and, yes, it's sexy because they are self-confident.

It used to be a very nice job for gels up from the country. They met socially acceptable people, they didn't have to work on Mondays and Fridays - or in the recess much - and there were only two or three letters to handle because the constituents didn't write. All that has changed, although there are still some who were in that category once - the old dragons who've been here since Pugin won the competition. People like me don't have university degrees but we find the place is user-friendly as long as we train our Members properly.

The ones I don't understand are the women who work for anyone you care to mention. I suppose they must be husband-hunting.

The one thing I'm not particularly interested in is politics, but I like working here because politicians are very entertaining companions and the place buzzes with interest and excitement.

Some secretaries are incredibly bright. There are also pretty and intelligent women, not unaware of their own attraction. They do have affairs - but don't intend to break up marriages. Of course when sex rears its ugly head, when two people get frightfully attracted to each other, you're not rational.

There is a problem about shelf- life here, though, if you are looking for a husband. If you're not careful, you get past your sell-by date. One girl said to me recently that she had been engaged once, but she just couldn't pick the right man. The trouble is that the sort of man she wants to marry is not going to marry someone who, by the time she has got to 32 or so, not to put too fine a point upon it, is very definitely well-used.

THE RESEARCHER

Most of us don't fancy the wrinklies

There might be some women researchers who would regard it as an honour to lie down with their Member, but I don't think it's a widely held view.

We are a very disparate group of people in terms of age, sex and experience and the group is heavily weighted towards terribly eager people who are just out of university, or sons and daughters of Members (or of their friends).

Some researchers are absolutely devoted to their Members and think they're the bees' knees, but there are others who have contempt for them and regard the job as a stepping- stone for their own career. I know those who would stand on the Member's neck to advance themselves.

Most Members have two or three passes for staff and if they are halfway serious about the job of MP they don't waste the pass, so the sexual availability of an applicant comes rather low down on the list of things at interviews.

The young researchers tend to bonk each other; they don't bonk their Members. If there's any sex going on it's not with the wrinklies they work for but people of their own age. You do get one or two drunken individuals - but if I get any sexual harassment I don't take it personally. There's one MP who is absolutely blatant and just tries to touch you up because he touches everyone up, both verbally and physically. No one sensible takes anyone like that seriously.

But some of them obviously are successful. A friend used to have an MP ringing up every 10 minutes saying: 'Do you fancy a coffee?' or 'How about a drink?'. He wooed her and eventually won.

The worst line I've ever had was from a Member who asked me what my husband was like. I assumed he meant: is he a nice bloke? (Although what he probably meant was: is he likely to hit me?) I said he was a really nice man and you would have to struggle to find anyone who didn't like him. Then he said that was a shame: 'I don't like the idea that I'm going to like the man whose wife I intend to fuck.' And he hadn't even asked me]

There are some like that who are utterly straightforward and there are others who do the little-boy-at-a- loss thing. You see them all if you devote a lot of time to the social side of things.

(Photograph omitted)

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