Give our politicians a break

Reshuffle week showed just how tough life in Westminster can be

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The Independent Online

People often ask me why I don’t go into politics. Why would I? Why does anyone?  Journalism is in disgrace and insecure. Hateful punters now prowl around your words, pounce, scratch, bite and wound you. So it can be hard, but never as gruelling and thankless as politics.

Maybe the sunny weather has mellowed me, but I have been thinking about how MPs get grief from their colleagues, whips and leaders, pitiless media folk (including me) and perpetually discontented citizens, many of whom can’t be bothered to shuffle off the sofa and cast a vote once every five years. (I don’t think people who fail to fulfil basic citizenship duties have the right to criticize the political system, or the players. Opting out further weakens our dysfunctional democracy.) The expenses scandal corroded public trust in politicians – but not all of them were at it.

The Eye of the Storm, a new book by MP Rob Wilson, describes what it feels like to be an MP at the centre of a media eruption, what he calls, “the human side of political scandals”. Though there are moments of excessive self pity, the book did move me. As esteemed political scientist, Sir Ivor Crewe writes: “Governing well is always difficult, far more than commentators and citizens imagine. But in the current climate it is even more difficult”.

It takes guts and the skin of a rhino to go through the tribulation of being selected for seats, then canvassing and surviving as an MP. Power is the magnet, the draw, and the elected get authorized perks and excellent pensions. Some think of it as a calling and have utopian dreams (often quickly dispelled). Government ministers are courtiers, in and out, up and down, dependent on the whims of the master and his secretive inner circle of the most trusted or devious.

In a candid interview this weekend, retiring Cabinet member Ken Clarke, who has headed almost every key department, described what the business of government was like:

“You arrive in a department you hadn’t thought you were going to get sent to. You spend the first six months faffing about. After about six months, you’ve decided you know exactly what to do. After about two years you realize you’re screwing this up, you didn’t get it right, but now you really understand it. And then the bloody phone rings and you’re moved to another department and you’re back to square one”. That’s if you are among the fortunate ones. Many simply get kicked to the back benches and have to stay gracious and loyal. Is it all worth the pain and humiliation?

Look at last week. Able and articulate Tory women were swept into top jobs, photographed and presented as eye-catching political concubines. Cameron promoted them to change the image of his party in time for the next election, so in that sense they are being used. But they have undoubtedly proved themselves. Yet Labour’s Helen Goodman felt no qualms about tweeting: “All are puppets who will change nothing. Their appearance really is the most interesting thing about them”. I could be even more insulting about Goodman’s contribution to world progress, but today have decided to be nice to politicians. Did the Labour lady not consider that the tweet might have been hurtful?

Think too about the men deposed summarily, as if they were nothing. Owen Paterson, the sacked environment secretary, broke the very British rule of decorum and apparently had a blazing row with the Prime Minister after the reshuffle. His wife Rosie Paterson was just as furious. At a book launch, she laid into Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s crafty, much loathed strategist.  More quietly, the ex-Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, a good man, is coping with the shock of his sudden departure and the implications for the country. He was a strong supporter of European human rights law and so had to go. 

For many, going into politics leads to personal problems and relationship crises. Binge drinking is rife in the Commons, and all the stress creates mental health problems. In February 2013, it was reported that the divorce rate among MPs was one and a half times higher than the national average. Divorce lawyer Marilyn Stowe, who has represented many MPs, believes the demands of the job make it impossible to sustain a happy modern marriage. Seb Coe found his wife was much relieved when he lost his seat in the 1997 election.

Few of us stop to think about the pressures on our elected men and women.    

In a recent column I wrote the Tories were “nasty and dirty”. Some Tory MPs were deeply upset that I had bunched them all together and complained that the analysis was not nuanced. In hindsight I can see I was unfair, indiscriminate and at times intemperate.    

No doubt  after the summer recess, I will be tough on MPs once more, in particular Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May whose policies are often unjust and inhumane. But politicians need a break sometimes. I hope they have a good one.