Nigel Waterson chairs a pension fund and is an expert on pensions and ageing issues. He was MP for Eastbourne from 1992 to 2010
I have been mulling over the implications of the resignation in mid-term of Louise Mensch (nee Bagshawe). She seems to have become a bit of a poster girl for David Cameron’s “A List”. I have to say I have never met Ms Mensch. But as a highly successful author of what is disparagingly termed by some “chick lit” she clearly had a successful career before politics.
And there is the problem.
Someone once said that politics is showbiz for ugly people. A harsh judgment, but not without an element of truth. (By the way, I am not suggesting for a moment that Ms Mensch is ugly, quite the opposite; and the speculation as to whether she had enjoyed the attentions of a plastic surgeon are frankly of no interest to me).
But my Party now finds itself in a truly desperate position. Facing an unnecessary by-election in a highly marginal seat at a difficult time for the Coalition government. Why?
David Cameron was not the first Leader to espouse a fast track for some candidates; nor will he be the last. Many leaders have concluded that the Party’s own gene pool is too shallow, and tried to introduce talented (or at least well-known) outsiders. This approach has not always ended happily.
Some say that party politics is too “tribal”, and there is some truth in that. Gordon Brown was perhaps the most extreme example of the tribal approach in recent times.
Yet the fundamental problem is this: being an MP is actually not all that glamorous. Of course, in your own constituency you can emulate a minor celebrity. But being recognised in the supermarket and appearing in the local media from time to time do not compensate for the demands on family life.
These days, an MP’s weekend is largely committed to advice surgeries, jumble sales and civic functions. (I recall with a wry smile the time my local Lib Dem controlled council announced that they were banning foie gras from council premises. I have enjoyed civic hospitality for over 20 years, but in all that time I do not recall ever being offered foie gras!).
And then there is the Commons. There may not be a rush for the doors when you rise to speak, but that is probably because there is no-one there to begin with. You are likely to have been suborned into speaking to keep the debate going so colleagues’ dinners are not interrupted. Your Churchillian words are likely to be delivered to a handful of other hopefuls (or pressed men) and a couple of bored whips.
The media will certainly not be interested. There used to be a joke in the House that if you wanted to keep something really secret you should mention it in the Chamber of the House of Commons! Or you may be dragooned into grinding through the committee stage of a Bill. And as a Government backbencher the whips will discourage you from speaking much.
Then there is the ever-growing mass of constituency correspondence plus the insistent whingeing from pressure groups. And you will be expected to turn up and vote at odd hours (although admittedly not anything like as unsocial as when I first joined). It is interesting that Ms Mensch was apparently excused from turning up on Thursdays.
So I do feel some sympathy for the A-Listers. Persuaded to give up well paid and interesting jobs in real life in return for an impossible dream. Helped by CCHQ to be selected, and perhaps by the estimable Michael Ashcroft to be elected. At least the imminent reshuffle could bring good news. Junior minister for paper clips? First rung on the ministerial ladder? When I was a whip, it seemed to me that one of our aims was never to let hope die. For once it does, a colleague is beyond any control or reasoning.
As a junior minister, there will be occasional glimpses of the limelight (hopefully for the right reasons) and the feeling of making a difference. But the average ministerial is short. And as Enoch Powell pointed out, all political careers end in failure.
So pity the poor A-Lister who may be sitting in his or her office today pondering “Why am I here?”; or maybe wondering if they can hold their seat at the next election. The two extreme options are to head for the exit, a la Mensch, or to promote oneself as a minor media figure by telling the world via the Today programme or Twitter how much you disagree with the Government.
I do wonder if people like me are sometimes regarded as a bit of a dinosaur. Someone (as it happens) with a successful career outside politics, but also steeped in politics from an early age. President of the university Conservatives, ward chairman, constituency chairman, local councillor, fought a “hopeless” seat, etc etc. Delivered probably hundreds of thousands of leaflets in my time, and knocked on many thousands of doors. And a serial loyalist in Parliament to boot.
Are people like me seen as – well you know – perhaps a bit too Conservative for the current management. Too tribal perhaps? One gets the feeling what we have to offer is not what is required these days.
But when the whips need a volunteer to speak at short notice in a debate, serve on a committee or for that matter to deliver leaflets in the Corby by-election, isn’t someone who has risen through the ranks more likely to step up to the plate? It goes to loyalty too. American politicians have a saying when one of their own party gets into difficulties – “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
See you in Corby!