WIFE SWAP

ARTICLE FOR DAILY TELEGRAPH 29 OCTOBER 2009

“MPs on ‘Wife Swap’ – whatever next? ‘Come Dine with Me’ on expenses?

Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the committee on standards in public life, has been tasked with drawing up tough new rules to stop MPs abusing their allowances. Has any report been more gleefully anticipated? In addition to his recommendations that MPs will be banned from claiming the cost of mortgages on expenses, he is also banning them from employing, at public expense, members of their family – whether it be wives, children, great-aunts or dogs. Even Derek Conway (whose colourful abuse of the system lit the blue touch paper of this meltdown) might agree he’s got a point about great-aunts and dogs.

But the wives are revolting and threatening to swap their husbands for another MP so they can continue working at Westminster. Eve Burt, wife of veteran Tory MP Alistair Burt, who has worked for her husband for 27 years and is his current office manager, is one of them. “We’ve had conversations about swapping jobs endlessly,” she said. “We did work out a very complicated ‘giant wife swap’, where you all move one husband along.”

Looking at some of the husbands one can readily understand their eagerness to move to pastures greener but talk of wife-swapping merely gives ammunition to those who suggest some of the wives are only working in Westminster to get their hands on as much of the allowances as possible. Perish the thought – it’s because no-one knows their husbands better.

I know what I’m talking about. I worked at the House of Commons for nearly 26 years, first for Sir Gerald Nabarro (go on, show your age and admit you remember ‘old whiskers’) and latterly, as secretary to my husband between 1983 and 1997. By the time Neil was elected I was a veteran, having amassed 13 years’ experience dealing with constituents, parliamentary procedures and bills. I showed him the ropes, not the other way around. I was the best person for the job and he would be the first to admit he was jolly lucky to have me.

When I started out, fresh from university, with mad ideas of wanting to be an MP myself, life was very different. I was fortunate that Gerald Nabarro was a wealthy man and while I enjoyed a high salary and a car (all paid for by him from his other income), many secretaries worked for a pittance. I well remember diminutive Doris Heffer slaving for her working man’s hero-hubby Eric for no pay at all. Yes, that’s right, not a penny – in those days, Labour MPs had principles.

Pay and allowances increased as life generally changed and MPs’ postbags bulged. More wives also expected and wanted to work anyway, so more and more could see that ‘keeping it in the family’ was a good idea on many grounds, not least of which was being able to keep a check on the ‘honourable’ Member’s roving eye.

MPs spend much time closeted with their secretaries, often working late in the evening, or relaxing in the many bars and restaurants. It’s a perfect cover for eyes to meet, hands to stray.

Of course, sometimes, the secretary goes on to become the wife. (No, not me. We tied the noose five days before Neil was elected). The late Judy Hurd and Christo Chope, for example, who both entered the House as secretaries for their future husbands, knew what they were letting themselves in for.

Some MPs deliberately leave ‘the little woman’ safely back home in Yorkshire, Wales or Scotland, while living-it up at Westminster with their own or another’s secretary. I have to plead guilty. I did have a dalliance with a married MP (long before I was married, I hasten to add) so I know just how easy it is for a young arrival at the Commons to be seduced by it all.

None of this is new. At 80, after his first wife’s death, Lloyd George married his mistress of 30 years, Frances Stephenson. Her position as his secretary had given ‘the Welsh goat’ the perfect cover. He gave her the CBE in 1918 presumably for ‘personal services to the Prime Minister.’

A prominent Shadow Minister, elected in 1992 promptly ‘took over’ his aged predecessor’s leggy, doe-eyed, glamour puss secretary. His wife took one look, sacked her and moved in. Knowing the chap in question, undoubtedly a wise move.

One former Tory Cabinet Minister (no, not Cecil but roughly the same vintage) fathered a second family while his wife was attending fetes and coffee mornings hundreds of miles away. Indeed, would Tracey Temple have got a look in if Pauline had been manicuring her nails razor-sharp behind a Westminster desk instead of minding the shop in Hull?

The divorce rate at Westminster is high and marriage failure rate even higher. Power, or the illusion of power, is a strong aphrodisiac and helps to explain how relatively unattractive, indeed downright ugly MPs can ‘pull’ the pretty girls, whether they be titled or tarty. What else explains John Prescott’s comic performance as Casanova?

If your wife is your secretary you are either thoroughly pampered or lead the gruesome existence of a battery hen. She controls your life, opens your letters & e-mails, answers your telephone, arranges your diary, tells you where to be, when and for how long. If you have a mistress, your secretary wife will have to slot in your demands for S&M between PMQs and EDMs. Better to play safe at home than stray away.

I remember a high ranking Labour MP who employed his long-term mistress as his secretary although her dual-role was a well-kept secret, in particular from his wife. Under Sir Christopher’s proposals that would be fine (it keeps the money well out of the family) but hardly fair that she should remain while the wives have to go.

Of course, in some cases ‘wife’ is ‘husband’, for example, Mr Jacqui Smith and Mr Margaret Beckett. The role of the former (feet up watching porn films in his combined office and home, subsidised biscuits to hand) contrasts sharply with the latter (working quietly and diligently for decades running his wife’s office and overseeing her constituency work), but under the new guidelines both will have to go.

Some time ago an MP who is no longer in the House said to me, ‘Of course I give X (his wife) half the allowance.’ ‘But she doesn’t do any work for you,’ I said. ‘So what?’ was his cocky reply. As someone who worked hard for my keep, I was furious. It’s this kind of cavalier, dishonest behaviour which has to be rooted out.

At times, I have even thought that the wrong half of the partnership gets elected and that the non-MP spouse would do a much better job. With Cherie instead of Tony we might not only have had no Iraq War but also amassed unlimited freebies from every country under the sun. With her penchant for freeloading she could have scooped up surface-to-air-missiles and no end of useful hardware with consumate ease, thus keeping down the national debt. As for Gordon or Sarah? No contest. And as David Cameron is so keen on getting more women into Parliament, perhaps he should make the ultimate sacrifice and do a job-swap with Samantha. Although whether he would be any good at designing luxury handbags for Smythsons, or indeed anything requiring practical ability, is a moot point.

For the one thing you learn from proximity to politicians is that you don’t go into politics if you can do anything else.”

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