‘Brexit is killing me!’: EU debate weighs heavily on MPs
MPs are under increasing pressure to come to a collective view on Brexit. As the debate wears on and the impasse remains, the stress is beginning to take its toll on some of our elected politicians. Sebastian Whale reports
It was at Baker Street station that I knew something was wrong. I felt a wave of nausea and began sweating profusely. I was about to pass out. A concerned passenger kindly gave up their seat.
I don’t know for certain what happened on my morning commute, but one theory doing the rounds was that I was tired and a bit stressed. Not that I felt under any undue pressure; but like many others who work in Westminster, there is no doubt I had felt fatigued by recent events.
The brief and minor episode got me thinking, just what impact is the Brexit debate having on our elected politicians? Amid myriad pressures – both internal and external to Parliament – how are MPs dealing with the copious amounts of stress that must, surely, be weighing heavily upon them?
It turns out I am not alone. During the votes on extending Article 50, Pat McFadden, MP for Wolverhampton South East, was rumoured to have fallen ill. It was the third highly consequential evening on Brexit, after the second meaningful vote and divisions on no deal. One Labour MP tells me it was the worst week in parliament since the death of Jo Cox in June 2016. McFadden, himself a former Europe minister, doesn’t want what took place that Thursday evening to be overhyped. “Honestly, I was a little dizzy. I just needed a glass of water. It was nothing,” he explains.
The Labour MP’s stoicism aside, politicians of all parties have been feeling the heat. Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the DUP, told me in an interview last week that MPs were finding the Brexit debate “mentally and emotionally draining”. “These are very big decisions. For all the criticisms of MPs, these decisions are weighing on them very heavily,” he said.
Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield, says that Brexiteers have ended up in therapy and on medication for stress. “For a lot of us, particularly those of us that are in very marginal seats, this decision and period decides both the long-term of the country and decides whether I have any hope in hell of still having a job at the end of it,” he says as we sit down for a coffee in Portcullis House.
Bradley, who voted Remain but represents a heavily leave-voting constituency, spent the weekend talking to colleagues about the expected third meaningful vote, instead of playing with his two children. “It was a total waste of my time anyway,” he laments. “The more you get on through it, the more you realise that as an individual there is very little you can do about it… There’s a kind of helplessness which is very difficult to explain because constituents very much feel that it’s all in my hands.”
Bradley voted against the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement at the first time of asking. But he changed his mind for the second vote, having decided it could be the only way to achieve Brexit on the 29th March. “Last week was miserable because of that,” he says. “[I got a] hell of a lot of stick.”
People who Bradley has known for a long time have turned against him. “All of a sudden, you’re one of those awful politicians in Westminster.”
Over the last two months, the stress has manifested itself in physical symptoms. “I’m reluctant to moan about it because it’s the same in lots of other jobs. But the weight of this decision is massive.” Bradley is getting heartburn “all the time”, has blotches on his face and has high blood pressure. “I’m at the doctors most days having my blood pressure checked now. It’s amazing; if I come off the TV and I’ve been talking about Brexit, I go straight to the doctors and have my blood pressure done. It’s like 160/120 or something ridiculous. If I talk to the kids for five minutes and have it done again, it’s fine.”
“Brexit is killing me!” he jokes. “But that’s where we are.”
MPs’ motives are in doubt in a way “that hasn’t always been the case”, Bradley says. “It’s difficult to deal with, because you’re a person at the end of the day, right?”
There is, of course, a personal element to it as well. The 29-year-old has a young family to care for. “It’s one of those where if we don’t do this, I absolutely guarantee you there’s no point in me delivering a leaflet at the next election. That’s me done. That’s high stakes on a national and a personal level,” he says.
“Then it strains relationships. You end up going home and you rant about Brexit and you’re having that conversation. My wife’s like, ‘I don’t want to hear it, go and put the kids in the bath’. So, it’s hard.”
Bradley, who came into politics wanting to speak out on education, says there is support in Parliament for people in need. “I’m lucky enough that I’ve got a group of colleagues to be able to sit and rant with. Not everybody does. There is a counselling service and stuff like that which I know quite a few colleagues use. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s been recommended to me. So, there are avenues and support,” he says.
A total of 85 MPs sought assistance through the parliamentary Health and Wellbeing Service in 2018, up from 64 the previous year, according to data obtained from a freedom of information request lodged by PoliticsHome. The top five reasons MPs sought support were skin disorders, ear, nose and throat problems, musculoskeletal issues, blood pressure and respiratory disorders.
Under pressure are Labour MPs from leave-voting constituencies. While sometimes Remainers at heart, they are wrestling with the desires of their constituents, the positions of their parties and their own personal views, all of which do not often overlap.
Melanie Onn, the MP for Great Grimsby, is one such person. I asked how she was getting on back in February. “Awful,” the shadow housing minister replied. “I defy anybody to say that going through this process is fun and something that they’re delighted to relish the challenge in.”
Onn, whose constituency had one of the largest votes for Leave at the referendum, outlined her thought process. “It constantly makes me think about well, what is my role as an MP? Am I part of the Labour party and so I always vote with the Labour party? Am I here as a parliamentarian to represent my constituency only? If that’s the case, why am I in the party?
“If I’m leaning towards voting with the Government on an issue – not necessarily Brexit – what does that mean in terms of how that representative or delegate role plays out in the long-term? So, yes, a lot goes around in my head on a regular basis. It’s really hard trying to think what the best thing is to do.”
MPs like Onn, Lisa Nandy and Gareth Snell are the type of Labour politicians Theresa May will need to win over to get her deal across the line at a third meaningful vote. The PM’s statement in Downing St, in which she appeared to pit parliament against the public, prompted backbencher Wes Streeting to claim that she would have to accept her share of responsibility if any harm comes to MPs. Downing St rejected the suggestion. Speaking in Brussels, the PM said: “Last night I expressed my frustration. I know that MPs are frustrated too. They have difficult jobs to do. I hope we can all agree, we are now at the moment of decision.”
McFadden argues the PM’s “tone on parliament” is the story of the day, not MPs’ wellbeing. “Why has the Prime Minister of the country got nothing good to say about parliamentary democracy?” he asks.
Before May’s statement, Lindsay Hoyle, the deputy speaker, advised MPs to share taxis when they leave Parliament due to concerns about their safety. He also revealed that police across the country had been notified of the situation.
“Personally, I have never felt this level of tension during my time in the House and I am aware that other colleagues feel the same,” Hoyle wrote to MPs.
The Brexit debate has heavily strained relationships within the major political parties. Often this has played out in public. Occasionally, private conversations have been leaked to the media.
Antoinette Sandbach, the pro-EU MP for Eddisbury, left a Conservative WhatsApp group chat after a row with her colleague Michael Fabricant over Brexit, who asked her: “If you’ve been drinking again, best not to be on social media – even this one. OK?”
Commenting on the remark, Sandbach tells me: “It’s completely unfounded, totally untrue, made without any basis whatsoever.” The backbencher has lodged a formal complaint with the Conservative party.
“He has apologised to me, but he hasn’t apologised for making that comment and he hasn’t retracted it. Frankly, his explanation was that he wanted to shut down debate on Brexit, but you don’t do that by smearing your colleagues.”
A Conservative spokesman said: “Our complaints process is private and confidential.” Fabricant was approached for comment.
Sandbach is another MP under some pressure. Leave.EU is targeting her Cheshire seat and she is a regular recipient of hate mail. “It’s another thing I have to deal with. I have to report it to the police and we have to establish how much of a threat it is. It’s not very nice,” she says.
“I didn’t want to get elected to parliament to spend two years obsessing about Europe. When I was elected originally in 2015, we had a very clear programme of government, we had a clear aim. The whole atmosphere in parliament has changed. I didn’t sleep last night because I was worrying about what was going to happen. I’m genuinely trying to do the best for my constituents and what I believe to be in their best interests.”
Is politics good for your mental health, I asked Jackie Doyle-Price, the mental health minister last year. “No!” she replied. “I always say that being a Member of Parliament is the best job in the world and the worst at the same time. But like anything else, you have to find your own tools for being resilient, you need to look after yourselves. There’s a lot of camaraderie over there, which is nice.”
I put the same question to Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, a few months later. “Um, politics is a highly stressed occupation, but it’s also one where you have a sense of mission and a sense of duty and is very gregarious. Those three things are definitely good for your mental health, but some of the stresses and strains are a challenge.”
MPs might not garner a whole deal of sympathy. At the end of the day, they put themselves forward to take on public service and are well remunerated for doing so. The Brexit impasse, arguably brought about in part due to parliament’s inability to come to a collective view, is having implications well beyond Westminster. The truth is, though, that how MPs vote on Brexit will follow them around for the rest of their parliamentary careers; at various points looking ill-advised or prescient.
We expect politicians to make decisions of great magnitude without complaint. But we would do well to acknowledge the challenge at hand.