‘I need to find work’ – what happens next for defeated MPs
Elections can be a cruel business, not just for MPs, but for their staff. James Millar catches up with five defeated Members as they return to Westminster to wind up their offices
Politics is never more brutal than in the aftermath of an election. As Phil Boswell of the SNP sipped a coffee in Portcullis House last week, a string of staff – the people who had been serving him his jerk chicken and cups of tea for the last two years – came up to congratulate him on his return.
He smiled politely. “No, I lost. I’m just back to clear out my office,” he explained.
“No!” insisted the barista he’d befriended during his time in parliament. “You’re joking with me.” But Boswell, until earlier this month the MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, ploughed on until he could convince her that he really had been beaten.
Boswell, of course, is not alone in having such awkward conversations. Scores of ex-MPs had to return to Westminster last week to clear out their offices before their parliamentary passes ran out, the expiry having suddenly switched from three years to just a week.
James Wharton, who shot to fame when he tried to pilot the first EU referendum bill from the backbenches, lost his Stockton South seat and his job as an international development minister on 8 June. But he is sanguine.
“I’ve never forgotten that I beat someone to get the chance to be an MP. Seven years ago, I did to someone else what was done to me two weeks ago,” he tells The House. “Very quickly you’ve got to accept democracy. In a seat like mine, a marginal, it’s not a given that you’ll be returned and you have to accept that sometimes the tide comes in and sometimes the tide goes out.”
Natascha Engel was one of just a handful of Labour losers on election night. The former deputy speaker did some commentary for BBC Parliament on John Bercow’s re-election as Speaker and that helped her get things in perspective. “It was funny watching what was happening in parliament from a distance but it helped me see how lucky I’ve been to have been in parliament and been part of it, and to have sat in the Speaker’s chair. Not many people can say they’ve done that.”
But she still has practical concerns. “I need to find work,” she explains. “In a normal job if you think you might be made redundant you can look for other work. But as an MP I spent the last seven weeks throwing everything at the campaign. Most candidates barely sleep for the last two weeks of a campaign and certainly not for the last 48 hours. Then suddenly you find yourself blinking into the morning light in an empty sports hall and all you want to do is sleep, but you think ‘I’ve got to find a job, I’ve got to wind up my office, my staff have to be made redundant’. I did have a moment of panic. But I feel quite optimistic. I’ve just turned 50 and I’m excited about doing something new.”
Finding a job at short notice is just one of the tasks facing ex-MPs. They also have to take on the grim responsibility of sacking all their staff.
Roger Mullin lost his Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath seat to Labour. He tells The House: “The worst part of the job is having one-to-one interviews with my five staff to formally give them notice. My staff were all pretty young, they were more upset than me by the result.”
And he has harsh words for those who are supposed to help with the process. Mullin was the first MP to have an exit interview with IPSA, who he describes as “completely and utterly incompetent”. That’s a view echoed by Greg Mulholland who lost Leeds North West for the Lib Dems.
“Losing is brutal, particularly in the context of a snap election. It’s unexpected, you’ve no opportunity to do any planning for the future. We made plans financially as a family, took out loans on the basis I could expect an income – I had a salary and a career until 2020. That’s changed very quickly and IPSA doesn’t take that into account.
“The snap election was utter folly because it’s ruined Theresa May’s reputation but it’s destroyed other people’s careers and family life. I’ve got a researcher who started with me in December, moved to London, took out a let on a flat, but because they’ve not been with me two years they get nothing. That’s outrageous and immoral. People have been dropped in it and IPSA is not helping them.
“The House of Commons and IPSA must learn from this and put different arrangements in place for snap elections.”
Defeated MPs receive a loss of office payment but that’s been slashed since the last election with most ex-members getting no more than £3,000. Plus they can claim expenses for winding up their office, such settling leases and paying off staff.
And as they left their exit interview, they each got something else.
Roger Mullin explains: “As I left the interview feeling fairly glum, a young man rather sheepishly offered me a bag with something heavy in it. I took it but didn’t look inside until later – it was a tile from the Houses of Parliament. It was a bit odd getting a goody bag!”
But others welcomed the gesture. James Wharton says: “It was a rather nice thought. Some people might not appreciate it yet but having a piece of the Palace of Westminster to take with us is quite momentous, it’s a nice way of showing we were there.”