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'Don't you dare cry, or I will as well'

The Times, May 7th 2010

It’s tough to be ousted from your seat as an MP – and can be even tougher for the spouse who battled with you all the way

You must have watched the stony faces of those MPs who lost their seats last night. Perhaps you spotted the occasional wince or grimace, but politicians are used to having to wear an impassive mask. Spare a thought, though, for the wives (or occasional husbands) in the wings. Edith Rifkind’s husband, Sir Malcolm, was defeated in Edinburgh Pentlands in the 1997 election. She was devastated. “I said to my daughter, ‘Don’t you dare cry, or I will as well’.”

“It was absolutely horrible,” recalls Lavender Patten. Her husband, Chris, was a casualty in the 1992 election, and his was a treasured scalp for the Liberal Democrats as he was also Conservative Party chairman. “It had been quite a personal campaign against him with a lot of rather nasty things being said, and the actual night was just grim. The announcement was on the steps of the Guildhall in front of a crowd. They were shouting horrible things. It was very, very nasty; just awful.”

Lots of people are made redundant but not often in public, with their enemies cheering and shouting vile things about them. Yes, we expect politicians to have thick skins, often unrealistically so, but what have their spouses done to earn such opprobrium? “It was a crushing, public slap in the face. You feel it deeply,” says Nadine Bonsor, whose husband, Sir Nicholas, lost Upminster in 1997. “I minded desperately for him. It’s a sort of humiliation. You feel almost ashamed, as if you’ve done something for which you have been punished.”

“I took it more personally than he did,” says Edith Rifkind. “Wives usually do.” The news was as bad for her as for him: she worked as his constituency secretary, so they both lost their jobs at once.

Former MPs often compare the loss of their seat to bereavement. For many it can be just as unexpected — this year more than most, as the electoral currents have been so swirling and unpredictable. Caroline Waldegrave, wife of William, who lost his Bristol seat in 1997, recalls: “We knew it wasn’t looking good and it was a very uncomfortable feeling, but we were too superstitious to talk about what would happen if he lost. I kept reassuring him, saying ‘it’s going to be fine’, which was probably the wrong thing to do. I should have been addressing what was worrying him.”

Others find that they are in denial. Edith Rifkind says: “I just didn’t want to look it in the face, though logically I should have seen it coming. There’s none so blind as those who will not see.”

Lavender Patten agrees. “I’m a perpetual optimist and it didn’t seem quite so bad on the ground. You delude yourself, probably.”

Because her husband was party chairman, he had to race back to London after the count, leaving her to put her two children to bed at their cottage in Bath. “I was left on my own and I was very upset. I really cried quite a lot. It was particularly difficult because the Conservatives had won and Chris was one of the very few who had lost their seats. That was a real blow. It felt so unfair.”

So how will all those former MPs be feeling today, the morning after the night before? Chris Patten, according to his wife, was “completely shellshocked”.

“It was awful for him”. Edith Rifkind remembers: “The day after was just exhaustion.”

Some spouses, on the other hand, are thrilled. For Gyles Brandreth, who lost his Chester seat in 1997, the shock of defeat was mitigated by his wife’s delight that he was finally out of politics. “She hated it. She was so keen for me to lose my seat that I had to persuade her not to put our constituency house up for sale during the campaign. The day I lost, we drove out of the constituency, stopped for a wonderful lunch and she sat there, saying, ‘Cry freedom!’ ” Later, if he ever said that he regretted being out of politics, his wife would remind him: “The people have spoken. Listen to the people!”

Tiberio Santomarco, husband of Oona King, who lost to George Galloway in Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005, was also delighted. He cheered and cracked open a bottle of champagne. “I was relieved. The constituency was very hard and had been taking over our lives. It was quite hard for her on the night but it turned out to be the best thing for all of us.”

Readjustment to life after politics can be difficult, though, particularly if the MP has been a senior minister, as William Waldegrave was. His wife says: “It was a huge change. He used to have helicopters flying in to take him to places, then he had no job at all. It’s a very sudden switch. I don’t know how he came to terms with it.”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind had to take IT lessons from his son Hugo, of this parish. “He’d had a private office for 18 years, so he didn’t know how to use a computer,” remembers Edith Rifkind. “He jokes and says, ‘When you stop being a minister, you get in the back of the car and it doesn’t go anywhere!’ There’s a bit of truth in that.”

Most urgently, though, former MPs have to find a new source of income. Their redundancy pay lasts for six months but there are not that many job opportunities for rejected politicians of a rejected party, part of a rejected political class, in the middle of a recession.

Gyles Brandreth could at least go back to what he did best: after-dinner speaking and writing. But Sir Nicholas Bonsor, at 54, was too young to retire and too old to start afresh in a new career.

William Waldegrave eventually landed on his feet, getting a job in banking. But the first few months after his defeat were scary, according to Caroline. “Money was always an anxiety anyway. All sorts of things were going through our minds about what to do. What’s so difficult is living with the uncertainty.”

Some people’s marriages break up under the strain. The Welsh Conservative Rod Richards, who also lost his seat in 1997, became an alcoholic and eventually a bankrupt. When he was accused of causing grievous bodily harm (he was later acquitted), his wife sued for divorce.

Other spouses feel that they fall short in the task of helping the defeated MPs. Caroline Waldegrave, who was running two restaurants and a cookery school, had to work extra hard to support the family: “I felt bad that I wasn’t being sensitive enough to what he was going through because I didn’t have time.” And Nadine Bonsor says: “I felt inadequate that I couldn’t supply what he’d lost. But we could do more things together, which was lovely.”

Spending time together is the big plus of leaving Parliament. Peter Ainsworth has just stepped down from his East Surrey seat of his own accord. Last Saturday, he and his wife Claire went to the National Theatre. “It’s really nice to think that you might get your normal life back,” she says. “We haven’t been to the theatre on a Saturday for years, and there were all these normal people enjoying themselves. We looked at each other and said, ‘Gosh, is this what normal people do?’ It was liberating.”

She says that she will miss elections and the relationship to the constituency.” You get a real feeling of attachment to a place. You know lots of people and even more people know you. You know what’s going on in so many people’s lives, which is a community thing and is really nice.” What about the future? “I’m not as apprehensive as he is. We’re not going to be on the breadline but he needs to earn money. He needs to do a proper job.”

Tom McDonald is married to Beverley Hughes, the Children’s Minister, who has also just chosen to leave Parliament. “It has been a very good life,” he says. “I wouldn’t have changed that for anything. But you come to a time when you need to make space for other things, especially family. And you have to sign up for five years—it’s not like a job where you can say ‘maybe another year or two will be fine’.”

But he has some regrets, too. “It won’t be the same not being involved in politics. That will feel a bit strange, for Bev especially. You can’t help but know what’s going on, and helping to run things is very gratifying. Bev will have to fill that gap some way or other because she’ll go mad otherwise.”

The only consolation for those from a governing party that is thrown out in an election is that life on the back benches in Opposition isn’t a patch on what they are used to—particularly if they have been ministers. Sir Nicholas Bonsor had been a Foreign Office minister, and his wife recalls: “One of our greatest friends, a few months after the election, said: ‘Do tell Nick that the thing he thinks he misses no longer exists.’That was a great help.”

With hindsight, many spouses agree that what seemed a disaster at the time has turned into a blessing. Caroline Waldegrave must speak for many Conservative former ministers when she says: “In retrospect, I’m glad he lost his seat because it would have been years in Opposition and not much fun. It’s all good, really.”

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