How to survive as a lady MP
As star MP Louise Mensch resigns from politics for family reasons, former minister Edwina Currie argues that, after battling so hard to win their place in parliament, women should NEVER give up so easily
So star Conservative MP Louise Mensch is going to do a runner, resign from parliament and move to the US. The Corby MP cited family reasons for her departure, saying: ‘I am very sorry that despite my best efforts, I have been unable to make the balancing act work for our family.’
Reaction on Twitter, which Mrs Mensch uses so enthusiastically, is largely bereft. Her spiky epigrams on the site have long energised the ether, though I did wonder, while she tweeted, who was making the children’s tea.
That may sound catty, and probably is. Much of the comment since has revolved around how tough the political world is for mothers who are MPs and it has brought me to screaming point. You demand equality, ladies, and here it is. Then you say you don’t like it? Forgive me for being irritated, after all the years we have fought to get women into parliament. Lady Astor must be turning in her grave.
Being an MP is a fantastic job and deeply worthwhile; we all need a vigorous, functioning parliament. Women MPs actually do it very well. But nobody said it would be easy. The 90- hour weeks, total commitment, wearisome travel; agonising between a child’s sports day or a key speech; a spouse who grumbles he never sees you in daylight. I’ve been there. Not so different, then, to any other pressurised career.
I’m not suggesting I got the balancing act completely right. Nobody’s perfect, especially not me. I don’t feel the job led inevitably to an a air with a colleague (you know who), or to the later break-up of my first marriage. That did last over 20 years, more than most, and couples grow apart even in the most ideal circumstances. But any spouse with a high-profile partner would be well advised to stay close. Otherwise the head on the pillow hearing all about the day’s enthusiasms will be that of somebody else.
But I do have first-hand experience of what it’s really like to be a mother in parliament. So let’s start with a few tips: First, try choosing a spouse who lives on the same continent. Best of all, transport the entire family, dogs, grandmas et al into the patch; if you’re lucky, that’ll be a leafy part of a nice constituency and you’ll sound sincere when its praises are sung.
Second, learn to multitask. Women are biologically equipped to do it; every mother has eyes in the back of her head. Speeches get rehearsed while driving. Phone calls are made while the washer is unloaded. The post is dispatched while watching the news… And the wise woman never, ever, takes on more than she has to: get someone else to do the ironing. Even Twitter is optional, so is writing a book every year. The word ‘No’ is an essential part of the new vocabulary. Without it, madam, you’re sunk.
When I entered the House, it was expected that women MPs would be childless; Mrs Thatcher was the great exception. In 1983 only 23 women made it, 13 Tories including her and me, 10 Labour, no others. My daughters were six and eight; it was obvious that I’d need to delegate and that it would cost a fortune. So be it. A platoon of other women stepped into the fray in both Westminster and home, with the most precious of all: cleaning ladies. You don’t need me to explain how valuable a good nanny, cleaner or housekeeper can be.
Essentially, women can have it all, but they can’t do it all. Choices have to be made, and ruthlessly. What won’t go down well is to compete like billyo for a coveted candidacy, reassuring all in sight that one is in control, and brainy, stunning and fecund to boot. And then demand special arrangements, as Mrs Mensch did. And on top of that, to paint oneself as a martyr.
Will the debacle damage female hopes of getting selected? Could be, for if anyone had a credible CV it was Louise, whose wealth guaranteed she could afford the help and whose breezy confidence silenced doubters. Any lady with a less convincing story will be facing a more uphill battle. And it’s her fault.
Should we change the working week in the Commons? It’s already been done, so please, no more. MPs already work fewer formal hours than the rest of the nation and seem untouched by the traumas of the recession. Even the Lords work harder. MPs are volunteers and they’re supposed to be there because of a passionate concern for the nation’s welfare. At least that’s what they claim, and for some at least, it is true.
But surely the family will not volunteers? That’s true, so ‘quality time’ with them is all the more important, as for any working parent. I steadfastly refused all engagements on a Sunday, for instance. But domesticity was never my strong point; I’ve often observed that, had I been obliged to be a fulltime mother, my children might not have made it to adulthood. For sure, they would not have benefited from a fraught and frustrated me. Anyway, as they get older and develop their own moral attitudes, children might just feel proud of a mother who helped govern the nation.
The perspective of time can be reassuring. Somewhat to my surprise, my babes turned into competent, well-balanced people with a healthy disrespect for public icons.
I wish the same for Mrs Mensch. But please, ladies, don’t be deterred. Serving in parliament is an honour and a privilege, and one that should not be reserved for the men.
Daily tip from the lady archive
“HEAVEN forbid that we should go back to the days when beauty was under suspicion and plain girls were assumed to have angelic natures.”The Lady. With Prejudice. 28th April 1938