‘It’s like a bereavement’: how former MPs cope with a shock defeat

Ed Balls

This morning, just as jubilant Conservative MPs listened to David Cameron hail their triumph in a House of Commons committee room, Lee Scott was in another part of the building, packing up his stuff.

Until very recently, Scott had been one of their number, but on early Friday morning, as the news for his party went from good to extraordinary, he learned that he had lost his job. His support in Ilford North had held up, but against the national swing, and against Scott’s own expectations, his opponent had taken the seat with a majority of just 589. And so, after those 589 marginal, maybe almost random decisions went decisively against him, he was contemplating what on earth he was going to do next.

Glad though he was, on some level, for his former colleagues, Scott had spent three days avoiding the news, because he isn’t part of it any more. As the returning Tories embraced and saluted each other’s success, he put his things into cardboard boxes. He exchanged his access-all-areas pass for the ex-member’s less privileged equivalent. And he mulled over the fact that he would soon have to make his staff redundant. “It’s horrible being in here,” he says. “I don’t believe in lying and saying everything’s fine, I’ll be back here soon, all that crap: I won’t. I lost. I will never be an MP again.”

Scott’s voice wobbles a little as he speaks. “It’s been probably one of the worst periods I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “It’s like a bereavement. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve shed a lot of tears.” As we are speaking, the Conservatives in committee room 14 are banging the desks in scenes that Boris Johnson will later describe as “orgiastic”. Is Scott sticking around to say his goodbyes? “I think I just want to get out and get home,” he says. “I need to lick my wounds. I can’t explain it … I didn’t anticipate losing, but I thought I would be OK if I did. But it’s nothing like I thought it would be.”

It has been, by any standards, a particularly brutal year for deposed MPs. The failure of the polls and unprecedented swings against many sitting MPs meant that many have found themselves in Scott’s shoes: blindsided by a result that has brought their career to an abrupt halt. It has been unusual, too, for the number of major scalps, a surfeit of Portillo moments: from Ed Balls to Vince Cable, Esther McVey to Douglas Alexander, big beasts on all sides of the house have been brought low. And yet, even as we watch them suffer on election night, we don’t really consider the human cost. We just look at the swingometer.

“When they lose their seats, there is no doubt that it’s traumatic if it comes out of the blue,” says Kevin Theakston, a professor of British government at Leeds University and the co-author of one of the few academic studies in the area: Life after Losing or Leaving: The Experience of Former Members of Parliament. “When they get out they feel disoriented, uncertain about what to do next, shell-shocked or baffled or bereaved. They tend to feel that their parties are saying to them: you’re ghosts and we don’t want you hanging around. And I don’t think that has changed at all.”

As Scott escapes from the palace of Westminster, in another obscure office nearby the former Labour MP Alison Seabeck is going through the same brutal ritual. There wasn’t much alternative: within 12 hours of their defeat, departing MPs had received a brisk reminder from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority that they would be expected to vacate the premises in short order, and referring them to the House of Commons’ dissolution guidance. “The house service understands that if you have not been returned following the general election, this may be a difficult time,” it begins. “We will try to help you as much as we can. Please appreciate, however, that we also have a duty to provide facilities for those who have been elected … Your security pass will allow you access to the parliamentary estate on the morning after polling day and will be deactivated at midnight, five working days after polling day.”

Seabeck didn’t want to hang about, anyway. “It’s a bit like being punched in the stomach,” she says. “I haven’t had a good cry yet; I haven’t felt sorry for myself. It is going to be a grieving process. But for now, I’ve got things I’ve got to get on and do. I have to think about what things I want to keep.”

For most people who experience it, redundancy is a hammer blow that may be somewhat softened by an expectation of sympathy and a decent amount of time to come to terms with it. Not for MPs, who may find themselves very suddenly unemployed – and who may receive this news to a soundtrack of their enemies’ wild celebrations. “You get sacked by thousands of people,” says Nick de Bois, another Conservative who lost his seat on Thursday – in a close enough seat that he had taken the precaution of emptying his office before the campaign. “And then you have to stand on a platform, just to rub it in.” He gives a rueful laugh. “You can’t disguise the disappointment. It’s a bit like everyone else is having a great party, but you haven’t been invited.”

That party begins on election night, which, for the defeated, may seem a bit like hanging around at your own wake. At the Portillo count in 1997 – the touchstone example of political schadenfreude, concentrating the entire national drama in one wholly unexpected moment and punishing someone cursed with the permanent appearance of blithe hubris – the returning officer had to pause for 20 seconds as exuberant Labour supporters screamed their delight at Stephen Twigg’s success. But the whole night is fraught with drama.

In her Plymouth constituency, Seabeck was put through the wringer as the votes came in. “Sometimes you see a big pile on your side and you think: ‘Ooh, yes, I’m in,’” she recalls. “And then you see a big pile on the other side, and you think: ‘No, I’m not.’ We had been awake for about 27 hours when we finally got the news. I had 27,000 steps on my pedometer for the day. We were physically shattered. You come away with a lot of sympathy for teams in cup finals who pour everything into it on the pitch, and come out of it with nothing.”

De Bois, likewise, went through what he calls a “rollercoaster ride” in Enfield North. “At one point, there were very glum Labour faces, and so for about 45 minutes I was thinking: ‘Crikey, we’ve done it.’ And then, wham – out comes one ward which we hadn’t anticipated voting heavily Labour. And that was enough to make the difference.” The agony for Scott was exacerbated by his dashed expectations: “It was so close, but right up until 30 minutes before, I was being told that I’d done it – that I’d just scraped home.” But he was grateful to the camp of his opponent, Labour’s Wes Streeting, for their good grace, which he tried to return as best he could. “They clapped me. And I went over and put my arm around the person who beat me, and I wished him well.”

Indeed, tales of the count seem more often characterised by these small acts of kindness – a sense of fellow feeling between true believers who know that their chosen career will always leave them at risk of experiencing their worst moment in a strip-lit sports hall at daybreak. In 2010, the Labour MP for South Ribble, David Borrow, received terrible news in the early hours of the morning: his father had died. By the time he got to the count, he remembers, “My opponent had heard the news. She spoke to her supporters, and when the result came through they handled it very carefully. There weren’t the extremes of excitement and exuberance that is quite common.” He pauses. “People can be quite good to you when you need it,” he adds. “I suppose it’s just what life is. I have no complaints about the Conservative party in South Ribble.”

And yet the circumstances are bound to be brutal, no matter how humane your opponents. For Nigel Waterson, the Conservative MP for Eastbourne for 18 years until 2010, it was the sense of being discarded that cut the most – particularly acute as he was a rare incumbent Tory to lose his seat that year. “You feel rejected by these people you were trying to look after,” he says. “You felt you were going a good job, but they disagree. So you just have to bury your dead and move on.” Almost immediately, he adds, “Someone from the BBC shoved a mic under my nose and said: so far you’re one of only two Conservatives to lose their seat. What’s your comment?”

After the count, the adjustment continues with rude haste. Still, the process is not without its consolations. De Bois says that one of the pleasures of the past few days has been being able to reply to emails with the note: “Thanks for asking, but you should contact your MP instead.” Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former foreign secretary and another Conservative grandees to be deposed in 1997. “I’d had 24-hour armed security,” he says. “Within 36 hours that disappeared. I liked those guys, but it was very nice to see them go.” (While Nick Clegg didn’t lose his seat, he has, according to a friend who bumped into him over the weekend, gone through a rather 21st-century equivalent of that withdrawal: deprived of his ministerial BlackBerry, he is now struggling to get to grips with an iPhone, a device with which he is entirely unfamiliar.)

Rifkind, for his part, is grateful for the quieter years that followed, although he went back to the Commons in the end (and faced a second enforced departure, albeit not by electoral means, earlier this year). “I’d been an MP for 18 years without a break. My daughter was four when I started and 22 when I ceased. It is not a contradiction to say that if you are working 14 or 15 hours a day, you feel a combination of sadness and liberation.”

None of that, unfortunately, will rub away the emotion that former MPs seem to feel more than any other: guilt for the people on their team. At least they get to exercise some control over the outcome, even if the national picture may be taking shape in ways they are powerless to affect: for their staff, the sense of helplessness is all the greater. Within days, they have to start making colleagues redundant. “I’ve got people who have been with me since before I was an MP,” says Scott, “and now I’ve got to let them go.” His first order of business yesterday morning, even before packing up his things, was to call them in for a meeting. “I apologised, because whether they feel it or not, I’ve let them down. They told me not to be so stupid. But of course I feel bad about it.”

De Bois tries to see his own disappointment through the same prism. “You have to remember that I chose to be at the mercy of the electorate. But my staff lost their jobs, too. They get abrupt notice, and they can’t make plans until the outcome is in. And now I’m getting all the nice phone calls and Facebook messages and so on – but my team aren’t seeing those yet.”

Alex Belardinelli, Ed Balls’s special adviser until Thursday’s shocking result, says that his boss took similar responsibility for his team. “He’s been very supportive of everyone, wanting to help them with next steps,” he says. On Sunday, the man who had hoped to spend his weekend getting to grips with his new position as chancellor of the exchequer instead cooked an enormous lasagne to say thank you to the people who had campaigned on his behalf. “We all just relived some of the things that have happened,” says Belardinelli. “It was nice. And since then, he has phoned everyone up and offered to do what he can for them.”

Perhaps because the rejection isn’t so personal, Belardinelli sounds better able to contend with the loss than anyone else I speak to. “I worked for nine years for Ed, and even longer for the party,” he says. “So it is enforced liberation, really. It’s nice not to have to worry or care about what is on the front pages; in some ways, it’s a bit of a relief.”

Those who have already done it seem to agree that finding something new and fulfilling to do is an essential part of moving on. But that is not as easy as it might seem to anyone who imagines that the experiences of Portillo and Ann Widdecombe and David Miliband are typical. “Some of them earn six figures, but they are few and far between,” says Kevin Theakston. “A lot of them put together portfolio careers that earn them much less than their MP’s salary.”

Losing that salary certainly seems to concentrate the mind a bit: when I contacted various MPs for this piece, one of them asked whether he would be paid for an interview. In a way, you can’t blame him: of the 2010 losers, 11% were still unemployed a year later. Among new graduates, in contrast, the figure just six months on is less than 6%.

None of this year’s defeated candidates are sure what the future holds yet. De Bois, who made enough money in business that he is under no immediate pressure to start earning, says that this “is not a time to decide what to do – it’s a time to chill out”.

Even as he says it, though, there is a hint of regret in his voice. It has been a busy few days, busy enough to stop him dwelling too much on what has happened, and he has just recorded a TV segment outside the House of Commons. But now it is time to get on the tube and go home. Even though he knows it, he was tempted to try to join in with the celebrations of his luckier former colleagues. “But then I thought no,” he concludes. “This is their day. They have earned their moment to be there, and I just don’t think it’s appropriate to have someone like me come along and put a dampener on the party. So instead of turning right, and going into parliament, I went left.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Archie Bland, for The Guardian on Monday 11th May 2015 19.33 Europe/London

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