Status anxiety

Mark Simmonds was just saying what a lot of MPs think

It’s one thing to make these sacrifices if the public hold you in high esteem – quite another if they think you’re a crook

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

I feel some sympathy for Mark Simmonds, the Conservative MP who’s resigned as a minister and is stepping down at the end of this Parliament because he can’t support his family. His announcement has been greeted with scorn and derision by the chattering classes — how dare he complain that an MP’s salary isn’t enough to live on? — even though most of them are earning far more than him. Any politician who utters a murmur of dissent about the terms and conditions of his or her employment is an instant pariah.

In fact, if you can be bothered to read beyond the headlines, Simmonds’s complaint seems pretty reasonable. His constituency is in Lincolnshire and under the new expenses regime he isn’t entitled to claim for the cost of renting a flat in London large enough to accommodate his family, just a hotel room. If he had a flat, his wife and three children could spend the weekdays with him and the weekends in his constituency, but as things stand he is forced to spend four nights a week sleeping alone in some seedy Westminster hotel. ‘Any parent would hate that — and I do,’ he said.

He was earning £89,435 as a Foreign Office minister and that’s nothing to sniff at. The trouble is, it’s not enough to put his family up in London during the week as well as maintaining a home in his constituency. It’s also worth noting that his ministerial salary represents the most he’s earned as an MP. Until he joined the government in 2012, he was on a backbencher’s wages and had been for over ten years. Before becoming an MP in 2001 he was a director of a successful property business and it’s a safe bet that if he’d spent the past 13 years in the commercial sector he’d be a multi-millionaire by now. Is it really so outrageous of him to conclude that serving three parliamentary terms is enough?

If Simmonds is guilty of anything, it’s being too honest about his reasons for quitting. The end of this Parliament will see an unprecedented number of members standing down — current estimates are 11 per cent of Conservative MPs and 15 per cent of Labour MPs — and I imagine Simmonds is expressing what many of them think but fear to say. The price they’re being asked to pay for their public service is simply too high.

I’ve spoken to many MPs about this and my sense is they’d be prepared to endure these privations — long hours, lots of grunt work, estrangement from their families — if they enjoyed a higher standing in their communities. The reason they’re leaving in droves isn’t because the new rules on expenses make it harder for them to get by, although it does. It’s more the lack of respect signalled by the new regime. It’s one thing to make these sacrifices if the public regard you as a dedicated public servant, quite another if they think you’re no better than a career criminal, either on the fiddle or shagging your secretary. When MPs are driving back and forth to their constituencies, listening to the constant abuse being meted out to politicians by tax–dodging satirists on Radio 4, they must think, ‘What’s the point?’

When I argue about this with my friend Paul Staines (him of Guido Fawkes fame), he says it’s right that MPs should be held in contempt by the public. Much better for them to be mistrusted and subject to constant scrutiny, because it means they’re less likely to misbehave. You only have to look at France if you want to see the terrible price Britain would pay if the political class commanded more respect. Corruption on a scale that would make Lloyd George blush.

No doubt there’s something in this, but the downside is that if we continue to hold politicians in such low regard it will make it harder to attract good people to the Commons. MPs on both sides of the House will be limited to the very rich and the very ambitious, ideally with no family ties. Someone could be all of those things and still a good leader, but as a general rule the Commons needs more people the public can identify with, not fewer.

Walter Bagehot said the ideal MP was an ordinary man of extraordinary ability. The danger of losing people like Mark Simmonds, who fits that description pretty well, is that we’ll end up with a House of Commons composed of extraordinary men of ordinary abilities.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Alexsandr

    Oh do tell. what other job will pay for your family to live with you during the working week. Expenses will pay for a cheap flat or a travelodge type hotel. Start claiming for a 3 bed house and HMRC will start looking very hard at your tax liability, I feel.
    The types of expenses these people seem to feel entitled to are not in the real world. They need to grow up.
    Boston isnt so far from London (130 miles). I am sure he could stay in a hotel 1-2 nights a week and commute the rest.

    Of course its nothing to do with the fact that he is frit because UKIP will give him a run for his money at the GE

    • Holby18

      It is obvious you are unfamiliar with rural areas. In order for Mr Simmonds to commute there has to be a proper rail service. It does not exist in Lincolnshire. He could get a train to Peterborough but would be unable to get a connection to Spalding the nearest railway station to Boston which is about 22 miles from his home. They stop early evening. Driving from Peterborough to outside Boston is some 50 miles. Driving these roads often unlit with dykes wither side is not like driving on a major route. It would take about an hour and a half.

      in addition, i would not want my children to move between two homes. this means they cannot pursue normal activities at weekends. It is alright when they are very young but not alright as they get older.

      • Alexsandr

        sorry? he could drive to work. or drive to Peterborough, Kings Lynn or Ely and get a train to London
        People commute from far far away -bristol, doncaster etc. They dont expect their wives to be with them.
        And I live 12 miles from a train station, and the small town has 8 buses a day each way. And I commute long distances and stay in hotels for work.
        and do your research. there is a train station in Boston.

        And an MP’s salary is a lot of money for many people. For him to complain just shows how out of touch he is.

        • Terry Field

          You are a madman, selling an insane lifestyle for the pinstriped slave-class.
          He does not have to do such a stupid thing.
          You, plainly, do.
          And he does not have to be ‘in touch’ with your squalid expectations.

    • Terry Field

      Prat. The guy does not want a ‘job’ like a dud like you does.

  • DaveAtherton20

    The politics of envy are not wholesome. However, it is not as if there are not enough people putting themselves forward for election, it is not as if Simmonds was not aware of the terms and conditions that come with the job. You can rent a 3 bedroom house in Romford for £1,000 with a 1 hour commute, or does he expect to live in Belgravia at 10 times the price. Methinks the latter.

    • Terry Field

      I would not ask my dog to live in Romford.

  • Holby18

    I do think MPs are underpaid and many give up lucrative careers to become MPs. Whilst many can continue to supplement their incomes (barristers) others cannot. I am very sympathetic to Mr Simmonds situation.

    • Alexsandr

      being an MP is supposed to be a privilege to represent your people. not a career move. He knew the deal when he started in politics. If he didnt like it he should have done something else.

      • Terry Field

        Oh no it is not.The whole point is the graft, corruption, snout in the trough and loads of money. Now these rules are coming in, only poor, unambitious people want to be MPs.

  • AB

    His house in his constituency is worth a million. Which is a lot of money for a house in Lincolnshire. He sold a family sized house in Putney at a profit of over £500k only a couple of years ago. Until he became a minister he was paid £50k a year by Circle Health. He’s had 13 years as an MP to adjust to the privations of balancing family life with his work. The new expenses regime came in before he took ministerial office so he can’t blame them – if it was obviously going to make family life impossible for him, he could have indicated his intention to step down far earlier and not taken the job offered him.

    I can have sympathy for say, Louise Mensch who rapidly realised that she couldn’t bring up young children and have a family life while being an MP and having a husband who lived and worked most of the year in the US. Simmonds on the other hand is basically complaining that the £27k he’s entitled to for renting a second home in London is not enough, even though it would pay for a 3 bedroom flat even in Westminster. With a ministerial car on hand he didn’t even need to live within sound of the division bell.

    How long does an MP have to serve as a minister before they qualify for the higher pension and post-Parliament resettlement amounts?

    MPs are held in low regard BECAUSE of this sort of attitude.

  • Tony Benn

    “His announcement has been greeted with scorn and derision by the
    chattering classes — how dare he complain that an MP’s salary isn’t
    enough to live on? — even though most of them are earning far more than

    Big claim… do you have facts to demonstrate that >50% of “the chattering classes” earn over £117,310? (£89,435 plus £27,875 expenses; that’s before his wife’s salary as his office manager comes into it).

    • Terry Field

      IT’s not really very much, is it!?!

  • viceroy

    No, I don’t often disagree with Toby or join the chorus of moaning about anyone who earns good money who doesn’t also kick an orb about on grass but I think he’s got this one wrong. The problem is really that Simmonds refuses to rent a flat or house in London at which his family could stay at times and from which he can commute to Westminster. For £2,250 a month you can get really quite a lot in London but the fact is he doesn’t want to make the same compromises that the rest of us have to despite having much of it paid for by us. That’s his decision, fine, but no sympathy whatsoever, in fact derision should be the response, as it largely has been.

    • Terry Field

      He dows not have to make your compromises.
      Good for him.
      Poor little you.

  • cecile10

    //under the new expenses regime he isn’t entitled to claim for the cost of renting a flat in London large enough to accommodate his family, just a hotel room//

    Stop there. That’s not true. The allowance would easily cover the cost of renting a four bedroomed house in an inner London suburb with easy access to the tube. Could have checked that fact. Makes nonsense of much of the rest of the article.

  • He is a greedy ungrateful waster, who does not declare interests when voting. He is part of what’s wrong with Britain and needs fixing. Go quicker Mark Simmonds, Lincolnshire doesn’t need you.

    • Terry Field

      Uh you pure little beagle. Have a doggie biscuit- laced with warfarine.

      • Got interests yourself have you?….The days for this crap are numbered.

  • Agrippina

    Simmonds bought the Putney hse 6mths after he was elected MP. He sold it Dec 2010 after changes to expense claims. The trougher has claimed £1.2 million in expenses since he became tory MP in 2001. He had a 4bed hse Putney, we paid the mortgage interest £2k per mth. He sold that at £537k profit and bought constituency hme 7bed hse, 15acres, heated swimming pool for £900k.

    In 2012/13 he claimed £180k in expenses, wife-office manager £25k. He received £50k salary from Circle Healthcare.

    He says he cannot manage on £28k rental allowance plus £2,500 per child for his 3kids , salary +expenses. Good riddance, UKIP please assist the Boston folks to find someone in the real world to represent them. Info from Telegraph.

    • Terry Field

      Dave Lee Travis is very knowledgable.

  • Terry Field

    He is capable. He should be elsewhere. Westminster attracts duds, fruitcakes and under-achievers i ncreasing numbers – he must have felt like a fish out of water.