Why Westminster is a wasteland for marriages | #Cheating | #Cheater | #marriage


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Matt Hancock has never been particularly camera-shy: in his early years as a minister, he regularly amused Downing Street aides by always contriving to enter and leave the building by the front door just as the TV cameras were starting to roll for their live broadcasts. This week he found himself wishing the cameras in the Department of Health hadn’t been rolling at all, after The Sun picked up a leak of the Secretary of State in what it described as “regular clinches” with longstanding friend and aide Gina Coladangelo.

In one way, he did, however, pick the right time to have these regular clinches. Of all the things you’d imagine you could get fired for in Boris Johnson’s Government, having an extramarital liaison with someone who is in some way linked to taxpayer’s money wouldn’t be it.

Theresa May was famously baffled by how anyone found the time to have a complicated personal life, rolling her eyes when her then chief whip Gavin Williamson used to run her through what became known as the ‘ins and outs’ of who was up to what in their party. David Cameron didn’t like MPs’ private lives being splashed in the newspapers, but he was also enthusiastically uxorious. At least Hancock only had to answer to Johnson.

Things have changed since the 1990s, when John Major promised to take his party ‘back to basics’. He wasn’t actually referring to traditional moral values (given by this point he had conducted his own affair with Edwina Currie, while serving as a government whip) but the number of affairs and sleaze rows that engulfed his government means that phrase is forever associated with hypocrisy about sex, rather than what the then Prime Minister initially wanted to talk about.

In his 1993 conference speech, he told his party: “The message from this conference is simple: we must go back to basics.” He defined these as “sound money, free trade, traditional teaching, respect for the family and respect for the law,” as well as “a new campaign to defeat the cancer that is crime.” 

Yet even during the conference itself, junior transport minister Steven Norris was being pursued by the press for his multiple affairs. Then environment minister, Tim Yeo resigned after fathering a child outside his marriage, despite speaking of the need to “reduce broken families”. That resignation in early 1994 was the start of a conveyor belt of Conservative sex scandals. Tory MP Gyles Brandreth recorded in his diaries that his wife had said: “That’s Back to Basics gone to buggery.” 

Now, there has to be a pretty high bar for an affair being news – and rightly so. When a third of all marriages end in divorce, it would be naive to assume that all of them just trundle to an amicable end without anyone else being involved at all. Brits aren’t stupid: they know from their own social circles that affairs happen, and largely they don’t care. Most of the relationships that break down in Parliament do so privately because the end of a marriage has nothing to do with how someone is going to vote on NHS services, military action or other important matters. They are no more our business than the private arrangements of our doctors, teachers or other public servants.

But Hancock’s relationship with Coladangelo was different because he had appointed her to a paid role as a non-executive director to the Department of Health’s board, and prior to that she had worked as an unpaid adviser. No 10 has insisted that the appointment was made following the correct procedures, but that’s not the only problem with this. It may well be true that an affair isn’t anyone else’s business other than the people directly involved in it. But in the past year and a half, Hancock has directly involved himself in everyone’s business: thanks to him it has been illegal at times during this pandemic for people from different households to have sex. His regular clinches are a matter of public interest now, too.

In another way: another day, another Parliamentary affair. I have been covering the Commons for a decade now, and have never met anyone who says that being an MP improved their relationship. Members who lose their seats often say that the only silver lining is that suddenly being made redundant gave them a chance to save a marriage that was hanging by a thread.

When I researched the chapter on MPs’ personal lives for my book Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, I was struck by just how many people I spoke to in the Commons who’d either lost their relationships or who had ended up being unfaithful.

One former candidate asked a friend of his who had just been elected how he was enjoying his first few months. He said: “If you’re the sort that plays the field, there’d be almost unlimited sex.” The friend added: “He’d just got serious with his girlfriend and I think I detected a slight wistfulness in his observation.”

Even those who don’t see themselves as players end up struggling. The job is lonely, the hours long and unless you’re a London MP, you’ll either spend at least half the week away from your family or take them on the road with you like a travelling circus. In recent decades, the pressure has grown for MPs to base their family in the constituency to show their commitment to the local area. This sounds a lovely idea in practice, but the reality is that when Parliament is sitting, the MP is alone, bored and sometimes a little tipsy around a lot of like-minded people, while their other half is at the other end of the country. Many relationships are already in poor shape when people come into Parliament: being a candidate is not easy and places a lot of demands on your free time that take you away from family.

One MP whose marriage broke down within a couple of years of getting elected says: “I thought my marriage was rock solid. But I had so many people warning me that you should absolutely not do this unless your spouse is 100 per cent supportive. I thought, well, mine is about 90 per cent supportive, when in reality she was 50 per cent supportive and that went quickly down to 30 per cent.”

Westminster days start and end late. Mondays have become notorious among whips and people working in Downing Street as the nights when affairs begin because the Commons often sits until 10pm, with MPs on a three-line whip requiring them to stay on the Parliamentary estate until then. In pre-Covid times, they would flock to the Strangers’ Bar for drinks together, or meet up in each other’s offices. The drinking can continue long after the last vote, and in these conditions, it’s easy to see how members might start to grow closer to one another or to the advisers and other people they rub shoulders with in politics.

Conservative MP Charles Walker is a wise observer of the lives of his colleagues. He spoke publicly about his mental health struggles in 2012, and has since found many MPs turning to him with their troubles. He told me: “If you are predisposed to having a weakness or a condition, Parliament will expose it. If you have a predisposition to alcoholism, Parliament will accelerate it. If your marriage is weak, it might have failed in 10 years, but Parliament will ensure it falls apart in five. If you have an underlying disposition to a mental illness, which may have never developed, Parliament will ensure that it does develop. Parliament is a bit like a screwdriver that prises the lid off a tin of paint. It is very good at finding your weakness.”

In this hostile environment, it is less of a surprise that someone is being unfaithful to their spouse, and more that any marriages are able to survive at all.



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