Former Africa Minister Mark Simmonds. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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If a Tory MP can’t survive in London on £90k+, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Mark Simmonds has resigned from his ministerial job at the Foreign Office, citing the “intolerable” nature of his parliamentary housing allowance – a mere £27,875 (on top of his £89,435 salary).

There are many ways in which you can wake up, but being abruptly forced into consciousness by the sound of water pouring through your bedroom ceiling is not one of my favourites. This was Sunday, and it marked a dark moment in our housing situation, a state of affairs that I am beginning to view as little more than a series of dark moments, some of which, considering the broken light in a windowless bathroom that we endured for three months earlier this year, have been literal as well as metaphorical.

While I was crying on the phone to Shelter this past weekend, Mark Simmonds MP was no doubt reflecting on the “intolerable” nature of his expenses. The £27,875 a year rental allowance to which he is entitled (plus £2,500 for each of his three children) was not enough money for a family home in central London. Simmonds is, naturally, not prepared to live anywhere less than a stone’s throw away from Parliament, and though his claim that there is no suitable housing has been found to be nothing short of unadulterated bollocks (the Times found several three and four bedroom properties within his price range), he has now resigned from his Foreign Office post, or, to use terminology reminiscent of the coverage of his colleague Baroness Warsi’s departure last week, has flounced off in a diva-ish hissy huff, the big girly girl.

Simmonds’ case makes me wonder just how much more the Great British Public is willing to tolerate from these minted Tory parasites. Crybaby Simmonds earns £89,435 a year, pays his wife up to £25,000 to be his office manager, and until he became a minister in 2012, had a £50,000 consulting job with a private healthcare firm. Last year, he was dubbed the most expensive MP in Lincolnshire by his local paper after he claimed £173,436.96 in expenses. I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions from the fact that such a staggeringly large sum is dear for Lincolnshire but maybe relatively modest compared to other, less sausagey counties.

Boris Johnson once famously described his £250,000 salary at the Daily Telegraph as “chicken feed”. Presumably £27,000 doesn’t even go as far as that. It may be enough to maintain the bloated, blood-filled ticks nestling amongst the chicken’s feathers, or to finance a small flea circus. Perhaps Simmonds could take me on as a consultant. In my new advisory role I’d be able to inform him that maintaining a colony of weevils costs roughly £1,200 a month (less than the cost of a special house for your ducky ducks, not enough to maintain a moat), though I can tell you from personal experience that it costs far, far more in emotional expenses. I’d hazard, also, that Simmonds has never been forced to take a shit by candlelight, and if he had, it would have been because of aesthetic and atmospheric considerations, not through necessity.

Seriously, though, just how does he think the rest of us manage? In the midst of a housing crisis, at a time where families have been forced to leave central London due to the benefit cap of £500 a week introduced by legislation voted for by Simmonds, it doesn’t just leave a sour taste in the mouth: it is fury-inducing. Many of us lucky enough not to be couch-surfing or cupboard-dwelling tolerate leaking ceilings, damp, mushrooms growing from the walls, pest infestations, broken boilers and gardens filled with fox turds and mattresses and are supposed to be grateful for it. And when we do confront our powerful landlords, we are told that the mould is our fault for breathing too much and that the repairs may take six months, if they happen at all.

I keep my rented flat despite the hole in the roof and the oven that doesn’t work and the cracks in the ceilings because it is the only claim I have to a home. The rent is relatively cheap for an area that is becoming increasingly gentrified and will soon become unaffordable, especially if Giles Coren insists on continuing to enthusiastically review local restaurants. I live a stone’s throw away from the hospital in which I was born, and the first house that I ever lived in, which also had a mattress graveyard for a garden. There is a large, white mark on my wrist from when, as a toddler, I fell on some broken glass while playing there. This place has given me scars, but it is my place, and I would be heartbroken to leave it.

The other thing that stops me going is hope. The hope that I will earn more money, as at the moment nearly fifty per cent of my earnings go on rent and, despite what several snide (and rather wealthy) critics have implied while discussing my book advance in the national press – making a regular living from writing is a challenge. Then there is the hope that they’ll come and fix the ceiling, if we hassle them enough, though the word “hassle” is key here. I wonder how many others in the vicinity are living in poor conditions, and how those without the education or assertiveness or tenacity might cope. We are able to quote the relevant statutes, to talk of putting them on notice and housing ombudsmen. We have an internet connection which allows us to send the 500 or so emails required for a response, and phone contracts which enable us to spend hours on hold. We are not suffering from depression or another mental illness, and so the thought of being endlessly volleyed from department to department is irritating but not enough to make us give up and go back to bed, hopeless and cold. We know our rights, and are not so frightened that when Shelter tell us that the nature of our tenancy agreement means that the landlords could evict us for kicking up too much of a fuss, we refuse to stop making that fuss.

We are, in other words, lucky. But still, what we would do for £27,875. What so many of us would do. The whole thing is intolerable. 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.