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.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear