New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. The Staggers
3 July 2024

Why MPs are happier when they lose

For some former parliamentarians, the return to civilian life is almost euphoric.

By Bethany Elliott

When Brian Donohoe lost Central Ayrshire in 2015, he had a final message for his constituents – “f**k off”. He elaborated to local reporters: “I can now turn round with the greatest delight and tell people to ‘f**k off’ which I haven’t been able to do… You have to take all sorts coming through the door and be kind, considerate and generous with your time and sometimes you wonder why.” Donohoe tells me now that he still hears from politicians saying, “We just wish we could say that to some of these people.” He is far from the only MP who has discovered the benefits of losing one’s seat.

There can be no sacking quite like the one delivered at 3am in a school gymnasium, amid the odour of generations of feet, as you stand next to a competitor dressed as a giant fish finger – who’s taken a few votes off you. And there’s nowhere to hide: depending on seniority, your face is specially beamed on television so that a gleeful electorate can rejoice at the exact moment your heart breaks.

Past elections have offered such spectacles as the furious indignation of David Mellor, the quiet devastation of Michael Portillo, and the sheer weirdness of Lembit Opik playing harmonica and cajoling us to “lend us the price of a cup of tea”. However, members currently mulling an update to their LinkedIn profiles should instead emulate Donohoe, who was, he says, “elated” to lose.

Recovering politicians can sleep easier knowing they need never hit the campaign trail again. One MP tells me that, pounding the streets seeking re-election, she was invited indoors by a constituent eager for her to meet her elderly father. An old-fashioned gentleman, he politely stood to receive the lady, revealing that he was naked from the waist down. Neither he nor his daughter considered the situation amiss and so – rigidly maintaining eye contact – the politician was forced to earnestly discuss dustbin collections with a man blissfully unconcerned about exposing his genitalia to an elected Member of Parliament. He also insisted on shaking her hand.

Even victory means schlepping between Westminster and a faraway constituency that is full of… constituents. Alan Clark recorded in his diaries that he disliked his seat in Plymouth so intensely that he was delighted when the Falklands War furnished him with an excuse to stay in London. After one constituency walkabout, he seethed: “All I wanted to do was scream ‘f**k off you little runt’ and leave Plymouth never to return.”

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Voters often treat their representatives as genies purchased via tax contributions and enslaved to their will, and expect them to magically resolve difficulties. Donohoe remembers receiving a call at home on a Sunday from a constituent who demanded he fix her broken toilet seat. When he replied that he would hop into his boiler suit and hurry over with his tools, she awaited his arrival, unschooled in the finer points of sarcasm. To be an MP is to be public property: another former Member told me that, whenever he popped to the supermarket, the queue to speak to him was longer than the one for the tills, as he struggled to recall both the party line on Syria and how many carrots he needed.

If constituents cannot reach their representative in person, their emails will. Donohoe would get up at 2am to respond to the 150 emails that flooded in daily, and all had to be read. That was in 2015. Now, Donohoe knows of MPs receiving 1,500 a day. Those emails too often deposit abuse and threats of violence into an MP’s inbox – especially those of female or BAME politicians. Donohoe tells me: “I said to my two boys, ‘I’m very pleased that neither of you were ever interested in becoming MPs because I’d be petrified about your wellbeing.’”

At the peak of the Brexit culture war, thanks to his position as a prominent Remainer, the former attorney general Dominic Grieve received death threats. After one newspaper identified the location of his French holiday home, he received emails saying, “We found it on Google Earth and we’re going to come and kill you.” But the trolls lost interest once Grieve lost office. “The angry obsession with me died out pretty quickly,” he tells me. “Immediately afterwards there were some people gloating at my disappearance and even sending me emails telling me how pleased they were.” He still gets accosted in the street – “but that’s only from people who come to say nice things”.

Ex-MPs have the kind of liberty otherwise only known to those savouring a recent divorce. There is more money in the private sector, where nobody cares what your shoes cost. Having left politics, Donohoe enjoys choosing who he assists, using his knowledge of parliamentary procedure to help those he deems worthy.

There are some obvious material deficits, however. The ex-foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind lost his ministerial car and police protection along with his seat. “Ministers always know when they’ve retired,” he says. “It’s when you climb into the back of your car and it doesn’t go anywhere.” But he did enjoy driving wherever he liked and wandering freely around London. “The prospect of rejoining the human race as an ordinary citizen had its appeal.”

There is also time for the family and friends kept away by parliament’s unsociable hours. During the 1997 election campaign, Rifkind remembers his wife saying that if polling proved incorrect and he actually had another five ministerial years ahead, she would “demand a recount”. Grieve spent the month after his defeat reconnecting with old friends. “Politics is quite frenzied,” he says. “For my wife and myself, it was very pleasant to have some time to ourselves. She certainly hadn’t seen very much of me in the previous years.” Donohoe puts it more poignantly: “I didn’t see my sons growing up as I should have.”

There may be nothing so ex as an ex-politician, but that’s no bad thing. In 1966, the American political consultant and prankster Dick Tuck lost a California senate primary. “The people have spoken,” he snarled, “the bastards.” But for those MPs who get the same result tomorrow, there are plenty of reasons to be grateful to them.

[See also: Will Rishi Sunak lose his seat?]

Content from our partners
An innovative approach to regional equity
ADHD in the criminal justice system: a case for change – with Takeda
The power of place in tackling climate change

Topics in this article :