May 20 2013 Latest news:
by JOSEPH WATTS, political editor
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Earlier this week leading light female Tory Louise Mensch quit as an MP to be with her family. Do you think it is possible to balance a busy career and family life? Leave a comment below or cast your vote in our poll.
Here, political editor Joseph Watts asks Norfolk Tories what it tells us about being a woman in Westminster.
There is a heartbreaking scene in the recent film about Margaret Thatcher which shows the Iron Lady returning home, having just given her daughter Carol a driving lesson.
The two have enjoyed a rare moment’s bonding. But just when the daughter thinks she has broken through Thatcher’s tough exterior to see the mother inside, she announces her intention to stand for the party leadership; the doting parent disappears, replaced by the career politician.
It is a film of course; real life has more grey areas than fiction. But it does reflect the trade-off MPs have to make, particularly women – many of whom strive both for a fulfilling family life alongside a successful career.
The issue was once again thrust into the spotlight this week when one of the brightest lights of the Conservative 2010 intake announced she would stand down as an MP after just two years in the job.
Louise Mensch was one of David Cameron’s most beloved A-listers. Smart, young candidates from a range of diverse backgrounds that the Tory leader wanted as MPs in order to modernise his party.
The 41-year-old was elected in Corby which had previously been held by Labour for 13 years. But on Monday she announced she would step down to spend more time with her husband and daughters.
If a debate about the family-friendliness of Parliament is to be had, it is worth noting that Mensch’s family situation was not what most people would consider normal.
Her husband, manager of the rock group Metallica, lives in New York to where she will now relocate; her problem was the Atlantic Ocean as much as long hours.
But the pressure of political life is undoubtedly demanding and inevitably means an MP’s family life will not follow the same pattern as other people’s.
Other MPs who have left to spend time with their families include Ruth Kelly, Gordon Brown’s transport secretary until 2008; and Alan Milburn, who stepped down as health secretary in 2003. Men also have families who miss them.
Many women have, of course, made it to the top of politics today and some of them with families. Environment secretary Caroline Spelman once asked permission in the Commons to leave early so she could take her son to a hospital appointment.
But looking elsewhere there is a pattern. Neither home secretary Theresa May, transport secretary Justine Greening nor Welsh secretary Cheryl Gillan have children. The same goes for transport minister Theresa Villiers and education minister Sarah Teather.
Meanwhile Liberal Democrat MP and equalities minister Lynn Featherstone, who does have children, admitted in an interview: “when there is a clash between the school play and election-day, as there was on one occasion, the former loses out and you have to harden your heart.”
South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss, also an A-lister elected in 2010 and seen as a ministerial hope, is married with two daughters.
“I’m sad to see that Louise is standing down and do wish her good luck in the future. However, she did face a very particular set of circumstances,” she said.
“I do think that it is possible to combine having a family life and being an MP. While it is difficult there are things that are being done to make it easier.
“One of them is the drive to make the House of Commons more ‘professional’ in terms of the hours that is sits and I’m a supporter of that. It is a good thing that we have all kinds of people in the Commons and that means having parents in there too.”
It was earlier this summer that MPs voted to change the hours they sat in Parliament, starting business earlier on Tuesday and Thursday.
Proceedings in the Commons will begin at 11.30am on Tuesdays, rather than the previous 2.30pm start, with debates finishing at 7pm rather than 10.30pm. On Thursday, proceedings were shifted an hour earlier – starting at 9.30pm and finishing at 5pm.
There will still be occasions when debates go on later. But supporters of the change argue late night votes will be reduced, making it easier for MPs to get home.
Meanwhile Parliament has also set up a creche to help parents; but as Conservative member and mother Nadine Dorries wrote: “childcare was never the problem, working a 90-hour week in two parts of the country is.”
Plus, anyone who has a demanding career will know its grip reaches beyond hours spent at the office; there are the out of hours phone calls, the weekend preparation for the Monday meeting, the thought of that report that needs writing.
For MPs there is the never-ending case work, the Saturday surgeries, weekend door-knocking and eternal constituency visits to shops, charities, scout groups and schools.
Gillian Shephard, now Baroness Shephard of Northwold, was also MP for South-West Norfolk between 1987 and 2005 and in that time held several top cabinet positions.
“I was 47 when I became an MP, and then I was 49 when I became a minister and 52 when I got into the cabinet and so my family was grown up,” she said.
“I did have to care for an elderly parent, but my responsibilities were different when I got to that stage. I would never criticise young women who have quite different demands with young children.”
Baroness Shephard admits that even she found herself hugely stretched with her family commitments while member of a government that was ruling without a parliamentary majority.
But she adds: “If you want to go into politics you need to know that it’s a particularly all engulfing career and that sacrifices will be required and if you can’t make them, then don’t do it. You have to take the circumstances that you’ve got and work with them.”