You hear it all the time, don’t you? Neighbours, friends and relatives stare at their shoes, embarrassed, wishing the subject would go away. They mutter something indistinct about Ibiza, then try to change the subject, avoiding eye contact the whole time.
That’s how most people react when you ask them if they’re going on holiday this year, isn’t it? Isn’t it…?
Of course it isn’t. Once again, as parliament rises for the summer recess, the British public’s conflicted (some might say “two-faced”) attitude to our elected representatives materialises across every newspaper in the land. We want politicians to be just the same as us, with the same background, the same types of families, the same interests. The same holidays? Ah, well, let’s not go too far.
Our Prime Minister is taking three holidays, reports this newspaper; one to the Algarve, one to Cornwall (presumably to prove what an “ordinary bloke” he is) and one (maybe) to the Isle of Jura.
Of course, most “ordinary blokes”, given the choice and the financial ability, would probably prefer to stay in the Algarve for the whole six weeks of the recess, and sod the photographers. But what is “ordinary” for politicians and “ordinary” for the rest of us might as well occupy different universes, never mind time zones.
Politicians no longer have private lives. And the fact that this is welcomed by a very large amount of people goes to prove that they don’t really want MPs to be ordinary in any sense of the word. Politicians feel – and are – accountable to their electorates for everything they say publicly, for every vote in the Commons, for the standard of work they perform, both in their constituencies and in the House. That’s as it should be.
But now it’s not uncommon for even largely anonymous back bench MPs to have to answer journalists’ questions about where they’re planning to take their families this summer. And so we get the annual game of “stay-cation”, with MPs boasting to their local newspapers that they’ve decided to stay in the UK this year, because it’s so much cheaper than abroad, and we have so much to offer holiday-makers and hey, look at me, I’m supporting British businesses.
And for the price of a few vaguely positive headlines, MPs’ spouses grudgingly bin the brochures promising sun and sand and instead start stocking up on provisions for a rain-soaked fortnight in a caravan park in Pwhelli.
The price you have to pay for a life of public service? Possibly, but it shouldn’t have to be.
Everyone who works hard throughout the year deserves a decent break. Yes, even MPs, because they do work hard. At weekends, late at night, virtually every night. And if your constituency is some distance away from London (and most of them are), the travelling takes it out of you too. Which is why, when grumpy parliamentarians return each September for the two-week session before the party conference break, they look and feel as if they never even had a break.
And yes, I know, “they didn’t have to take the job”. You could say the same for over-worked teachers and nurses, but I’m fairly sure you won’t. And teachers don’t get hacks calling them up and demanding to know where they’re going for their hols.
There were years when we, as a family, chose not to go anywhere at all. I would aim to take most of August off, chill out around the house, spend time with the kids, catch up on reading and do absolutely no work, attend no meetings, take no phone calls. Except that never, not even once, worked out as planned. Because if you’re physically in your constituency, you never switch off. There’s always a case or a meeting when you think, well, it’s only this one, I’ll just get it out of the way. And before you know it, your holiday isn’t a holiday any more.
So leaving the country is always the best option. Warn your staff back in the constituency that they should avoid contacting you for anything short of a military coup or a recall of parliament. Which, by the way, tends to happen far more frequently these days (recall, not the coup). The House is not short of reliable individuals who will, at the invitation of a journalist with nothing much else to write about, call for a recall in the event of just about any international or domestic event occurring.
It’s easy for a non-MP to say this, but I wish MPs would be more assertive and unapologetic when it comes to their holidays. Because it’s not just theirs; far more importantly, it’s their families’.
And if you think parliament already does a poor job, just imagine how much worse it would be if MPs – and yes, the Prime Minister too – were even more exhausted and washed out than they already are.
This article was originally published in the Daily Telegraph.