I met Roger during the 1979 general election when he volunteered as a press officer on the campaign I was running in Hammersmith. I remember being rather irritated by him at first because I couldn’t see why we needed a press person. But I he rather grew on me, and before long we were an item. We were married by the end of 1980. Each of us had a child from previous marriages, and we went on to have a son together, so by the time Roger was elected to parliament as MP for Thanet North three years later, we were a family of five. I had been a political agent for many years by then, I knew what that job could do to a relationship, and I was determined not to let it interfere with our happy little family.
I became his secretary in 1983 having realised quite quickly that if I were to continue to do my job as a political agent and raise the children down in Kent while Roger was in London four days a week, we would never see each other. I loved my job and I knew that going to work for Roger would also mean a 50 per cent pay cut, but it was a sacrifice he had made too - he had been working as head of the teenage unit at Thames Television and was earning a lot of money before he got elected. Ultimately, we decided that our marriage was too important to risk living apart, so it made sense for me to work for him. The idea was that this way we could work hard and spend time together during the week, and then at weekends would be able to devote all our attention to the children. The reality was rather different.
Although we were both in London staying in the basement of my mother’s house, we hardly ever saw each other. While a nanny looked after our children in Kent, Roger and I would travel up to London on a Monday - he to his office in the House and I to Norman Shaw North, the old Scotland Yard building in Westminster - and work until 10 at night. In the winter I wouldn’t see daylight. We would leave for work at 6:45 in the morning, be in the office all day and then after work I’d walk over in the dark to have supper with him. On a Thursday, I’d find a sofa in the House and go to sleep for an hour or two until he finished and then we’d leave together and drive down to Kent. I’d see daylight again when I woke up on Friday morning at home.
Ruth Evans, chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), said this week that arrangements like ours - where a wife works for her husband - are “out of step with modern employment practice”. That may be so but in the days when I started out, it was normal for family members to work with MPs and I believe it works just as well now as it ever has. It was never a case of putting the family on the payroll (I could have earned much more doing something else) or doing it because we were married to them. We did (and still do) these jobs because we were hugely capable and believed in the work we were doing.
And it isn’t easy work. Many of us in my old office were wives or daughters of MPs and we understood one another and the sacrifices we were all making. The work could be gruelling, but there was a tremendous sense of camaraderie which kept me going. I used to help Paddy Ashdown’s daughter (who worked for him) if she was struggling with anything, and Christine Hamilton was in the office too in those days. There were some older ladies who had worked there for years and my God they were fierce. They were a breed who went on and on. Now it’s more a job for younger people who move on after a couple of years. But people of my generation stick at it. I’m still going strong at 70, not just because I’m married to Roger but because I love the job.
It was a very different life altogether, which is why I had to laugh this week at the ludicrous uproar over Roger referring to us as “the girls” on the Today programme. I know people think it’s sexist but honestly, I’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous. Haven’t people got anything better to worry about? My colleagues (as I shall henceforth be referring to them) and I certainly don’t mind a bit. We have always been ‘the girls’ and we really do like it.
However, it didn’t take long for the London arrangement to become too much of a stretch for us. We’d had a few dramas where one of the children would fall ill and we’d have to abandon everything to get down to Kent. And we’d had a couple of death threats through the door about burning down the house after someone announced our home address at a council meeting. We had to have panic alarms installed and a policeman parked in our driveway for a few days. After a few years we realised one of us really needed to be at home.
At first, I worked on my own in our spare room. But that came with its own problems, suddenly our family home was so full of papers that even when Roger was home for the weekend we almost never talked about anything but work. It brought the marriage to the point of nearly shattering at one stage, because I was on my own so much and got terribly bogged down in it all. It put a strain on us and I got a bit desperate. I never spoke to anybody except for on the telephone and I was at home with a small child. I felt lonely and isolated and that's why I was so glad when we moved the office out of our home. Today, the office is down in Kent and I have a team to help run the ship.
Thirty four years later our partnership still works brilliantly and our constituents love it. If someone rings up wanting to speak to Roger they’ll get me and that always seems to satisfy them. As a couple we’ve had our ups and downs, but what marriage doesn’t? We’re both fairly hot tempered so there’s the occasional row and a bit of door slamming, but it doesn’t last long. We know how to avoid an argument - Brexit is a banned subject because we totally disagree on it. He voted to remain and I voted to leave. Discussing it would end in a flaming row.
But we respect each other’s views hugely, and if I think he’s wrong I’ll tell him, as do all the women who work for us. If he has written a letter and the girls think it’s not strong enough they’ll give it back to him and say: “Could do better”. None of us are in our first flush of youth, but I think you need a bit of life experience to do this job and understand what people are going through.
This job is a huge privilege, and we have done it very well, I think, for over 30 years now. There is no nepotism about the work I do - I do it because I am highly qualified to do it. It is so short-sighted to place a ban on spouses working for MPs because it’s a tough life being married to a politician, but if you can lend a hand by getting involved, it’s going to make for a much more solid marriage. They are always going to be married to their constituents in part, so as an MP’s wife it makes sense to get stuck in. We made that decision so many years ago and we’ve never regretted it since.
As told to Eleanor Steafel