Over the last months of 2019, following politics felt rather like watching one giant, green bench-based game of musical chairs. Some MPs lost the whip and learned to embrace the purgatory of independence; others went from one party to another; a handful left their party to create another one, before deciding to move on again.
Hundreds of column inches have been dedicated to those MPs: what they believe in, how they thought they could achieve their aims, and whether they left their original parties or their original parties left them.
What we forget, however, is that it isn’t just about individual MPs; others are involved too. When a Tory becomes a Lib Dem, the people in his office must follow suit; if a Labour MP decides that she has had enough, her staff will also be expected to leave the nest. And then these long sufferers had to endure the election result itself.
Parliamentary assistants are rarely in the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean that their lives are unaffected by these changes. “I had been working on the Benn bill behind the scenes,” says one aide to an MP who went independent, “and the weekend before, I couldn’t sleep and was very anxious because I knew something was going to happen. About 10 minutes before the vote, he rang the association chairman to say, “I’m going to do this.” He was very upset, and he went off to vote and we got him a big glass of wine for when he came back.”
It all reads like a cautionary tale about the volatility of politics. Because the sacking of the 21 MPs was unprecedented, no one knew what to expect in the aftermath. “You get back to work the next day and everything is still there and the world hasn’t fallen in,” says one aide. “And then someone rings up about their housing case, and it’s actually back to normal.”
Some independents experienced positive reactions: “It was quite humbling that people did say it restored their faith in politics. They understood the gravity of a decision like losing the whip after being loyal for so long.”
This doesn’t mean that such a sudden move is easy, as a staffer for another MP in the same position explains. “We were a bit shell-shocked. It wasn’t a shock in terms of what the outcome was going to be, but it’s still like, ‘Well, I thought I was going to be here for a while, and I was going to decide how long I was going to be here for’, and then suddenly it’s completely out of my hands.”
Although most of the MPs who lost the whip that night stood again at the election, many of the non-party affiliated candidates lost their seats. Their staffers celebrated Christmas out of a job.
A similar fate befell those working for MPs who joined another party. “Upon the boss joining the Lib Dems, it was made clear by both the party and them that joining them as well was not necessary to continue in the role,” says one aide to whom this happened. “As long as you’re happy to continue working in the role, movements and defections aren’t necessarily expected from the staff. Some people left their jobs as a result, but given the unstable nature of party politics at the moment, more staff than not were perfectly happy to see where it would take them.”
The staff member in question wasn’t a member of the Liberal Democrats, but also left their former party the moment their MP did. In fact, most of the aides interviewed for this piece are currently, as one put it, “a free spirit” – and perhaps more so now that Johnson secured his 80-seat win.
From Tories who are unconvinced that a hard Brexit is the way to go, to Labour-friendly activists who were never keen on Corbynism, there are many people floating around Westminster at the moment, happy not to tie their colours to any mast until things calm down and we know the next Labour and Lib Dem leaders.
For some, working for an MP without a party still had unexpected positive effects. “The best thing for me is when I meet new people in the non-politics world,” says one. “Before, if I was asked, ‘What do you do?’, I’d say, ‘I work for a Tory MP, but he’s actually a nice one, he backed Remain, he likes the EU, he’s a rebel.’ When I said I worked for an independent MP, everyone was happy.” But unfortunately, the electorate at large didn’t reciprocate.