The MPs who were let down by the Westminster system
THE sad case of Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley highlights the one serious weakness of Westminster - there is no system of pastoral care for MPs.
Although the Chief Whip of each party is meant to keep a benign eye on their own members, there is nothing in place to help those in genuine trouble.
It may come as a surprise that MPs are classified as self-employed. They receive a monthly wage whether they turn up for work or not - there is no statutory sick pay for an MP.
As self-employed people, they have to pay for their own parliamentary office costs and personal staff, which is why they clock up more than �100,000 a year in allowances. If an MP should become sick, it’s his or her own decision whether they seek medical help.
Mr Ruffley’s apparent suicide bid in front of the Gatwick Express as it approached Victoria Station two weeks’ ago was the sign of a troubled mind – colleagues were aware of his problems but apparently did little to help him through his depression.
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It reminds me so much of the indifference towards Ipswich’s Labour MP Jamie Cann, who died in 2001 after battling with an alcohol-related illness.
When he first arrived in London in 1992 after winning Ipswich at the General Election, Mr Cann was a hard-working MP who put the interests of his constituents above those of his party.
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No doubt his slender majority of 265 exercised his thinking, but nevertheless he was held in high regard by colleagues across the political divide and he struck up a close friendship with the then Tory MP for Cheadle, Stephen Day.
But it all started to go wrong for Mr Cann when in the 1997 Labour landslide, his majority rocketed. He was kept at Westminster rather than being allowed to nurse the constituency.
London days and nights led to him increasing his consumption of beer. He was an habitual occupant of Annie’s Bar, the hard -drinking saloon in the bowels of the Palace of Westminster. Everyone knew that he was drinking heavily, but nobody in Ipswich or Westminster stepped in to give the help he so obviously needed.
I am as guilty as all the other journalists, both in the parliamentary lobby or in Suffolk, who talked in private about the problem but did nothing to solve it.
Mr Cann died in November 2001 – and the funeral was treated to an excruciating tribute offered by Hilary Armstrong, the new Government Chief Whip, on behalf of a Labour Party which had washed its hands of Mr Cann. If only she had intervened herself, she might have saved the Ipswich MP.
I knew of David Ruffley’s depression in early January this year, alerted by a couple of his colleagues. We had met in December at a Christmas drinks party at London’s Waldorf Hilton Hotel, where we talked about who would be favourite to take over the Suffolk West constituency being vacated by Richard Spring at the General Election, but he seemed all the while on edge as if he had other things on his mind.
Over lunch in early January, he was trying to convince me – and most probably himself – that former Beirut hostage Terry Waite would not stand against him in Bury at the election.
MPs knew that Mr Ruffley was in great difficulty. It was regarded in some quarters as “extremely serious.” He was absent from the Commons, his work as shadow police minister was not done, he wasn’t seen in his constituency, and he became incommunicado.
The Tory Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin wondered if he should send people around to Mr Ruffley’s bedsit to see if he was all right. Was that really the best the Conservative Party could do?
Admittedly, Mr Ruffley did not help himself, insisting that he had “only” a viral illness from which he was recovering when it was so obvious that he was not.
If the full extent of his ilness had become public knowledge, he might not have been allowed to stand for re-election in May – I have it on good authority that Conservative Central Office had a stand-by ready to be parachuted in if necessary.
His depression is said to have started when he was criticised by business people in his constituency for trying to claim on his parliamentary expenses televisions and furniture for his constituency home which he had bought in top London stores.
The fact that he didn’t get a job in the government is said to have added to his black mood. At 48, he is five years older than David Cameron, while the Chancellor of the Exchequer – a job which was once talked of as the role Mr Ruffley was being groomed for – is just 39.
His parliamentary career seemed to be going nowhere – but in truth, he could not be given a job in the coalition because of the uncertainty over his health.
Depression is no laughing matter, as I know from personal experience. Shamefully, it is still seen by many as a stigma.
If Mr Ruffley had been suffering from cancer or some other chronic illness, the media would have noted the fact and left him to recover. But mental illness is difficult for newspapers to handle. It is basically unreportable.
I could not break a story stating that David Ruffley was receiving in patient treatment at a clinic. For one thing, mental health charities, quite rightly, would have jumped on me like a ton of bricks. I wish David Ruffley well, as do his political opponents. I’m told he continues to make good progress and there is confidence he will make a full recovery and return to his parliamentary and constituency duties.
What happens next is a topic for discussion in the future, not now. Speculation will only add to the pressure and it was his Labour opponent at May’s General Election Kevin Hind who best summed up the situation.
“David is an extremely popular and hard-working MP – even if those of us in the Labour Party disagree with his politics,” said Mr Hind. “I hope he recovers soon so that he can continue representing the people of this constituency in the way he has for the last 13 years.”