A day in the life of...
Alan Clark looks every inch the aristocrat and political cavalier but like most MPs he works the sort of hours that would have most of us out on strike.
He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, was in the Guards, and inherited an estate in Kent from his father, Lord Clark (of Civilisation fame) before becoming Conservative member of Parliament for the Sutton constituency of Plymouth fourteen months ago. Superficially he is a dilettant in _politics, an immaculately dressed man playing at a distracting game. His political stance is bizarre, and obviously not tailored to win him many friends in the party, or the country. It is a mixture of humane, right-wing Toryism and crusading zeal for the small man. He cares little about his political neck, for example he publicly damned Mr Heath wlym the leader was at the height of his popularity, and he was one of the handful of Conservative MPs to come out publicly against the Common Market.
It is a misleading facade. No dilettante would work as hard as this if he didn't care deeply about the people he represents.
"I have a room in my father's flat in London. Since I married fifteen years ago I have become too incompetent, no let's say forgotten how, to get my own breakfast, So I walk across to the Cavalry Club and breakfast there.
"That would be about 8.30. Then I walk across Green Park to the House where I collect my mail. That would be about ten.
"I have a look at the order paper to see if there are any questions coming up that day which I asked, or any I could put supplements to.
"I always attend Prime Minister's Question Time, and defence debates, my subject.
"Then I walk to my office, which is Dean's Yard, just past the Abbey. My friends keep badgering me to join them in the cloisters. but I enjoy the walk. And it means I get out of the House. It's quite easy to spend twenty-two hours in the House if there is late whip if you have an office there.
"I do the mail next. That takes from about 11 to 12.30, dictating letters, dealing with pressing business. Sue Lines, my secretary, can do a lot. She's a charming girl who never takes any notice when I get crusty, which is quite often.
"1 actually share an office with two other Conservative MPs, and its not too crowded. But the secretaries are worse off. There's about ten of them in one room. I suppose that since I have been an MP I have had about 6,000 letters. On average twenty a day. But doesn't stop there. Each letter generates at least three others, a reply, letter to a minister or government department, and then another letter to the constituent.
"I try to give each letter a personal quality by signing top and tailing. Most people do write and say thank you if you take any trouble with their problems.
"An MP's correspondence shows him the public feeling on an issue. I have had one letter so far from a Conservative about me letting the side down over the Market, My biggest mailbag was about the Abortion Bill, followed by food subsidies, animal experiments, direct grant schools, and law and order, But I tip direct grant schools, fifteen letters already, to outstrip all the rest."
What if he disagrees with the writer?
"If it's a personal problem then I forward it to the relevant government department irrespective of my feelings. If it's a question of conscience, such as over abortion, then I decide for myself, and explain my reasoning. It's an eternal problem. I have helped a large number of people and that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. But I am not a regional delegate elected to push the interests of the South West. I am elected to use my judgement and contribute on national issues.
"At 12.30 I am back in the House to meet friends, and colleagues, really to gossip. Then I go into the dining room. MPs can sit where they like, but it's an unspoken convention that Conservatives and Labour don't sit together. The food is sub-British Rail standard, restaurant car that is, the buffet is inedible. It costs about £2 for a meal. But the draught lager is good, 31p a pint. About half the MPs eat lunch in the House.
"After lunch it's question time, and if nothing much is being debated then I go back to my office, sign mail and pick up any loose threads I may have left. Sue leaves the office about 4.
"I then sign letters, and if I'm not in the House speaking I'm free about 5.30.1 go to the tea room, I have crumpets, doughnuts, milk and tea. In fact I consume vast amounts of food, but I never put on an ounce. I seem to spend most of my money on food.
Despite his gargantuan appetite he does not carry an ounce of flab.
"I used to box middleweight at Eton, wrestled in Hastings, and I suppose I have got into the habit of keeping fit.
"At weekends I run, swim, and walk, and do a bit of weight-lifting. There should definitely be a gym and a swimming pool in the House. But MPs say the public wouldn't pay. I always feel more alert after a weekend or a holiday. It would help keep MPs more alert if they could keep fit.
"After tea I go into the Chamber. By that time the debate has warmed up. Then, if there is no whip, I go out to dinner, but if there is a late whip, then I have to stay in the House. I might do research in the library.
"In theory the House rises at ten, but it can be extended, to two or three in the morning. When an extension is moved a groan goes round the house."
Speaking in the debates is a duty for Alan Clark, unlike some backbenchers who are not heard from one year to the next.
"It's not easy for a backbencher, You have to sit without moving for anything up to four hours, until the Speaker just has to call you. I speak because I feel strongly about issues, and because my constituents expect me to."
Finances are a sore point. "We take home £3,000 a year. But to have a tolerable life you need another source of income. People expect an MP to be well dressed, and then there's travel.
"It's absurd, but MPs' wives get ten free rail passes a year. I have to pay for any additional trips she makes from our cottage in Devon. It's already cost me £600. I get free passes, which is just as well as I go to Plymouth every weekend, for surgeries, and to see my family.
"An MP has to keep in touch with his constituency, to feel the pulse of the people. "Weekends? Well, Sunday is precious, but I daren't take any other days off. The work would just pile up.
"Holidays? If I take them they are usually spent sleeping in the greenhouse."
His wife, Jane, a pretty, petite woman, said that her husband has never worked as hard before he became an MP. But he had also never been as satisfied with his work. And Alan Clark agreed, "It's a marvellous job, being an MP."
Simon Freeman is an IPC graduate trainee assigned to West of England newspapers