Retiring MPs tell the best stories. It might be because they don't care about discretion anymore, so close to the election, or maybe they have been in Westminster so long they have more to say than the average MP. But among the assorted rabble standing down this year, there are some truly remarkable figures. One veteran MP, not featured here, listed on his fingers the names of all the colleagues that he has ever disliked. Another, John Battle, talks of a cigar he was presented by one "comrade" constituent, rolled on the thighs of a Cuban woman. Sir Michael Spicer gives me a murder mystery novel that he wrote for "the American market" and John Barrett invited me to his wife's art show in Edinburgh.
It is these characters that could be lost forever with the next Parliament. Some 134 MPs have announced their intentions to stand down at the next election, according to the latest Commons library figures - 87 Labour MPs, 36 Conservatives and seven Lib Dems. This only includes the MPs who are voluntarily standing down - countless more could be tossed out on election day. In 1997, 164 MPs lost their seats within two hours.
With all the noise being made about the upcoming election, few have taken time to look back. Total Politics speaks with 11 MPs - some big names, others not - who are choosing to leave Westminster politics behind. Sir Nicholas Winterton and his wife Ann plan to spend time exploring the battlefields of the First World War. Labour backbencher Martin Salter is taking a teaching qualification to fulfil a life's ambition to work in schools. Mark Oaten is leaving to escape the scandal label that has dogged him since he hit the front page of The News of the World. And Derek Wyatt refuses entirely to say why he is leaving politics, hinting only that it is for "personal reasons".
Few realise that the average length of service for a member of Parliament is about eight years. It is not the job for life that so many imagine. So while there are some dinosaurs who have sat on the green benches long enough to make indents in the leather cushion, others still have the potential for second careers.
It must be a daunting prospect to leave the bustle and shelter of Westminster for a life where you do not have a researcher on call 24/7, where the weekend is for family rather than constituents and where an alarm bell is probably for a fire rather than a division. At least 134 MPs are about to readjust to a very different world. Even eight years is a very long time to spend in the shadow of Big Ben.
The Wordsmith - Chris Mullin
Member for: Sunderland South
First elected: June 1987
There are now people in the cabinet who were at school when I was fi rst elected to Parliament, and I think one has to recognise the game is up. The House has got some big decisions to make about how seriously it wants to be taken. If we don't take ourselves seriously, why should anybody else?
It is a sad time for Parliament. I think we will recover and the new generation will be untainted. They can go around saying "not us governor", which I am quite sure they will do at election time. They are going to be young and impressionable in many cases. But they will have the great advantage of not being tarred - not that I am particularly - with the great expenses meltdown.
Where I come from, a salary of £64,000 a year puts me among the top one per cent of earners. It's a little different if you represent Surrey, Suffolk or Hampshire, but even there you are in the top five per cent, I would guess. I don't think the public's in the mood to hear that MPs need a big salary increase.
I no longer feel the same incentive to participate in the chamber that I once used to. I can't get sitting around for hours to make a speech to maybe only a few people when you know nobody in the outside world is listening. It's far easier to write an article in The Times. It gets a far bigger audience.
I shall miss the village atmosphere. I hope I haven't become too institutionalised but I like the fact that if you sit in the atrium at Portcullis House for long enough you will meet everybody you ever knew.
The Reluctant Rebel - Sir Michael Spicer
Member for: West Worcestershire
First elected: February 1974
I think you just get to a stage in life where you've done your bit. You have contributed all you can contribute. I have done being a minister, parliamentary secretary, chairman of the 1922 committee for the past nine years, a rebel - I led the Maastricht rebellion. I may not have seen the heights but certainly I have seen the depths.
Gossip - that I will certainly miss. You are at the centre of everything that goes on here. The backbiting is the flipside of gossip. And the foolish ambition we see from time to time. There is a dark side and that should never be discounted, and I am quite glad to see the end of it.
My wife was quite keen [for me to stand down] in the end because of this commuting. Having two houses is portrayed in the press as quite glamorous, but actually it's quite a sweat as well. She just got to the point where she said: "I just can't go on with this."
The most controversial thing I have done was to lead the rebellion against John Major's government on Maastricht. That was the biggest rebellion in 200 years, and that was dramatic. The treaty went ahead, and I am sorry about that. I hated leading the rebellion. Although it was dramatic and high profile and terribly important, it was actuallymiserable as well.
The Thatcher years were pretty glorious. It was extremely exhausting being her parliamentary secretary - she went to bed at three o'clock and we went to bed at 3.30. I remember we arrived at the Felixstowe Dock and she saw what turned out to be the tallest crane in Europe and said: "I'm going up that." She was in a tight blue skirt - the world's press was around as we were about to fight a general election - and she started to go up this rung ladder. My job was to stop the press getting the picture which they all wanted. It was ok going up but coming down it was rather difficult - trying to guide the prime minister's steps while not being seen to be looking up her skirt. I have some funny pictures.
The Tory Veteran - Sir Nicholas Winterton
Member for: Macclesfield
First elected: September 1971
I never thought that I would ever say to myself I am looking forward to retiring, I am looking forward to seeing the back of this place. I've been here almost 39 years; my wife has been here for nearly 27 years. That's nearly 66 years of combined service. Ann would tell you, she was toying with the idea of not standing at the last election, but she knew that I wanted to stand again so she stood and we both got in.
When I came in in 1971, the head of the Fees Office, as it was known then, said to me: "Mr Winterton, these are your expenses and allowances." He said: "This is the figure. If you spend a pound over it, you won't get that pound back but you can spend that allowance how you like. It is there for you to spend at your discretion." Now, retrospectively, they are seeking to justify members, providing a full explanation going back five years. I can't go back 12 months let alone five years.
I think the [latest parliamentary reforms] are going to make things much worse. I thought the Kelly report was bad enough. I've just had the details of the other jobs that Sir Tom Legg has got. I mean the man is raking it in. Do you know how much he has earned for chairing the review? He has earned so far £142,000. And the actual cost of the review is currently over £1.1m. These are mega bucks.
And now they want to stop members of Parliament travelling first class. That puts us below local councillors and officers of local government. They all travel first class. Majors in the army travel first class. So we are supposed to stand when there are no seats. And why are we going to waste our time when we can work on the train as we do. I'm sorry. It infuriates me.
Once when I was on a visit overseas - it was a particular place on the edge of the Caribbean - somebody mixed me a Mickey Finn. I was sure that one of my legs was longer than the other. Particularly when you are walking on a surface that isn't entirely even. I won't go into detail because that will certainly be picked up by the press - ‘Members on a debauchery holiday.'
Parliament is going to become a House of career politicians. They are anything but professional. The people who increasingly dominate this House are people who are intelligent but they go from school to university, university to researcher, researcher to adviser, then to candidate. They have no experience of life outside. Have they ever paid wages at the end of the week? Have they ever been through negotiations over a business deal? Have they been in the law? No?
The Scandal MP - Mark Oaten
Member for: Winchester
Party: Liberal Democrat
First elected: May 1997
I didn't want to carry on in politics as a backbencher. Having my private life dragged through the press was a bruising experience so I was pretty demoralised. And my seat was disappearing at the next election. I've been planning to leave for four years. It has been difficult to keep motivated.
I remember coming in 1997 - we all came in saying: "We've got to change this, the hours are crazy, we've got to reform it." Actually not a great deal changed. I think if all the reform had happened, we might not be in some of the difficulties we are with expenses.
I hate the chamber. I have never felt comfortable speaking there. It's an uncomfortable place to sit waiting to speak and it intimidates me - it always has done. Tea rooms smell of stale whisky. I like the cafeteria in Portcullis House, it has more of a modern buzz about it.
I can remember once [a delegation of MPs] were trying to help British business in the United Arab Emirates. The crown prince said he wanted to meet us, so we were driven for miles to his tent in the middle of the desert. We then sat down for tea and he lectured us for four hours. He didn't stop for questions. Then eventually he clapped his hands twice and we all got up. We got into our cars and word came round that all the MPs were absolutely desperate for the loo, so we got what we thought was a respectable distance from the tent, and all these MPs got out into the sand and started weeing. I swear to God at that point the crown prince's helicopter came over the sand dunes and that was the last thing he saw of these politicians. Funny moments like that you will always remember.
Being on the front of the News of the World, having your private life crash on you like that, without a shadow of a doubt that was really a terrible experience. My fault, no one else to blame. I took time out, I took anti-depressants, I took counselling. I really focused on going to the gym and getting myself sorted out. I took two months out from the job other than coming in for urgent votes. I found I was really quite happy because I wasn't doing the crazy hours.
My legacy will be ‘scandal MP'. That's just a done deal. So what I want and what my legacy will be is just irrelevant because that is just something I am going to have to come to terms with. I can't get away from that - it would be naive to think that I can.
The Back Benchers -
Member for: Reading West
First elected: May 1997
Member for: Erith and Thamesmead
First elected: April 1992
Member for: Calder Valley
First elected: May 1997
First elected: June 1987
MS: I never intended to do more than two terms. I lied to my wife and ended up doing three. I never wanted to rattle around this place in my 60s. But even if you know you are not going to fight the next election, you can't make the announcement too early because there is a danger of becoming dead meat in your own constituency.JA: I remember saying to myself I would go at 65. For the same reasons as Martin, I announced it the day after the election. But then I thought, I have to be absolutely sure. So I did actually go through the process of being reselected; comfortably, unanimously reselected.JB: I came in in '87 and they didn't have offices. You used to have to take your letters up to a room for four secretaries to type up. In the first two weeks, I wrote out over 800 letters to constituents in longhand. I took them up to the four secretaries, who told me that I couldn't get all the letters typed before Christmas. This was in June. I paid a secretary for the first three years out of my wage to type letters up.MS: How crazy. Do you know it is very interesting, in the 1950s, the average number of letters that an MP got, this was before fax and email and all the other things that make our lives hell, was between 15 and 20. It is now anything between 400 and 800. That is in a week.JB: I get 1,000 emails a day.CM: Oh yeah. It's crazy.JA: If you were in local government, if you were a councillor before...JB: I think it is good training for being an MP.
CM: When we were elected, those who came in in 1997, there was a massive turnover of MPs from different parties. And all the new intake, mostly Labour, were 22 to a room on the upper committee corridor because there were no rooms to put us in. With one telephone between 22. In that room, you quickly saw who had been on a local authority. You knew all the councillors of all the parties, knew all the chief execs of all the local organisation, knew absolutely everybody. I found that other people, and I won't name names because they are people who I admire and who are very good MPs, but I can tell you, in that first eight weeks, they didn't know what they were doing. I was drowning...
MS: But at least you knew you were.CM: Exactly.JB: The pressure of the job. I would say there is a real danger of it being a very lonely job for some people. I have seen it crush people. I have seen them disappear into the bar. The people I have met here, generally, if you really scrape them, are in it because they want to change the lives of people. And they are people people. The non-people people don't survive.
CM: You can be like ships that pass in the night. And you suddenly find that someone you really liked has died and you didn't know. You feel incredibly guilty. But that's the pressure of the job. We all share by and large - Labour members anyway - a strong sense of the ridiculous.JB: This place is a madhouse. This place is insane.JA: If we are going to talk about modernisation, we had a division on in the early 1990s and there is water coming in the ‘aye' lobby. And it is running off the electric light. It is a bit of a fire hazard. Someone has put a bucket underneath. So I went out and spoke to one of the guards: "You know there is a hazard in there and can somebody call the fire brigade?" He said: "Oh they're not allowed in there. There's a division."
MS: My maiden speech - I have always been described as a man at war with his clothes. It was during the Uxbridge by-election in 1997. I wrote my maiden speech on the tube on the way up from Uxbridge. And I rushed into the chamber because I knew I had to get in, and it was pouring with rain. I had this black anorak on and, not wanting to miss the start of proceedings, I went straight in. I was rugby tackled by the whip, who I am happy to name. He is called Jim Dowd, not my favourite whip, I must admit. He grabbed hold of me and said: "Salter! Get that bloody anorak off. You look like a lagged water tank." Which was a great start.JB: There are all sorts of rules like you can't take your jacket off in a select committee. How do you work in a place that is like a cross between a church, a prison and an art gallery?JA: And a gentleman's club.
MS: I would say the bottom line is, no one tells you what the rules are until you break them. Then everybody tells you what the rules are.
The Legacy MP - Robery Key
Member for: Salisbury
First elected:June 1983
The first member of Parliament for the county seat of Salisbury was sent to Westminster in 1265. And only one other person since then, the library tells me, has served longer than me. He served in the end of the 16th, beginning of the 17th century, for 38 years. I will have done a mere 27.
I have osteoarthritis and had spinal surgery three and a half years ago. I don't think it is fair on either my constituents or me to carry on. If you stay here too long and you've got something like that, when you do eventually retire, you'll die quite quickly. Well, that is what all the actuaries tell us.
I will always remember that, on my 10th birthday, my parents said to me: "You've got a treat." I was living in Salisbury, in the shadow of the cathedral. The cathedral librarian took me into the library, into the corner, opened a rusty safe, said: "Hold out your hands." And on my hands she put an old bit of brownish paper with some blackish writing in a language I couldn't read anyway. She said: "One day, you will remember that on your 10th birthday, you held the Magna Carta in your hands."
One former cabinet minister said to me: "We have to remember, MPs no longer have human rights." And he is a lawyer. What he actually meant was the opinion of Parliament has sunk so low that the public don't think we should have the same rights as ordinary citizens.
The Fresh Start MP - Derek Wyatt
Member for: Sittingbourne and Sheppey
First elected: May 1997
I was keen to step down in 2008 but was asked to wait. And in the end we get the expenses crisis then May elections. So I said: "Listen, I am going. I am going to announce it on 1 July." But I was ready two years ago. I knew I wasn't going to stay.
It is a personal reason I am stepping down - but I am also thinking "what else is there to do?" I feel there is another life. I would like to do it for myself and other people rather than for 130,000 people, most of whom don't know my name, call you all sorts of things, scratch your car and so on. Time to move on. I cannot wait.
I have had three job interviews. The headhunters say I should expect 20 before I get a job. The hardest thing is I am shortlisted and I am the only nonchief exec. They say: "What has been your experience for the past 12 years?" You realise that nobody understands what an MP does.
I've invested some money in training so I've had interview techniques, I've had my CV rewritten, I've had psychometric tests to say where your weaknesses and strengths are, someone's looked at my clothing, someone's looked at my demeanour. Apparently I interrupt a lot, which I hadn't spotted, so now I don't say anything.
I had a letter from an MP's son who said: "Don't have your children educated where you live." I half scoffed at it but I wish I had not had my children educated locally. They take a lot of flak that they never tell you about until they are much older - including bullying. I hadn't appreciated that.
When my wife left me that was pretty tough. Just didn't see it coming. I now see that I was a workaholic doing 80-100 hours a week. Parliament has got to be family-friendly. I mean it's just a load of Horlicks what we are doing - both sides are as bad as one another - there is no overarching vision. I think until we go 9-6, forget it. Frankly we are pissing in the wind.