How to keep a country seat

How to keep a country seat

During a gruelling day on the campaign trail, we find out why the Conservative candidate for Wells swapped the comfy world of accountancy for abuse, manure and Westminster

Who’d be a politician? Even in the most productive years of your life, the pay is, let’s face it, pretty average. Most people treat you with apathy, bordering on contempt. And where, you might ask, is the job security when you have to persuade 60,000 of those people every five years that you are still up to the job?

David Heathcoat-Amory might well ask himself that question. When we meet, we’re standing in the rain in a mixture of mud, sawdust and manure.

It’s not the most glamorous demonstration of life in the political fast lane. The Conservative candidate for Wells (and its MP for the last 22 years) is meeting and greeting local farmers at a livestock market in the constituency’s biggest town, Highbridge and Burnham-on-Sea.

During the course of a day following him on the campaign trail, he has to endure the full tapestry of humankind and its emotions towards politicians. Farmers complain fiercely of their troubles with new-age travellers, mothers on the school run look the other way rather than talk to him. Old ladies, meanwhile, welcome him like a long-lost son.

It’s a far cry from his time as an accountant at Price Waterhouse, where he started his working life some 30 years before.

With an uncle who was chancellor of the exchequer in the Macmillan government (and prior to that a former Price Waterhouse accountant), Heathcoat-Amory’s political career is in many respects easier to explain than his accounting background. It seems to run in the family, as one of his nephews is now a political writer for the Daily Mail.

So, why accountancy? ‘I left Oxford and realised I wasn’t trained for anything specific. I wanted to get equipped,’ he explains.

Heathcoat-Amory qualified as an accountant, and left shortly after. ‘I realised I didn’t want to be an auditor.’ Instead he went to British Electric Traction, to work in the finance department, and then to British Technology Group (since swallowed up by Rentokil).

Finally, in 1983, he quit to enter the other family business, being elected as the MP for Wells that year. He has been representing the west-country constituency ever since, and this year, at 56, he is fighting his sixth election.

Every run-up to an election follows the same format. For four weeks, Heathcoat-Amory is set to tread every foot of his 400 square mile constituency. He will work from nine in the morning until eight in the evening for six days a week. No-one likes to be canvassed on a Sunday, or he would probably be out then too.

Not only that, but he is likely to encounter indifference and, in some cases, hostility, as he goes. One of his fellow canvassers cheerfully recounts how one voter told her he would like to ‘burn [her] at the stake’.

Not that it’s all bad. The rain in Highbridge and the seaside resort of Burnham-on-Sea is only a very temporary interlude. For the rest of the day the towns are bathed in glorious sunshine. And his constituency – which includes Glastonbury, and the Mendip Hills – must rank as one of the prettiest in the country.

Even those constituents who are hostile towards his policies are generally polite with it, which is partly down to Heathcoat-Amory’s personable style. He has an easy way with people, and is able to tune in quickly to the issues that concern his public. He introduces himself to many at the cattle market by saying ‘You’re a huntsman, I take it,’ which instantly endears him.

But people are genuinely pleased to see him. On the one hand there is the blue-rinse brigade, the old ladies who seem to want to invite him in for a cup of tea and a biscuit. Then there are the mothers we encounter at the school gates. They’re clearly not planning to vote for him, but he still manages to draw a smile from them.

The campaign also seems to be going well. Typically for this part of the world, the traditional Conservative dominance is being challenged by the rise of the Liberal Democrats. But in Heathcoat-Amory’s case, he feels like he has turned the corner.

In 1997, there was a huge swing against the Tories, reducing his majority to just 512. ‘I know what it’s like to live dangerously,’ he says. But in 2001 the majority was over 2,000. That still makes it a marginal, but a marginal that is heading in the right direction for the Tories.

One reason Heathcoat-Amory may survive is the tenor of his politics. He is probably best known as a Eurosceptic. He resigned as a Treasury minister in 1996 over Europe, and his campaign literature makes clear that he intends to fight the European constitution.

His Eurosceptic views also play well with the farmers, whose fear of regulation from Brussels dominates their discussions with the MP. He is also pro-hunting, a position that is guaranteed to raise a sympathetic cheer down at the livestock market.

But the real fight with the Lib Dems may be over pensioners. The Tories do have some policies for OAPs – a council tax rebate, principally – but the Lib Dems are making the running with the idea of a local income tax. Because local taxes would be based not on properties but on their pension incomes, small relative to others, it would mean lower taxes for OAPs. With 68% of the population of Burnham-on-Sea over 65, that is a particularly pressing question here.

If Heathcote-Amory’s people skills are most important on the stump, his accountancy background has certainly helped at Westminster. He is an old hand on Treasury issues. He was paymaster-general from 1994 to 1996 and shadow chief secretary to the Treasury between 1997 and 2000. At the end of the last parliament, he had joined the Treasury select committee. All of this means he brings his accountancy knowledge to bear in his parliamentary duties. Do accountants tend to get those sorts of jobs in politics?

Not necessarily, he says: ‘You go where they send you, really.’

Throughout the nineties he worked in the former department of energy, as a minister of state in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and as a party whip.

Accounting experience is even crucial in some roles, he says. One minister he thinks could have benefited from a better understanding of tax and revenue matters is Dawn Primarolo, the paymaster general. She has more experience now, he says, but he thinks her innocence of the department’s affairs caused problems initially.

Having an accountancy background, he says, helps with ‘mechanical’ things. ‘I can understand accounts, for instance. But I also understand what regulations actually mean. When people talk about over-regulation, to a lot of people it’s just theory. They have never been on the receiving end,’ he says.

In an election where the two major political parties are promising billions of pounds of cuts, any kind of finance experience will be at a premium in the next government. ‘Modern government is about expenditure control, and yet we are without any financial accounting skills except those of the civil service,’ he says.

He feels it is important that ministers should have those skills as well, to properly oversee any accounting work. His background also helps him to engage with businesses in his constituency. ‘Being professionally equipped means you can offer sound advice.’

Politics is not something that is hugely attractive to accountants, however. The job insecurity must be a significant part of that – what do you do when it is all over?

Heathcoat-Amory has retained directorships of two private companies, he says, suggesting he may have a safety net. But increasingly, MPs do not pick up directorships so much after their political careers end. In a week and a half’s time, many of Heathcoat-Amory’s former colleagues at Westminster will face that prospect. For those like him, at 56, there would be little chance of a comeback.

It is a daunting prospect, but also an exciting one. And how many accountants, drifting towards pensionable age, can look at what they are doing and still say that?

It seems hard to get to the top in politics today if you haven’t been in the party since the year dot. But many politicians do have some outside experience of the real world too. A look at the Labour front bench shows just how far that experience goes.

Tony Blair worked as a barrister, entering parliament at the age of 30. Jack Straw was also a barrister. John Prescott worked in the merchant navy, while Ian McCartney was a manual worker. Patricia Hewitt was director of research at Andersen Consulting at one stage.

Despite this, some seem to have done nothing other than politics their whole lives. Biographies of Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke and Hilary Benn on the 10 Downing Street website contain no references to any jobs outside of politics.

The Tories and the Lib Dems also have quite a lot of shadow cabinet members with little experience outside politics. Fewer now that the Conservatives have elected to ditch City banker – and past Accountancy Age Awards judge – Howard Flight.

The really interesting thing about the cabinet itself, in what is arguably a recent trend, is the number of people coming through public services, particularly teaching. Tessa Jowell was a social worker, while Hilary Armstrong was a community worker.

There are three former lecturers in the Cabinet including, of course, Gordon Brown, who lectured at Edinburgh University and Caledonian University. He then worked for Scottish Television before going into politics.

It seems there’s nothing like experience of the real world if you want to run the country.

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