When Anthony Trollope’s fictional creation Phineas Finn returned to London from Ireland as a newly elected member of parliament, he was greeted with great fanfare by his landlady, Mrs Bunce.
“God bless my soul, Mr Phineas,” said she, “only think of your being a member of Parliament! . . . And you’ll go on with the rooms the same as ever? Well, I never thought to have a member of Parliament in ’em.”
Like their literary counterparts, today’s politicians arriving in their country’s seat of government also face the question of where to live.
Politics is a peripatetic business. Most capital cities play host to a transient flock of politicians, flitting from constituency to parliament and back again, often on a weekly basis.
There is little international consensus about how countries should house their representatives. The most common system is to provide allowances to cover the cost of a second home, but solutions range from state-owned housing in Sweden to shared dorms in Myanmar.
Japanese parliamentarians stay in an accommodation block next door to the legislature, the Diet, while Indian politicians live in Luytens-designed bungalows in New Delhi.
Some US congressmen and women famously sleep overnight in their offices, a perk which Capitol Hill news site RollCall estimates saves them up to 10 per cent of their salary which would otherwise be spent on Washington’s pricey housing. Others share apartments which have been dubbed political frat houses, as parodied in the 2013 Amazon TV show Alpha House.
Washington is not the only world city where housing costs pose a problem for politicians. For newcomers to London, the capital’s sky-high property prices and fierce competition can be a daunting prospect and, with more scrutiny over their expenses than ever, some British politicians have found innovative cost-saving solutions, such as those used by newly elected Labour MPs Jess Phillips and Jo Cox.
After their first weeks in Westminster, MPs face a longer term decision about their living arrangements.
For many years British politicians favoured having their main home in London and maintaining a small cottage or other toehold in their constituencies for weekend visits. But since parliament was rocked by an expenses scandal in 2009 that trend has reversed.
The British public revolted against what they perceived to be a culture of something-for-nothing at Westminster. Amid the growing climate of political scepticism and the rise of anti-establishment sentiment, aspiring representatives of the people are striving to distance themselves from their political parties in the eyes of constituents. This includes spending a lot more time and effort cultivating voters at home.
As a result, it has become far more common in the past six years for MPs to base themselves and their families in their constituencies to demonstrate their commitment to local affairs. This leaves them needing smaller — and cheaper — surroundings in London during the week.
One MP who took that approach to the extreme is Johnny Mercer, the Conservative representative for Plymouth Moor View in south-west England. When the former soldier was elected last year he had a small motor cruiser — bought with money from his military retirement — towed up to London and moored in a marina in the capital’s eastern docklands, to use as overnight digs.
The move attracted a fair bit of publicity for the media-friendly MP — who has also appeared half-naked in a cosmetics commercial — and saves on his accommodation expenses.
“I chose to do it because I enjoy camping and the outdoor lifestyle, getting into my sleeping bag and being in an environment where my family have been, rather than going to a faceless hotel room,” he recently told the website Total Politics.
But he is now starting to regret the move: “I’m beginning to think it was a bad idea. It’s bloody cold and it’s not that comfortable. You get home at 10 o’clock at night and it would be nice to just crawl into a nice warm bed.”
Although politicians do appreciate the attractions of a traditional home in the capital, getting one has become harder in recent years. Younger MPs, like many of their contemporaries, struggle to save for a deposit.
William Wragg’s election as Conservative MP for Hazel Grove in Greater Manchester last year made him one of parliament’s youngest members, aged 28. He is living with his parents in his constituency while he saves up to buy a place of his own.
When he does, it will probably not be in London. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), the watchdog set up after the expenses scandal, has blocked claims for mortgage interest payments on second homes. Instead, MPs can now only claim second-home allowances for rented properties. This acts as a significant disincentive for MPs to stay in their own properties in London. Many who previously claimed the second-homes allowance for flats they owned in the capital have rented them out to someone else and moved into rented housing instead.
Almost a third of Tory MPs are listed as landlords in the register of members’ interests [according to FT research]. Many of these homes are properties in London in which the MP previously lived themselves.
“It was a ridiculous move,” huffed one MP who sold up after the rule change and did not want to be named. “What happened is that we all sold out and now rent at a far greater cost. It’s actually less economically efficient.”
The costs of MPs’ housing are substantial: Britain spent £6.7m on subsidising MPs’ accommodation in 2014/15.
MPs representing London constituencies cannot claim for a second home. Their colleagues in the rest of the country are entitled to claim up to £20,600 a year for renting a home in London, which averages at £1,717 a month. Those who choose to stay in hotels instead can claim up to £150 a night, for an unlimited number of nights per year.
Although Ipsa says no MP has as yet claimed for year-round hotel residence, more flexible accommodation options such as hotels, serviced apartments and private members’ clubs have become increasingly common.
One MP stays at a serviced apartment at legendary media mavens’ hang-out the Groucho Club and others stay at other private members’ clubs or rent through Airbnb. Although examples like these are deeply unpopular with the public, politicians’ housing subsidies do help low-earners into parliament, making politics more diverse.
Those who dislike the current system may reflect on Phineas Finn’s career: after spending much of his time as an MP in search of a wealthy bride in order to afford to pursue his political calling, he abandoned Westminster and went home to Ireland to become a poorhouse inspector.
Take your seat: camper van or barge?
When Labour MP Jess Phillips came down from her Birmingham constituency of Yardley to take up her Westminster seat last year, she brought her camper van to sleep in.
She wanted to show her children where she would be working; the parliamentary authorities offered to arrange a hotel, but Phillips was shocked at the prices. “I just thought: ‘Sod it, we’ve got a VW camper van’,” Phillips said at the time. “We packed up duvets, rolled up mattresses and shoved them in the back.”
Jo Cox, Labour’s representative for Batley and Spen, near Leeds, spends her weeknights afloat. She lives with her husband and two children on a traditional Dutch barge moored on the Thames near the Tower of London.
The former head of policy at Oxfam has lived on boats for a decade, originally moving her narrow boat around Oxford’s canals. In 2009 she and husband, Brendan, bought their current home, a historic Dutch barge, and later joined a co-operative in Wapping where they now live.
After her election to parliament last year the couple decided to stay put on the river during the week while renting a house in her constituency — where she grew up — for weekend visits.
It is not the easiest accommodation for a busy MP. The boat’s sewage tank has to be pumped out once a week, and its water tanks refilled; the engine has to be serviced regularly and it is heated by a stove, which feels “very Dickensian” in winter, says Cox. Yet there are also upsides. “It’s very much a community, very creative with artists, film directors, architects — and it’s an environmentally sound way of living.”
The mooring’s central location has one other potential benefit. “It’d be a great commute along the river — about 10 minutes’ motoring by dinghy,” says Cox. “I did ask the Speaker if I could moor up [on Westminster’s river terrace] but he said probably best not.”
Kate Allen is an FT political correspondent
Photographs: Christopher Pledger; Sylvain Sonnet/Getty Images; P Singh/WMF; Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images; Brent Bergherm/Getty Images; Newsteam