Alex Kemp, who worked at the Houses of Parliament for five years, reveals some of the curious world of Westminster, usually unseen by the public.
For five years I walked the corridors of power. Sat in the mother of parliaments. No-one seemed to notice.
Between 2002 and 2007 I was a researcher in the House of Commons Library. But to the 650 MPs or the 800 Lords sitting in Parliament – red-faced and bustling, full of importance and self-regard – my fellow employees and I didn’t ever really seem to exist. Which was fine with me. It meant I was able to walk with impunity the ancient lobbies, the chintzy, carpeted halls, the bare stone staircases, the courtyards overlooked by iron-grilled stained-glass windows – in amongst the plotting and the political machinations.
And I could watch, unnoticed, the often bizarre, often baffling, goings-on of our elected (and unelected) representatives.
The House of Commons Library had been running exactly 150 years when I arrived. It seemed not to have changed much in that time. There were the dark wooden shelves, full of books, from floor to ceiling. There were the old writing desks with silver ink pots and delicate old letter openers. And, dotted around, leather armchairs full of MPs snoozing after a good lunch.
The Library is situated directly down the corridor from the Commons main chamber, and next to the famous MPs’ tea room. From the library enquiry desks we had the perfect view of determined-faced, sprinting MPs barrelling down the hall from inside the chamber, desperate to arm themselves with a fact or a quote or a piece of ancient law from our huge repository of books and papers to take back and throw nonchalantly into the debate. Or alternatively an MP might sidle languidly out of the tea room – cigarette in hand, in my day – and ask one of the Library team to find out what time the next train to Norwich might go, or whether someone could sew a button on his trousers.
It was telling that the most borrowed book from our Library was How to be an MP by Paul Flynn MP. This book had all the tricks, complete with chapters called things like: ‘How to climb the greasy pole’, ‘How to apologise’, ‘How not to go mad’, ‘How to eat and drink’.
The last one was an essential. The Palace of Westminster has 23 different bars and eateries, ranging from the Pugin tea rooms where MPs take elderly lady dignitaries visiting from their constituency, to the Strangers Bar. Only members and press were allowed in there, but I would pass its open door, revealing a Hogarthian scene of raucousness inside. There was even a 'Way Out' sign situated just a foot off the ground for those esteemed members of Parliament and press who would be leaving the premises on all fours.
All bars are heavily subsidised at the Palace of Westminster – a pint of beer cost little more than £1 when I was there in the early 2000s. As is the Members' Dining Room, where everyone working in the Palace could eat cheaply – thick, heavy, British school dinner meals: steak and kidney pies, crumbles and custards. This didn’t prevent Gordon Brown standing next to me in the queue with our trays, audibly counting and comparing the number of chips on my plate compared to his.
Then there is the new. Portcullis House is a modern addition to the Parliamentary estate, housing MPs’ offices. Sleek lines, lots of glass, fig trees in the atrium. Dinners here were more nouveau, more gastro.
It was a surprise, then, as I sat at my tiny table for one, to be asked by a couple of the myriad fresh-faced, posh, tight-suited young grads who pad around the Palace shouting and knowing next to nothing, whether I minded them sitting here with their guest.
As I looked up from my soup, I saw that their guest was a grim-faced, very aged Lady Thatcher. Silent, slumped, she stared me in the eye during the whole meal, looking as if she was desperately asking me to silence the yapping young man with the haircut next to her.
Though the whole Palace of Westminster is a delight in customs past, it can often make the actual day-to-day running of Parliament quite ludicrous. In the old committee rooms situated just above where I worked, MPs would show approval as tradition prescribed – by stamping on the floor, hammering on the windows and smashing the desks, like some 18th-century riot shaking the foundations of the building.
The Serjeant at Arms, who guards Parliament – along with his team of ex-policemen and retired tattooed taxi drivers who make-up the security – are made to wear ridiculous 400-year old tunics and stockings. On my first day at Parliament, the Serjeant at Arms took us new-starters on a tour of the whole parliamentary estate. As we stood in the hall of the Speaker’s official residence – in my time this was the teetotal and penurious Michael Martin – the Serjeant at Arms told us how his whole costume, including ceremonial sword, cost £40,000. 'And I have two of these,' he boasted, just as Mrs Martin came through the door in her Glaswegian anorak and bags from Lidl.
'Hats off, strangers!' is bellowed to everyone in the Central Lobby, hatted or not, as the the Speaker makes his way to the chamber. 'Who goes home?' bellowed at close of play. Snuff kept by the doors for members. The traditions are varied and vast.
As is the Palace of Westminster itself: eight acres, 100 staircases, 1000 rooms, three miles of passageways. I can testify to the extent of the Palace’s domain as I once found myself walking from the far corner of the estate, the Norman Shaw buildings on Whitehall, to Victoria Tower at the far south-west corner, through innumerable swinging heavy wood doors, down the tunnels that run under the roads below the unknowing tourists, followed all the way by the post-lunch, suede-shoed shuffle of Ken Clarke, who had to burble a 'thank you' every time I held one of the countless, never-ending succession of doors open for him.
It was a great job to have to watch the frantic horse-trading going on between crowds of members outside the chamber doors, to watch the belligerent MPs shouted at by dinner ladies, or made to vote by squeezing through two small wooden doors into the lobbies, wedged open so that only one person could pass at one time – an official stood on a chair counting each member. Democratic legislation in the advanced western world in the 20th century!
I was sworn at by an irate John Prescott; I had to talk on a few occasions, without smiling, to Tony Blair, while he was wearing full make-up, presumably on the off-chance of a TV appearance. Just the two of us, midday in the Library. I watched MPs proposition the prettier members of our staff; helped a few of the more refreshed ones into a late-afternoon taxi.
But, as I strolled alone around the ornate foyers, unchallenged, or stood on top of Charles Barry’s colossal, gilded roof, staring at Big Ben with London flowing away below me into the night, I sometimes thought this might be the best place in the land.