A BAG CARRIER’S SURVIVAL GUIDE TO THEIR FIRST TEN DAYS IN PARLIAMENT
Your first day as a bag-carrier to a Member of Parliament can be a horrifically daunting experience.
Your boss won’t bother explaining anything to you, you’ll have no bloody idea what you’re meant to be doing and the only instruction you’ll receive on your role comprises entirely of the confused mutterings of your Member of Parliament. You will operate in constant fear that you’ve done something wrong because nobody’s told you how to do it right and will leave work two hours after you are meant to with a bowel-clenching unease that you’ve made a mess of everything in some mysterious way that you cannot fully explain to yourself.
Luckily, every day as an MP’s staffer is like this; from your first as an eager young aspirant determined to change the world, to your last as a whiskey-soaked old cynic with only half the hair you started with. Nonetheless, the first ten days can be tough, so here is the Dean Trench guide to surviving them.
Wait in Central Lobby for your new employer to pick you up. He is late. This is usual for MPs so spend the time creating plausible excuses for his tardiness – these will come in handy for later when you have to explain to irate constituents why he’s not where he’s meant to be because he’s gone to ground in the Members’ Tea Room and you can’t contact him because he’s dropped his pager down the loo again.
After being introduced to your new office and told to “er…get on with it then” the thing to remember is not to panic. It’s worth having the mobile number of your predecessor pinned to the wall in letters four foot high; cultivate a good relationship with them and be prepared to pay them in beer.
Next, head to the Pass Office on Derby Gate to collect your pass, your golden key to the corridors of power (unless you are of foreign extraction, in which case you face weeks of delay while security checks are ponderously made). Don’t worry too much about looking like a mad axe-murderer in your photo – they are always shockers.
Oh, and that loud ringing? It’s the Division Bell, not a fire alarm as I thought on my first day. The security guards in my building still fondly remind me of the time they watched me – out of breath and wild-eyed – pegging it out of the building for all I was worth.
Try to set up internet access via the good people at PICT. This will be needlessly complicated and may take several weeks for no good reason. Set a new message on the SUPERB answering service that the authorities, in their wisdom, have recently introduced. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR MOBILE NUMBER AS AN EMERGENCY CONTACT. You might think it a good idea, but you’ll end up spending your Saturdays on the phone to constituents who want to moan about their next door neighbour.
Introduce yourself to the fellow bag-carriers down the corridor, after first looking up their names in the Telephone Directory (which is in the small green folder or available online). Try to avoid those who describe themselves as the Chief of Staff and Senior Parliamentary Expert to some MP who hasn’t progressed off the back benches since his election in 1856. These people tend to have an entirely unwarranted opinion of their importance to your political party and can be rather annoying.
Get lost. Literally. You’ve got your pass so go exploring! The only way to learn your way around is by trial and error and no bag-carrier has truly been “blooded” until they are found sobbing in a corner at 10pm by a friendly policeman, having taken a wrong turn behind Members’ Lobby four hours previously.
If – by some miracle – you are online now, have a play around with the Parliamentary Intranet and see if you can be the first person ever to work out how to work PIMS (which is the search engine for debates and Parliamentary Questions). Good luck!
You’ve spent all day attempting to decipher your boss’s handwriting without success, have mistaken the operative in your whips’ office for the hairdresser and tried to book the MP in for a short back and sides, and have jammed the photocopier. Again.
A fellow bag-carrier looks on in sympathy as you kick the living daylights out of the blighter and asks if you fancy a beer. Is the Pope Catholic?
Start the evening in Bellamys Bar which is located on the first floor of 1 Parliament Street and affords a great view of the Palace – especially at night. Graduate on to the Sports and Social where there is darts, real ale and occasional karaoke, but be warned that the journalist count in there is usually quite high. Now is not the time to roar loudly about the many aspects of your boss’s character that are bugging the hell out of you. Finish in the Lords’ Bar. A once great hideout for bag-carriers with all the charm of a rough spit ‘n’ sawdust local combined with the ropiest student bar you’ve ever been in (complete with grease spots on the wall and a carpet that moved of its own accord), the Lords’ has recently been “Wetherspooned”. You can get grub in there now, but be warned: more than once I’ve seen a mouse casually stroll in from the Terrace, look at the food counter in disgust, and stroll off out again.
Conclude the evening with a drunken attempt to chat up the Flower Lady. Her office is located next to the gents and her glassy stare of contempt is known to have the power to cut through bank vaults.
You are suffering from your first Parliamentary hangover and whilst it’s nice that you’ve made friends, the fact that they are emailing you mobile phone pictures of your attempted seduction of Nora the Flower Lady is doing nothing to alleviate the pounding in your head.
Treat yourself to a greasy fry-up in either the Terrace or Bellamys cafeteria.
Still, it’s Friday and the boss is safely in his constituency which means you have the time to actually get some serious work done without being pestered by requests for coffee, and “great ideas”. Begin to peruse the political blogs, but with caution. It’s an addiction that only gets worse with the years.
You vow never to drink again. One of your friends calls: Lords’ at six? Hell, yeah!
Time to visit the constituency office and meet any other staff in the service of your employer. These people operate at the sharp end of the representative democracy and can warn you about any “problem” (other terms: “green inkers”, “knife lickers”, or “Mr(s) McMad”) members of the public within the boundaries of the constituency.
To be fair, most of the constituents I’ve had dealings with are great, but there are a few (oh, the memories!) who are a few DVDs short of a box-set so be careful, and never put yourself in danger. If you at any time suspect that you have become a fixation to someone, talk to your boss immediately.
Oh, and join the union. The Parliamentary branch of “Unity”, as we are now called, is headed by the excellent Kevin Flack (a kind of cheerful Godfather figure) who is an indispensable friend to MPs staff in both disagreements with their employers and wider issues relating to your working life. He organises good socials as well.
Book yourself on a House of Commons tour. Apart from being very interesting, it’s useful to know a bit about the place for the times when you’re called upon to be an impromptu guide for a group of constituents. Making it up as you go along is all very well, but occasionally you’ll get a smart kid who just doesn’t buy your claim that Westminster Hall was where the first cloning experiment to make Boris Johnson out of Michael Fabricant took place.
“Do coffee” with one of your friends in the Dispatch Box cafeteria in Portcullis House. Entertain yourselves by pretending to receive phonecalls from your party’s current leading light and laugh at the jealous twitchings of the be-suited researchers around you. This is the place where researchers come to see and be seen and maybe, maybe catch the eye of Someone Important.
Grab yourself a copy of the List of Ministerial responsibilities from the Vote Office. This is always wildly out of date, so always double check online before you send a letter to a long since fired Minister requesting a meeting. This is very embarrassing for all parties concerned and can lead to protracted sulks from the other MP.
If an updated List has just been published, it means that we’re days away from a Government reshuffle: FACT.
Get through an entire day without getting lost, crashing your internet connection, or ballsing up your correspondence database. Well done! Celebrate by getting your boss to take you to Strangers’ Bar (MPs and guests only) and if it’s warm enough, sit on the Terrace and watch boatloads of people wave at you as they go past (if they’re tourists) or give you an entirely different salute (if they’re British).
You’re feeling on top of the world. You know your way around, the policemen recognise you, and you finally feel like you have a handle on this entire researcher business.
In the midst of your self-congratulation, the phone rings: it’s the whip’s office. Why has your boss failed to turn up to present his Private Members’ Bill? And why did he not vote last night? He’s dropped his pager down the loo again, hasn’t he?
You gulp and begin to panic, but try not to worry too much. As anybody who has been here a long time will tell you, things don’t change much around Parliament but you will eventually learn to take it all in your stride.
Lords’ at six?