westminster insider

17 questions you’ve always wanted to ask a Westminster insider

It rules over every aspect of our civic life — and yet, for the vast majority of us, it remains shrouded in mystery

The Palace of Westminster — that decaying seat of the Houses of Parliament — is a hive of diplomacy, secrecy, and sometimes downright debauchery.

More than 1,300 Members of the Lords and the Commons charge about its hallways, accompanied by nearly 12,000 ‘passholders’ — a cavalcade of aides, researchers, interns, contractors and journalists. But what really goes on in these corridors of power? We turned to a friendly Westminster mole for answers.

Our insider has worked at the Palace of Westminster for five years, first as an intern for a now-departed prime minister, then as a researcher and adviser to a succession of MPs and cabinet ministers.

As such, she was perfectly placed to answer our most burning questions — which is the best bar? Where are the secret passages located? And why are junior staffers so obsessed with sex?

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What are some of the more unusual rituals or traditions in the Palace of Westminster that we might not know about?

The Speaker’s procession and prayers at the beginning and end of each day is quite a sight to behold. The ceremonial mace must be set down in the Commons chamber for Parliamentary business to be heard, and removed at the end of the day when business has ended. None of this is broadcast on TV.

What are the bars like?

There are only a handful of functioning bars remaining on the Westminster estate. The bar reserved for MPs, Stranger’s bar, is often empty, except on heaving summer nights when it allows access to the House of Commons terrace and the lobby journalists swarm around in the hope of eavesdropping on a scoop. Other members of staff can’t get served here, but some researchers brazenly wander in, in the hope of befriending an MP at the bar.

"There have been rumours swirling about various Members for years..."

Traditionally, the Labour and Tory staff used to hang out in separate bars, but the old Tory bar, Bellamy’s, is now a creche. The best establishment by far is the old Labour bar, the infamous Sports and Social, now the Woolsack. In here you’ll find most staffers, regular meetings of the Westminster SNP group; and a hoard of maintenance staff. An old relic of the bar, a Lord’s clerk, was once glassed in the head here, and it has been host to many raucous nights of aggressive networking. It’s the place to go to catch up on corridor gossip.

House of Lords and House of Commons lobby
The House of Lords and House of Commons lobby

How often do you bump into a cabinet minister in the bathrooms?

Almost every day. No funny business witnessed so far.

Does the Westminster bubble know about scandals involving members long before the public finds out?

There have been rumours swirling about various Members for years, but unless you have experienced it first-hand, you never really know the truth until evidence is published. These things never stay quiet and are constantly on the tips of tongues: scandal, whether inside or outside the Palace, is equally revelled in and frowned upon. That being said, it’s a nightmare for the staff of the MP in question when these stories break: all their hard work behind the scenes and their own reputation might be demolished, on a whim of their boss.

"My favourite secret room is full of old wooden telephone booths. I've only managed to find it twice..."

Are there any secret passageways in the Palace of Westminster?

I’ve heard about several secret passageways over the years… There are also dozens of rooms tucked away in the depths of the Palace, which you’ll come across accidentally while exploring. My favourite is a room full of old wooden telephone booths that I’ve only managed to find twice.

What are some of the most desirable offices in the Palace of Westminster? Which are the worst?

The shiny modern corner offices in Portcullis House offering views of the river are second only to a few grand rooms in the Palace. Some of the worst offices are tiny, windowless cupboards along corridors resembling the inside of a portable classroom. This is where the Whips put you if you’ve been naughty or you haven’t made friends with them in time for room allocations.

Portcullis House
Portcullis House, where the "shiny modern corner offices" are highly coveted

How long does it take to walk from one side of the Palace to the other?

About 15 minutes, if you don’t count the interruptions for a little chat with friends and acquaintances on the way.

How well do members get along across party lines? Do they eat together, drink together, play darts together?

In general, everyone gets along well, but every once in a while you’ll come across someone with views so polarised to your own that they refuse to engage with you. You’ll also have to watch out for moles — some staffers have no qualms in divulging something to their boss that will put your job at risk just to get one over on your party. These people are rare — some of the best friendships I’ve cultivated have been cross-party.

"The whips know everything about the MPs and their staff, as they have eyes and ears everywhere..."

What’s the food like?

Two words — jerk chicken. It’s the best meal the Parliamentary estate has to offer, and it’s so highly anticipated in Westminster that it has its own Twitter account: Speaker Jerkow. Any variation thereof, apart from jerk pork, is an absolute travesty. The dodgiest restaurants repeatedly try jerk haddock or jerk tofu, which do not go down well with anyone.

We hear rumours of young staffers and assistants (and some far more senior figures) getting up to no good in the bathrooms and corridors. Why is the Palace such a sexual place?

The combination of novelty and lack of consequence. It also makes for an incredible talking point at parties.

The Royal Gallery at the Palace of Westminster
The Royal Gallery at the Palace of Westminster

How influential are lobbyists in Westminster?

It depends who their market is. Ministers bat lobbyists away like flies, but backbenchers often rely on their expertise to help boost policy campaigns. The hard sell never works, though — the MP or member of staff will have some connection to the cause to get involved, and no amount of spam email briefings, invitations in the post, or follow-up telephone calls will endear a lobbyist to their target.

What unusual methods do whips use to control their MPs?

They know everything about the MPs and their staff, as they have eyes and ears everywhere. Some rumours also originate from the whips themselves.

Is there one thing departing staffers steal when they leave?

You’d have to be desperate for cutlery to steal those old, worn stainless steel spoons. The greatest trophy isn’t physical — it’s seeing a policy you’ve helped enact put into practise, the publicity you received for a certain campaign, or watching your MP move slowly up the food chain to Ministerial office.

" Whips know everything about the MPs and their staff, as they have eyes and ears everywhere."

Is it true that you’ll often encounter rats in the Palace?

I’ve never seen a rat in Parliament, but I’ve encountered many mice. Mouse traps are a regular feature in the offices by the river, and before the trend of Westminster cats took off, one building started an official petition for a cat to help keep the mice problem under control.

What advice would you have for young aides looking to get ahead in the game?

Keep your head down and don’t over-expose yourself internally or externally to the media. Rumours spread quickly and if you set out to make yourself infamous, you could become the subject of a scandal that isn’t true. In spite of everything you hear about life in politics, a level head and sturdy values will take you much further in the long term.

Do MPs actually read the bills they vote on?

For the majority of MPs, especially those who stick to their party whip, rarely. A good researcher will do a summary for their boss, but the language is often so complex that most MPs will only know the general aims of a Bill, and potentially the structure of the clauses, before voting. Some MPs, on the other hand, pride themselves on looking into the technical details of each Bill and making their views known to the House. Unless the legislation is particularly complex, like Brexit, this seldom makes a difference in the long run.

Who is the most respected MP in the house, across all parties?

I would hope, as he was democratically elected by the country, that that would be the Prime Minister.

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Further Reading