Westminster has dominated the national conversation for the last five years.
We’ve had Brexit turmoil, two prime ministers ousted, two general elections and a global pandemic to boot.
Throughout it all I’ve been lucky enough to have a front row seat, filing news, analysis and the occasional column from the Commons for the Press and Journal and Courier.
My first day on the job saw a former north-east MP, who would subsequently be completely exonerated, accused of “groping” a staffer in an exclusive parliamentary bar.
From thereon in, it has truly been a rollercoaster ride – political plotting and mutinies, endless Brexit debate, late night votes, a Downing Street resignation and coronation and a Labour Party implosion – it has been a drama to rival any TV box set.
Prior to the pandemic, those late nights were frantically digested and regurgitated to you, our valued readers, from a small room on the “Burma Road” – a corridor in the House of Commons named in memory of those POW journalists who died while building the Burma Railway for the Japanese during World War II.
The Burma Road sits on the third floor above the Commons chamber and accommodates the majority of the Westminster lobby – the collective noun for journalists who cover parliament. To reach it, you either have to walk up a rather bleak, stale‑smelling, winding staircase or take a small, wood-panelled lift.
From “Room Two”, affectionately known as the Scottish room, there are views of Big Ben and Parliament Square – which was always very useful during those heady Brexit days as if there was a protest, you’d often get first eyes on it.
But, like so much else in our Covid world, covering politics over the last 16 months has been extremely challenging. The bread and butter for Westminster hacks is the afternoon coffees in Portcullis House, the evening drinks in the parliamentary bars and meals in nearby restaurants with contacts. Those conversations will often be little more than that, but all too often they will offer up a thread that will lead to a story. Online video calls have been a poor substitute and like so many, I won’t be sad to see the back of them.
The usual daily briefings with the prime minister’s spokesman, which pre-pandemic have either taken place in a small room in one of the Palace’s towers or in Number 9 Downing Street, have also had to adapt. Briefings were moved onto a mass conference call, which quickly became a nightmare. The words “please mute” became a daily mantra, uttered most memorably when a grubby colleague flushed the toilet while the PM’s spokesman was answering questions. Yuck!
But, some of the most revealing moments came, as many in the lobby will tell you, outside of the SW1 bubble. Spending a couple of weeks in the Highlands on the 2019 campaign trail I learned more about the mood of voters than you ever would at fusty speeches and briefings in the capital. Door knocking with the Lib Dems in Muir of Ord, watching a booming Ian Blackford speech in a packed Portree gym on a wet Wednesday night or meeting Labour activists in Inverness all proved invaluable to informing my pieces.
I’ve enjoyed every minute and I leave you with a few parliamentary nick-nacks:
Favourite secret passage (Parliament is full of them)
A poky little staircase hidden in The Woolsack bar – so renamed after the “Sports and Social” garnered one too many negative headlines – to allow MPs grabbing a pint to run upstairs to vote in the chamber.
A tough one, SNP boss Ian Blackford has a grand suite of offices – previously inhabited by the Lib Dems before their 2015 collapse – but Alistair Carmichael has a cracking view of London Bridge from his. Sorry Ian, will have to go with Alistair’s.
Best parliamentary food
All those late nights meant plenty of eating at my desk, the House of Commons jerk chicken is famous – truly a dish to bridge the political divide.
Tucked away in the House of Lords basement there is a 25-yard shooting range, obviously no longer used – plans to turn it into a creche have so far failed to materialise. At the end of Burma Road there is a small room with a tiled ceiling, it is understood to have previously been a drunk tank for wayward MPs.