Tuning into the previous day’s 'Today in Parliament' on Friday, I was mildly surprised to be reminded that business had actually gone on in the Commons the previous day. A debate on cycling was held in Westminster Hall, where MPs jostled to speak on the concerns of their constituents on the subject. Apart from being press release and local leaflet gold, the chances of a favourable namecheck in The Times (the newspaper spearheading the campaign) proved irresistibly tempting for many backbenchers. Europe minister David Lidington MP was grilled by the select committee on European Security, and a selection of academics were in front of the Liaison Committee.
But the only topic of conversation in the corridors and toilets was speculation about Eric Joyce’s apparent attempt to turn the Strangers’ Bar into a re-enactment of the showdown at the OK Corral. Were you in? No, I wasn’t last night, but I got this from someone who was actually there… Really? Is there video? I hear so. Coming soon to a red top near you! How much do you think they’ll get for it? Oh, thousands, I’d say.
As a bag-carrier to various politicians for over ten years now, I’ve always viewed the Strangers’ Bar with a mixture of apprehension and downright hostility. To my mind, no good can come from mixing politicians, booze, and story-hungry journalists. Aside from which, the place is tiny and the space not taken up by MPs about to go dangerously off-message in the hearing of a hostile hack tends to be occupied by the sort of aspirant who reckons he’s some sort of latter-day Alastair Campbell. Such individuals tend to be rather tedious and, if you’re female, you invariably end up backed into a corner by one of these chumps and under pressure to nod and smile adoringly as he describes his latest Urquhart stylings on some obscure Statutory Instrument Committee while touching you in an over-familiar way every time he makes a “funny”. A great night out? I’d rather remove both my nipples with a rusty melon-baller.
In spite of the inevitable “There was outrage on Twitter” reporting at the news of Eric Joyce’s arrest, the drinking culture in the Commons is nowhere near as prevalent as it was when I started as a dewy-eyed 21-year-old in possession of a nice, spongy liver and the ideological certainty that comes with youth. Before the reform of the House sitting hours, there wasn’t much to do when waiting for a 10pm vote apart from sitting in your office, staring at the walls, or heading down to the Strangers’ for a bit of human contact. With the House now operating closer to standard office hours, drunken and disorderly behaviour is notable by its relative rarity these days.
The reaction amongst press and politicians to Joycegate (as I suppose we must call it) highlights the archaic and not particularly commendable role that the Strangers’ Bar still plays in the Westminster village, and has done since time immemorial. The Strangers’ is the key marketplace for the currency that operates within the Commons: gossip. Ranging from everything to Kremlinology – who’s up and who’s down – to whipping problems, to the rumoured contents of a select committee report, or even if it’s just about so-and-so shagging his bag-carrier, it is in the Strangers’ where press and politicians go to trade information. Rumours spread like forest fires between the cramped office cells in Westminster, swirl around the cloisters, are reformed, supplemented, and head back to the Strangers’ via an MP with some information he’s dying to share and a thirst for a pint of Pride.
In due course, snippets appear in diary columns and form the basis of columnists' Sunday articles or investigations. Noticed the muted response of the press to the affair? If it had been a couple of researchers brawling in the Sports and Social, the howls of “Close the bar, and off with their publicly-funded heads!” would have resonated through the fourth estate faster than you could say, “Good evening, officer. And what seems to be the trouble?” But as the Strangers’ is where the journos drink and trade, there was little about the “drinking culture” problem of Parliament and much about the character of the unfortunate Mr Joyce.
The only logical response to the incident, after all, would be to recommend that MPs are not allowed in Commons bars. And where would that leave the political correspondents then?