Thelma Cazalet-Keir was the first female MP to marry in the Commons chapel crypt. Photo: AP/Rex/Shutterstock

Parliamentary new boys and girls: What MPs wrote in their diaries after joining the Commons

"It is quite difficult to describe how miserable I feel"
June 21, 2017
Thelma Cazalet-Keir (Conservative, Islington East, elected in the Tory landslide of 1931, aged 32):

“On the opening day, it is essential to arrive almost at the crack of dawn to put a card inscribed ‘Prayers’ on a seat—any seat you like, except of course the government and opposition front benches. There is only room for about 400 out of the 615 MPs in the Chamber itself, so unless you reserve a seat in this way you may have to squat in the gangways or stand behind the Bar. After prayers, you can put your card in a slot at the back of the seat, and it belongs to you for the day. Some elder statesmen establish a sort of usage right to a seat—for example, Winston Churchill when out of office was always allowed the corner seat on the front bench below the gangway, but otherwise it is a free for all. When the government has an enormous majority [the National Government had just won one; its Conservatives alone taking 470 seats, while Labour was reduced from 287 to just 52], their supporters overflow onto the opposition side of the House; but mostly a large majority means a less crowded House, because nobody is afraid of bringing down the government by absenteeism.

“When I entered the House there was still something slightly freakish about a woman MP, and I frequently saw male colleagues pointing me out to their friends as though I were a sort of giant panda. The House has been labelled ‘the best Club in the world,’ but it was nothing of the sort to women.”

Tony Benn (Labour, Bristol South East, elected in a 1950 by-election, aged 24):

“I am a very new member of parliament and it is still exciting to bump into Winston Churchill in the Members’ Lavatory, as I did the other day… I made my maiden speech today. Roy Jenkins suggested steel nationalisation. I knew nothing about steel except what anyone can mug up. Father [the Labour politician Viscount Stansgate] had said, ‘A maiden speech is like a canter in a horse show. You are just expected to show your paces in a graceful way.’ I certainly would have abandoned it after the opening speeches had not the family all been present. The benches falling away from below me made me feel very tall and rather conspicuous. I stumbled a bit over ‘right honourable friend’ and ‘right honourable and gallant gentleman.’ But towards the end of the speech I was aware of growing friendliness and laughter. I could see our front bench all looking up at me. I sat down after 15 minutes. Ralph Glyn, Conservative Member of Abingdon, followed and paid a very warm tribute, which father enjoyed as much as I did. It had been a success. I do feel much more at home…”

Alan Clark (Conservative, Plymouth Sutton, elected in 1974, aged 46):

“Changed and showered and to the House. Collected huge bundles of (miscellaneous) mail and through to Euan’s office [Euan Graham, Clerk of the House of Lords] where he got me monstrously drunk; then drifted around the Palace of Westminster, peeping and pottering, and observing massive available perks; drink in Strangers’ Bar and to (quite good) lunch. Hailed in Strangers’ dining room with incredible hurrahs by Jeremy Thorpe [Liberal leader, and old friend from Eton], more guardedly by David Steel. Then spent afternoon walking off the drink going round various Sergeant-at-Arms type offices drawing vouchers.”

Ann Clywd (Labour, Cynon Valley, elected in a by-election in 1984, aged 47):

“Ray Powell [MP for Ogmore, an old enemy] was now in the Whips’ Office of all places and responsible for allocating office space. This was no doubt why I found myself with a desk in a corridor. Clare Short sat in the desk in front of me, behind me was Jeremy Corbyn, who frequently brought his dog in with him. I never did work out how they had crossed Ray, but it was well known that he saw this role as a means of exerting power over people. He was not a fan of Ken Livingstone and when he entered parliament three years later he was not allocated a desk at all and had to work out of a telephone booth.”

Gyles Brandreth (Conservative, Chester, elected in 1992, aged 44):

“It is difficult to describe quite how miserable I feel. I don’t think I should have done this. I fear I have made a huge mistake and the horror of it is there is no turning back. The plain truth is that today has been my first full day at the Commons and I have hated it. I did my best to play the part, but when I got home I felt so low, hollow and quite desperate. I have had a day feeling like an awkward 14-year-old; it is a sudden, horrifying, overwhelming, all-enveloping sense that the Commons and all it stands for just isn’t going to be the place for me. Here’s how it went. At 12.30 I met Neil Hamilton in Central Lobby and we set off to bag our places in the Chamber. There were prayer cards everywhere, so Neil (a junior DTI minister) said we should sit in the second row, just behind the Prime Minister. “Are you sure?” “Absolutely.” We filled in our cards and reserved our seats. We then had a jolly lunch.

“At 2.30 we were back for the election of the Speaker. The place was packed. I sat immediately behind the Prime Minister, squeezed between Neil and the PM’s PPS. I knew at once that I was in the wrong place. I sensed that where I was sitting, literally at the PM’s right ear, was wrong, preposterous, risible. I felt all eyes must be upon me and that every single person in the Chamber must have felt contempt for me and my presumption. And it went on for two hours.

“At 5pm I made my way up to Committee Room 10 for the New Members Meeting. All the government whips sat on the platform in a line and we new boys (plus the four new girls) sat, cowed, below at school desks—yes, school desks with ridges for your pencil and square holes for your inkwell. As we shuffled out, my whip hauled me from the crowd. ‘I don’t know what you were doing sitting right behind the PM. Not a very good start. Don’t let it happen again.’”