Staying in London from 22nd July to 4th Aug 2014 andwondered if there are any Houses of Parliament etc events that it would be worth getting tickets for?
Prime Minister's Questions review
It's a big day for the Prime Minister today, because he's going to meet me for the first time. He's probably been informed that I'm coming, and will put on an extra special show.
It's a bit of a rigmarole getting into Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs). It's only on once a week, for half-hour on Wednesday, and you can't just turn up and queue like on any other day. What you have to do is write a begging letter to your local MP asking for a ticket (there's no form, you just have to put together a letter). I told mine that if he came up trumps then he'd have won a voter for life. Obviously I lied. The chances of me voting for my bloke are close to zero -- he's useless! But he did deliver on the ticket though, so fair play to him.
Security is super tight at the Houses of Parliament today because there's a State visit from the Irish President. They've got a whole army of machine-gun coppers by the gate, eyeing me up and wondering if they can shoot me. I smile widely and they let me through. Thank Christ for that. Then it's a proper pat-down and a frisk inside, through the scanners and metal detectors. I even have to take my belt off. Even Harry Houdini would have trouble sneaking something through security today.
Once you're past security you head into Westminster Hall and on through St. Stephen's Hall to Central Lobby. That's where they do all the interviews on the 10 o'clock news. Have a look around for the Reception Desk, and right next-door to that is the Admission Order Office. Head in there and swap your headed letter for a proper ticket. (You don't need any ID, just the letter.) Then all you've got to do is fill in a form with all your personal details on it (name, address, occupation, embarrassing birthmarks, etc) and then you are in business! Once all of that is done you can relax, pull up a pew, or have a look around Central Lobby.
The session starts at noon and you've got to grab your ticket by half-past eleven at the latest, otherwise they'll start dishing them out to the public on the gate instead. But I am safe. I am sitting here in Central Lobby with my ticket safely cocooned in my mitt, where nobody can steal it. There are a few shifty-looking people in here (like Dennis Skinner).
I've got half an hour to wait until 11:30, when they finally let everyone through into the gallery. I bide my time with a little look around the statues. It's a very pretty room and well worthy of its central spot. It's quite a little lobby too, and it rapidly fills up with about 200-300 people. At 11:27 everyone is pushed back from the centre and the policemen stand to attention. What is going on? Then he shouts out "Hats off!" and the Speaker parades through in his posh togs, off to open Parliament. The Sergeant-At-Arms comes first, holding the ceremonial mace, and then the Speaker John Bercow follows through, grinning and waving at the crowd, and clearly enjoying being the centre of attention. Then it's a big bundle into the Admission Office again, where they let you up the back stairs. At this point you have to hand over all your mobile phones and cameras (no photos in the chamber), and you can pick up a white Order Paper from the desk.
It's roughly 11:35 now, and PMQs doesn't start until noon. So for the first half-hour you have to yawn your way through departmental questions. There's hardly anyone famous in here yet, just a load of bureaucrats and faceless suits that nobody knows. You get a great view of the Speaker's Chair, the government front benches and where the Opposition sits. But everything before that is blocked off by the balcony. But that's where all the good people sit anyway, who cares if you can't see the Lib Dems -- it's no great loss. There's also a great big glass screen erected between the public and the chamber, so it looks like the politicians are in an exhibit at the zoo. You are looking down on them from above, spying through a window, whilst the sound is piped in through the speakers. It's a very curious effect, and separates you a little bit from the action. You can see them speaking and moving about, but their voices are floating in from the side and behind. You can hear a general hubbub of supplementary voices as well, because no one bothers keeping quiet when other MPs are speaking. There is lots of muttering and chuntering to their mates next-door. There are not many manners in the house. People interrupt, shout, wave, make faces, and generally make plain their disdain for the opposition.
The Speaker John Bercow doesn't fill up his chair; his head doesn't reach the top. He's got three wigged clerks in front of him and a few suited henchmen to the side, and he's resting his palms on the side of the seat like Marlon Brando in the Godfather.
William Hague is in the House! And Vince Cable too. Things are starting to build up to the start at 12 o'clock. Still no sign of the PM though. I guess he's going to make a grand entrance with party poppers, streamers and balloons. Oh, wait a minute --here he comes -- Dave has arrived to a general cheer from the Tory side. He came in from behind the Speaker's chair, and sat down without fanfare. He’s got a pair of spectacles on too, while he's reading his papers -- he never wears those on TV. He'll probably take them off in a minute. Now he's pouring out a glass of water and puffing out his cheeks, geeing himself up for the fight.
12 o'clock -- start of the show. Ding ding for round one. They've turned the microphones up to maximum and it's shaking the glass. Cameron is very combative straight off the bat; he must be in a bad mood. He isn't taking any prisoners today. I've just noticed that he's taken off his specs, so I was right -- he doesn't want to look nerdy on the telly.
Up comes Ed Milliband to huge cheers, like they're welcoming a boxer to the ring. He is rising to his feet... and so am I. BOO! BOO! You suck, pal! I shout, but he doesn't hear me over the cacophony of noise. The amount of noise in this place is incredible. The benches are doing more booing than me, cheering and jeering, and waving their arms about like it's the Second Coming. If you've never been here before, then you might have expected our politicians to behave impeccably, with great gravitas and dignity. Well, you'd be wrong. All you've got to do is imagine two hundred blokes in a room, all arguing about who is right, when all of them are wrong. The image that pops into your head is pretty much what you'll see here. He kicks off with a load of questions about Maria Miller (disgraced MP, who resigned this morning). Everything is aimed at Dave though -- that's all Ed cares about, pinning the blame on Dave. Someone else does something wrong, but it's all the Tory's fault. (I'm a Tory voter, by the way, so take all this anti-Ed stuff with a pinch of salt.) The noise bubbles up every time he spouts out a question; he's getting a round of applause just for talking. The Speaker has had enough and jumps out of his chair, and points to a load of Brownies in the balcony in an attempt to shame everyone into silence. Doesn't work. Noise keeps coming.
It really is a bear pit down there, and I don't envy them their job at all. They've each got five rows of shouting MPs behind them, crammed in shoulder to shoulder, another five benches in front, a few rows at the left and right, plus another ten rows of the public glaring down from the balcony. Not to mention all the microphones and cameras hanging from the ceiling -- what an arena! The noise is bashing about their ears from all angles and they can hardly get a word heard. Now I know why they pipe the sound in through the speakers -- we wouldn't be able to hear anything otherwise.
Every now and then you'll get a question that invokes total silence -- like Ireland, Israel, or some terrible murder that has taken place. The MPs might be childish, but they know when to hush up. Thankfully that doesn't last long and the verbal punch-up resumes.
I've noticed that the MPs have a curious habit of lying back in their seats every time someone speaks, like they're having a five-second power nap. Apparently that is because they've got some little speakers buried in the back of the chair, and they are trying to have a listen. That is how loud this place is -- they can't even hear each other speaking from forty feet away.
At 12:30 the whole thing comes to an abrupt halt, and with the Speaker's "Order! Order!" everyone files out. Everyone is up and out in five seconds flat, probably off for a cup of tea, which is where I am going too.
On my way out I notice that Dennis Skinner is still standing in Central Lobby, still chatting with his pals.
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Have you been here? Are you going? Got any questions?
You won't be able to see any debates unfortunately, because Parliament will be in recess. But you will be able to have a tour of the whole place — they are doing the Summer Opening from the 31st July.
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