Lunch at the House of Commons: Unlikely

What are the odds of your parliamentarian inviting you to the House of Commons to join him for lunch? Appeared in any soaps lately?

MPs dining at the House of Commons
Read any good books lately? World War I photographer David McLellan (no hat) on the terrace in 1918 – in pre-Archer days

After the expenses scandal, which showed MPs with their snouts so far in the public trough that even the pigs complained, it will not be an easy task to persuade one (an MP rather than a pig) to buy you a meal.

And I know that you will be weeping in your Montrachet when you hear that they are only paid £67,000 a year (rising to £74,000 this year, backdated) and that there is trench warfare between MPs and the body that doles out their allowances.

Nowadays, a tribune of the people will only put his hand in his pocket to scratch his cojones, which are not always in ready supply in this occupation. So you are not going to get fed and watered for nothing unless you can think of a plan so cunning that you could put a tail on it and call it a fox.

If you are famous, fabulously rich or a columnist, it’s a doddle. Just send a charming note. And if you are in a soap, they will bite your arm off, sit up and beg while you toss them lumps of sugar.

MPs live such dreary lives that to bask in your reflected glory is almost an aphrodisiac and great copy for the diaries. If you are young, gay and pretty, or if you are a little love muffin with breasts that could raise the Titanic, you are also in with a chance. It’s summer, the election is over, the sap is rising and if you are not a kiss and teller, the next election is five years away. So what the hell.

Lunch at the House of Commons

At the House of Commons, food has improved tremendously over the years. When Harold Wilson was prime minister, he wasn’t quite sure how to reward the larger-than-life Robert Maxwell. So he put him in charge of catering. The trouble with Bob is that he did for honesty what King Herod did for babysitting.

His first scam was to sell off the magnificent wine cellar for a pittance; to himself. After his death, his magnificent Oxfordshire residence (actually, it was owned by the local authority but they couldn’t evict him) was cleared and they found bottle after bottle of unmarked but quite magnificent wine. The reason they were unmarked was because the old rogue had steamed the labels off and stuck them on bottles of rough plonk, which he sold for a fortune.

Until Margaret Thatcher came along in 1979, the food was pretty stodgy, gentleman’s-club/public-school fare. As with everything else, she wanted radical change and had the brainwave of appointing an MP hotelier as chairman of catering. Sir Charles Irving, now no longer with us, turned the place round. It helped that he was as camp as a row of tents and was able to keep many of the young catering staff on their toes.

House of Commons Dining Options

house of commons dining room
Rich tastes. Keep your airy-fairy minimalism: it’s opulence all the way in the House of Commons Members’ Dining Room

First, choose your restaurant. If your MP host is going to be rather stingy, he will take you to the canteen. The food is pleasant, plentiful and cheap and you’ll probably get a quick drink on the terrace, which is worth the experience. Good views of Lambeth Palace and Jeffrey Archer’s penthouse.

The Terrace at The House of Commons has been the scene of much dodgy goings on over the years. There was the famous “ship of shame”, out of whom well-refreshed MPs and scantily dressed ladies were once decanted. My favourite publishable story was the game we used to play during all-night sittings. Robin Corbett had a party piece whereby he claimed he could ensure that an egg dropped into a glass of water via a biscuit-tin lid by one hurl of his shoe. Of course he couldn’t and much senseless destruction of bottles ensued. Corbett was the shadow broadcasting minister.

Your MP might offer you Portcullis House, which is a bit more upmarket but rather modern. Aim for the Strangers’ Dining Room, or the Churchill Grill Room preceded by a drink in the gloriously over-the-top Pugin Room. Pugin did all the interior decorating of the Palace, which is a masterpiece of mock-Gothic splendour. The poor fellow suffered the affliction of so many occupants of the Palace; he went mad.

On your way, take a peek into the Members’ Dining Room. This is rarely used now, but in my day it was always heaving. It was also laid out along party lines. Government down the bottom, Lib Dems, other minorities in the middle and the Opposition at the far end.

At the government end was the chief whip’s table, with the only chair that had arms. Every now and then, Labour would raid the Tory end and occupy our tables.

We didn’t mind that too much. But what really sent a shiver down our spines was is if one of the tables had two chairs leaning against the table. It meant that Margaret Thatcher would be dining and looking for victims.

Anyone who can appear on camera with a drill and proclaim that, “It is the largest tool I’ve ever had in my hand,” and not realise why the crew is cracking up has a serious humour bypass. My favourite was when the Lib Dems changed their logo to a bird. Her speechwriters tried to explain to her the dead-parrot sketch. Blank looks. Finally she read it out to guffaws of laughter from her audience. Still mystified, she asked one of her aides, “This Monty Python, is he one of us?”

There is more chance of Katie Price entering a nunnery than you have of blagging a free meal off your MP. But he will arrange a tour of the House of Commons for you or even take you round himself. You will find it a fascinating experience and you may just get a cup of tea on the terrace. ML


Jerry Hayes is a barrister, broadcaster, blogger and former Conservative MP

Restaurant Reviews

donostia restaurantDonostia/Lurra

Marylebone’s Donostia is a chic, bijou white box offering head chef Damian Surowiec’s fresh take on nouvelle Basque cuisine. Starting with gordal olives, we knew we were in for a treat. But it gets better. In September, the owners open Lurra across the street – a grill serving up txuleta (Galician steak) and wild fish. JP,

the table cafeThe Table Cafe

Apple tree-lined terrace? YES. Clientele consisting of beautiful, architect types? YES. Bankside location evocative of New York’s Greenwich Village? YES. Throw in an indulgent all-day dining menu that runs from Loch Duart smoked salmon and scrambled eggs to a divine duck confit burger, then some fine botanical cocktails, and this place gets MAN London’s vote as the ideal summer destination to take a date. JA