Advice to a new MP
Can I stop you for a moment? I've some advice that may come in useful. It really won't take too long. You know, I used to be here, once. Until very recently, in fact. So if what I've got to say is helpful, that's great. And if it isn't...well, there you go.
Nine points, then.
First, find a guide. Amidst the exhilaration last week, when you came to the Commons for the first time, you felt apprehension - a sense that you weren't in control. That's not surprising. Your last work (whatever it may have been) was probably like a familiar house which you knew your way around. But the Commons is like a maze, and you don't know its ways. Within it are winding corridors, dead ends, trapdoors, concealed rooms (as it were). You can easily get lost. So find a guide - probably an older MP, possibly an experienced P.A. He or she will help you find your bearings.
Second, prioritise. Make up your mind what you want to do. If you want to be a Minister, that's great. If you'd prefer to chair a Select Committee, fine. If you wish simply to be a good constituency MP, well, you're a rare animal - and I take my hat off to you. But whatever your ambition may be, prioritise, prioritise, prioritise. You can't do everything. So delete those round robin e-mails from your in-box. (Or better still, get someone else to do it for you.) Chuck the junk mail. Turn down those invitations to drinks and briefings if you're not really itching to go. Don't exhaust yourself doing the many things you don't want to do. Hoard your energy, so that you do the few things that you really do want to do.
Third, remember the golden rule. There's no one way of being an MP. It's not a job - at least not yet. In fact, it's undefined. To some people, you're citizen legislators, who are free to work and earn outside the Commons. To others, you're professional politicians, who aren't. To the first group, you're often sleazebags, in the pockets of Avarice Holdings or Greed Incorporated. To the second, you're usually scroungers, sponging off the taxpayer. But cheer up: MPs have never been popular. And at least no-one's telling you exactly who you should employ and exactly how much you should pay them (at least yet). So find a way of working that suits you. Press discreetly for an office if you're still camping out in Portcullis House. Make sure that your staff suit you, rather than the other way round. Above all, ensure that your Association understands what public money can legitimately be used for, and what it can't.
Fourth, watch your expenses - talking of your reputation. On which matter, there's good news and bad news. So, then: bad news first. You're cash-poor. That's to say, you're now subsidising your own work, thanks to the expenses reforms. This doesn't matter if you're rich enough (though most of you won't be). But now for the good news. You're reputation-rich. You're part of a new generation of Parliamentarians that's untainted by the expenses scandal. I know that the new rules are almost impossible to understand. I appreciate that very often they make no sense at all. I understand why you'd prefer, now you're here, to forget about them, at least for a while. Don't. Sooner rather than later, the media will be back to the expenses story. So scour the rules, take advice, make your decisions - and stand by them.
Fifth, make friends with new colleagues. I don't exactly mean friends, of course. There aren't any in politics - very many, anyway. But you'll want to find people who, at the very least, you can rub along well enough with. For at first, you need to club together with some colleagues who are in the same situation as you - perhaps angling for a particular Select Committee place, maybe hoping to be a PPS before too long. You can help each other out, scratch each other's backs - so to speak. This is particularly important now that the Commons is likely to elect Select Committee Chairs and members. You don't want to lose out. Also, being with friends, if you can find them, will help you relax, make jokes, let off steam. I mean friends, of course, in your own party. But bear in mind the old saw about your opponents being on the other side of the Chamber and your enemies being on your own benches...
Sixth, be congenial to older colleagues. Every single one of them has been scarred by the expenses scandal - whatever they did: for the media, like the Almighty in the gospel, cause their rain to fall upon the guilty and innocent alike. You may well have campaigned ruthlessly against your opponent's expenses record during the election campaign. Well, all's fair in love and war, not to mention politics, at least most of the time and in one way or another. But now you're in the Commons, don't wrap yourself in a cloak of virtue. Those older colleagues won't like it. Nor will some younger ones. And you may need their support if - through no fault of your own - you get into trouble in some way, in some place, sometime. The late John Smith used to say that everyone, at some points, drops a pound. And that you don't want someone kicking you in the backside when you stoop to pick it up.
Seventh, get to know the Chamber. It still matters. Viewed with a dollop of plain sense, it's still the main place where a lot of business gets done, and few succeed at Westminster who can't hold their own there. Considered with a dash of romance, it remains the great echo-chamber of national conversation. So there's no need to rush to make your maiden speech (though, when you do, don't forget to be nice about your constituents and, if you can bear it, your predecessor). Sit. Observe. Take note. Soak up the atmosphere. Feel a sense of accomplishment as you sit on the green benches: after all, you've earned the right to do so. But remember: the Chamber's like the sea. One moment, you can be buoyantly afloat, in untroubled water beneath a blue sky. The next, and you're thrashing around for dear life in a storm, while the sharks circle.
Eighth, don't neglect your constituency. I concede that you're unlikely to do so at first. But Westminster has a way of making MPs forget, just every now and then, who sent them there. There'll be times when it's easier to drift off to the Smoking Room (don't spend too much time there, by the way - and watch how much you drink) than knuckle down to the e-mail queue. I appreciate that acquaintance with your constituents is unlikely to elevate your view of human nature. Many will be slow. Some will be insensitive. A very few will actually be rude. Never mind. Hold your tongue. Grin and bear it. Remember: you're there to represent roughly seventy thousand people, and if all of them were less than perfect something would be badly wrong. So cut those ribbons. Hold those surgeries. Open those fairs (if you represent the kind of place that has them). Show interest, even if you don't always feel it. And remember the golden rule. That if you've great expectations, you're sure to be disappointed. But if you can make do with none, you're bound to be pleasantly surprised.
Ninth - and most important - don't neglect your family and friends. The sky won't always be as sunny as it is today, while you prepare to be sworn in to the House and sit through the Queen's Speech, taking in the sense of occasion - and pinching yourself that you're there, with a sense of wonder and triumph. Rainy days will come, because that's the way the weather goes, and politics too. It may not always end in failure, but it isn't a road royal to self-fulfilment, happiness, completion: for all these, you will - as you know in your heart - have to look elsewhere. Like home, for example. Remember that your family and friends matter more, in the end, than being Under-Secretary of State for Ball Bearings and Cycle Clips. Give them time and trouble. Get out of the constituency when you feel you have to. Don't do anything on Sundays unless you must. Make time for books, if you read them, films, if you see them, and passions, if you have them. Switch the blackberry on to silent mode and turn up the volume for Mozart...well, for LL Cool J, since you say that's your thing. Cook dinner. Write a sonnet. Climb a mountain. And talking of writing, never, never trust a journalist. Except, of course, this one.
Yes, that's what I'm doing now. As I say, I used to be here, once. Until very recently, in fact. What do you mean, you've never heard of me? That's offensive. What are you saying, you've got to go now? This is unforgiveable. What's that about my expenses? That's outrageous. Just who do you think you are? After all, don't you know who I was?