In Britain a new Parliament traditionally begins its work after the Queen has delivered what's known as her 'gracious speech', outlining the government's proposed legislation for the session. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition then resume their ritual exchanges across the floor of the House of Commons. But for new Members of Parliament the Palace of Westminster is - as Andrew Whitehead reflects - a bewildering place in which to work:
'Medals may not be worn in the Chamber' - just one of the helpful hints for new Members prepared by the Clerk of the Commons. For those with a forceful debating style, he warns that 'a Member ... must not ... advance on the "enemy" across the red line in the carpet.' And in case you've been wondering - and perhaps a few of the 140 new MPs have been: 'a male Member must be hatless when addressing the Speaker'. Except of course during a vote when, and I quote agian: ' a Member of either gender must be seated and wearing a hat. A proper hat must be worn' - the Clerk insists - 'not an Order paper or other substitute; and he adds 'two opera hats, one for each side of the House, are available on demand for this purpose'.
However, the rules of procedure are as nothing compared with the complexities of the building itself. The New Members' Guide lists seventeen restaurants, cafes and bars, all within the Palace of Westminster, all with their own opening hours and rules of admission. The Members' Smoking Room is strictly for MPs and those peers who were once MPs. Run-of-the-mill peers are allowed into the members' cafeteria, should they so wish; and MPs may invite up to three guests; indeed, officers are also allowed in, but only when Parliament is not sitting.
It's altogether more relaxed in the Strangers' Dining Room: where strangers - members of the public - are not allowed in unaccompanied, but members of the Commons staff with over seven years service can dine there - though only on Fridays, when it's not open for dinner, just for lunch. There is reform in the air: plans to scrap some of the absurdities of Commons procedure, to streamline sitting hours, and - already well advanced - to build more parliamentary offices so that MPs can operate with a modicum of efficiency.
This new Parliament has already seen some changes. Betty Boothroyd is not only the first woman Speaker, she can be expected to bring a bit of joyful irreverence to the Chamber. Celebrated for her teenage career as a dancing girl, she is - in the words of one Parliamentary sketch-writer, which, as a Yorkshireman myself I am happy to endorse - blessed with a 'Yorkshire-born cross of wit and practicality, blending discipline with jocularity'. And just about her first act as Speaker was to dispense with the time-honoured horse-hair wig which gave some of her predecessors the air more of a pantomime dame than the chair of a modern parliament.
Once in place, Madam Speaker's first task was to swear in MPs, beginning with the longest-serving member, Sir Edward Heath, newly honoured with the Order of the Garter. This is the highest order of chivalry and surely one of the few British institutions which pre-dates Parliament itself. How he must delight in outlasting as an MP his successor as Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, on whom he continues to heap calumny and contempt.
This swearing-in, over several days, is part of the ceremonial, and it throws up a few surprises. The new Health Secretary took the oath as, I and I must take a deep breath here, Virginia Hilda Brunette Maxwell Mrs Bottomley, while the new MP for Devizes swore allegiance as 'Michael Andrew Foster Jude Kerr, esquire, commonly called Earl of Ancram and known as Michael Ancram'. Not in the least common, by the sound of it.
But all the flummery of parliamentary life has failed to make amends for the sense of shok suffered by so many new MPs. Here they are, still preening themselves on their election success, on the advent of the Parliamentary career which they have sought for so long. And what do they find at Westminster? A dusty, dingy building, hidebound by its history; so short of space that many newcomers - for the time being at least - are working out of a locker room or in a corridor; and little to look forward to but long hours, late nights, and lots of letters from aggrieved constituents.
The Commons can be an unforgiving forum for the unaccomplished rator. The maiden speech, new MPs will be relieved to hear, is usually heard in polite silence. Not so subsequent contributions from the floor - greeted occasionally by displays of disagreement, or, more common and more dreadful, by the chatter of an uninterested chamber. The novice will find little solace for this in the Clerk's notes of welcome. He recalls the opinion of a predecessor two centuries ago who remarked that 'the House were very seldom inattentive to a Member who says anything worth hearing'.