Election '97: Brave new world for the next generation of lobby fodder . . .

A rough guide to Westminster for the 1997 intake of novice MPs
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There are few more pathetic sights than that of a new MP standing in the Members' Lobby of the House of Commons, confused and alarmed, a little boy/girl lost amid the overwhelming grandeur and majesty of Parliament.

A few days earlier they were bellowing through a loudspeaker at their campaign- saturated would-be electors, feted on all sides, monarchs of all they surveyed.

Now they are cruelly brought down to size, the dazed new pupils. Lost in a myriad of corridors, not knowing which way to turn or what to do, they are pitiful figures engulfed by meaningless rules and incomprehensible procedures, and a building which makes the Hampton Court maze seem a cakewalk.

Only 48 hours earlier, they were on the brink of putting the country to rights, and after that the world. Now, all these heady ambitions must take second place to finding the loo and somewhere to buy a sandwich. All MPs complain, later on, that no one ever tells them what to do on arrival. Like first-time sex, one of them once told me, they thrash around in the dark and hope against hope that it will all come right in the end.

Well, they need complain no more. Here are a few tips for the wet-behind- the-ears brigade:

t The very first essential, especially if you are in the majority party, is to find a "pair", an opponent to enable you to duck off votes together. An MP without a pair is unmistakable - a fretful, sleepless individual, who is compelled to live, night and day, at Westminster.

t Be ingratiating, even unctuous, towards the police and uniformed doorkeepers, and especially to the MP in charge of allocating office space. They have subtle powers to make your political life hell-on-earth.

t Find out where the vote office is (for documents), the Post Office (for mail), and "The Board" (for messages). Always check carefully before you respond to a call from a "constituent" in the Central Lobby. You may find yourself lumbered with a crank.

t Tear up all junk-mail, do not reply to green-ink correspondents, do not take cash for questions, and do not give your phone number to strangers.

t Forget about your private life. You have just ended it. Any amours on the side should be conducted with the utmost discretion, or preferably not at all. Opt for the celibate life.

t Don't forget that in Annie's Bar (a windowless, subterranean dump), the haunt of hacks and MPs, a round includes everyone who is in the bar at the time. Once in this "prison", you have to buy your way out. It sometimes costs hours - and a lot of money.

t Should you wish to escape from the press, go to the Terrace (reporters are banned). Other safe havens are the tea-room, the smoking room and the Members' Dining Room. But be warned: reporters tend to lurk and pounce at the most awkward moments and in the most surprising places.

t If you want a reputation for being cocky and arrogant, make your maiden speech early. The wisest course is to wait until you know what you are talking about.

t Do not try to flout and criticise rules which may seem pointless. If you antagonise the Speaker, your life will be a misery. And recognise now that the power of the backbencher is relatively zero. You would have more power on a parish council - and that is not a joke.

t Always toe the party line. Remember, until and unless you get that great call to serve on the front bench, you are simply lobby fodder as far as the whips are concerned. Indeed, however grand you become, you remain the tool of the whips, who do not care how important you think you are.

Welcome to Westminster.