Who's who in the Lobby

Charlie Whelan guides you through the Commons bars, the 'Rampton Wing' and the newspaper cubbyholes where political hacks live - and spin doctors get away with murder

The parliamentary press gallery is a spin doctors' paradise. I loved it so much that I had my second office on the stool next to the telephone in the left-hand corner of the bar. From here I could constantly monitor what all the lobby hacks were up to, with no more than one minute's walk to any journalist.

The parliamentary press gallery is a spin doctors' paradise. I loved it so much that I had my second office on the stool next to the telephone in the left-hand corner of the bar. From here I could constantly monitor what all the lobby hacks were up to, with no more than one minute's walk to any journalist.

Nearest to the bar is the new office for Independent reporters, next to the library used mostly by scribes to sleep off a hangover. They used to have the smallest workplace, known as the black hole of Calcutta, where five of them shared an office smaller than the female MPs' toilet. Along with The Times reporters, the Indy hacks have the luxury of having their very own private office, but this is not necessarily an advantage. It's always good in Westminster to know what the opposition is up to. The best hacks' room in the gallery is the one shared by The Sun, the London Evening Standard, the Daily Record and ITN. They are always first with the news, not just because No 10 has a hotline to Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun's respected political editor, but also because, inevitably, ITN is told things earlier than the papers by government spin doctors, for logistical reasons. The BBC does have a small office not far away, but its staff would never share with anyone, and their main working area is in a Wembley Stadium-sized office up the road in Millbank.

Most of the newspaper offices are situated off a long corridor affectionately known as the Burma Road. First on the left from the bar is the Daily Mirror, where, if you are very lucky, you may find Paul Routledge rattling off one of his excellent anti-Blair rants, though like any professional Westminster journo, he spends most of his time picking up gossip from MPs in the Strangers' Bar.

The next office is made up mostly of hacks from the Scottish papers, who seem to get very upset at being called "local papers". They belong next door in the Rampton Wing, so called because they are all mad. The Daily Mail also has its own office, but for reasons that no one quite knows, the paper's formidable political editor, David Hughes, shares an office with hacks from the Financial Times and other riff -raff such as Patrick Hennessy from The Sunday Telegraph. The Daily Express has the last office along the corridor before you come to more regional papers, whose reporters are forever complaining that they are ignored by the spin doctors - which, of course, they are. Never, ever believe the government press officer who tells you how important the regionals are.

The political day starts early at Westminster with the obligatory listening to the Today programme, but an early tour of the press gallery to see what the hacks are planning for the day is just as important.

Touring the gallery is not just about spinning your line; it's about being forewarned about what stories are about to break. Lunch is a good time to have a more in-depth political discussion with journalists, and where better than their very own restaurant, where you have full access to the MPs' wonderful wine cellar?

Westminster is the only place left where working journalists still drink, and TBLs (two-bottle lunches) are regular events - except for Indy hacks, of course. Late afternoon is not the time to tour the press gallery because that's when the scribes are writing, but a patient wait in my bar office was often rewarded as they emerged to boast about their big scoop.

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