Bacon sandwiches and gin fuelled all-night filibusters

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Indy Politics

The feeling at the end of a Commons all-night sitting always reminded me of jet lag. That dull headache thanks to too much alcohol and lack of sleep that confronts disembarking transatlantic passengers, dressed in the same clothes for 24 hours, is the same for weary MPs heading home the next morning for a shave before returning a couple of hours later.

The feeling at the end of a Commons all-night sitting always reminded me of jet lag. That dull headache thanks to too much alcohol and lack of sleep that confronts disembarking transatlantic passengers, dressed in the same clothes for 24 hours, is the same for weary MPs heading home the next morning for a shave before returning a couple of hours later.

Such sittings were invariably a complete waste of time for government backbenchers. It was usually opposition MPs who prolonged the debates so a Conservative backbencher simply had to be around, on call at a moment's notice, to participate in the divisions.

Nevertheless, I came to love these occasions, which provided a great sense of camaraderie. First stop would be the smoking room at about 7pm for a couple of gins - or in the summer, a Pimm's on the terrace by the river. Then into the members' dining room with half a dozen cronies and plenty of claret.

By midnight, the walking heart attacks with small majorities would be let off early by the whips. This left a hard core of about 200 government MPs with probably no more than a dozen opposition members who would engage in the filibustering exercise.

During the early hours, the bars would gradually empty as MPs tried to snooze in various corners, adding to the airport atmosphere of cancelled planes. The smart alecs with grand offices would equip themselves with camp beds, nod off, and fail to respond when the division bell rang.

The nightmare would occur at about 4am when a division had been called and government MPs, fuelled by now with bacon sandwiches from the tearoom, would start drifting back into the chamber as the effects of alcohol wore off. Being the only part of the building with air-conditioning, this was where MPs could be dangerous. They would actually intervene on the debates and prolong the agony.

Government rebels themselves could use the all-night sittings for their own ends.Threatened with the nation's nuclear waste in my constituency, I decided to make a nuisance of myself by prolonging every possible debate on every subject. I opposed the Water Fluoridation Bill just to make myself deliberately unpopular, by speaking for two hours at 3am. I threatened to repeat the exercise on all items of business until they gave in to my constituents. I won.

In the glory days of the all-night sessions of the early 1980s, a senior government whip, Sir Spencer le Marchant, would organise a champagne breakfast party for the Tory troops in the smoking room at about 6am. A tip-off to Downing Street would ensure that an immaculate Margaret Thatcher would be encouraged to sweep in and join the party to restore flagging morale. Those were the days.

The author was Tory MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes

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