MPs struggle to adjust to life without working late into the night

The new Commons routine of earlier sittings has been in place for only a month but the discontent has already penetrated the upper reaches of government. With more than 80 MPs having signed an early day motion calling for a review of the arrangements, there are now suggestions that several ministers are sympathetic to these sentiments and find the new hours are interfering with their duties in their departmental offices in Whitehall.

The new Commons routine of earlier sittings has been in place for only a month but the discontent has already penetrated the upper reaches of government. With more than 80 MPs having signed an early day motion calling for a review of the arrangements, there are now suggestions that several ministers are sympathetic to these sentiments and find the new hours are interfering with their duties in their departmental offices in Whitehall.

Votes in Parliament are now taking place in the afternoon instead of late at night and the Commons has become an inconvenience by interrupting their meetings with officials.

For long-serving MPs, accustomed to a life of all-night sittings fuelled by beer or brandy, the family-friendly hours are proving particularly difficult to stomach. Northern MPs, who return to a lonely dingy Pimlico flat at 7pm, are said to be suffering withdrawal symptoms and sleeplessness.

George Howarth, the former minister who tabled the motion, "regrets the revised sitting hours and notes that the business of the House has been adversely reflected".

But the new hours, leading to early evening finishes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (the old routine still applies on Mondays), are likely to stay. The silent majority seems to be coping and is expected to back Robin Cook, the Leader of the House, should there be any attempt to overturn the arrangements.

There is, admittedly, an overpowering smell of bacon and eggs and toothpaste around every corridor as MPs stoke up for the day. Long alcoholic lunches have been sacrificed to question time and ministerial statements. So the more sombre atmosphere, which the old guard mistakes for the business of the House being "adversely affected", is probably due to greater sobriety during Commons exchanges.

There are greater conflicts where the demands of committees compete for attendance in the chamber. Alan Duncan, a Tory MP who supports the motion, says he needs the "magic of Harry Potter to be in four places at once". He complains that the day is compressed into a hectic period where there is no food between breakfast and dinner.

But Derek Conway, a retread Tory who lost his Shrewsbury seat in 1997 but re-emerged to succeed Sir Edward Heath in Bexley in 2001, has no hesitation in backing the new hours. As pairing whip in the Major government, when it had no majority, he had the task of trying to keep MPs in the Commons until the early hours and is scarred by the experience. "I believe it is utter madness for tired and emotional MPs to slur their way, drunk, through speeches late at night – and then fall asleep and miss the vote anyway," he said.

Mr Conway believes there are already signs of "leaner, fitter and sober MPs", now that the battle for attendance has been lost to the chamber by the Members' Smoking Room, which stayed open throughout the all-night sittings.

But he believes that Nicholas Soames, who needs four square meals a day, should be permitted to bring a plate of cold pheasant and a glass of claret into Prime Minister's Questions – now held at noon – and thinks MPs would support an exceptional change to the standing orders to permit this. There is no doubt, notwithstanding the breakfasts, that MPs are healthier than under the old regime. When the House sat all night, MPs with dickie hearts regularly keeled over and died. This led to by-elections that often changed the course of political history. In the 1992-97 parliament, 16 MPs died. So far no one has died in this Parliament. One day, MPs will thank Mr Cook for prolonging their lives.

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