Wednesday, 8 April 2009

A Stroll through the Parliamentary Lobby

Comparatively few persons know how interesting an insight into Parliamentary life may be got in what is well known at Westminster as "the Lobby". This name, simple and unpretentious, does not include the public corridors or the outer precincts, where strangers may loiter at will. It applies exclusively to the more reserved inner circle, at the main entrance to the House of commons, which only Members of Parliament and other privileged persons may frequent. In this advantageous arena for observation, a visitor can not only, as the familiar phrase goes, rub shoulders with any of our leading politicians, but may also watch the varied incidents which enliven leisure intervals, when senators retreat from the occasional tedium of the legislative chamber.

The approaches to the Lobby are guarded by police whose duty, discharged with firmness and courtesy, is to prevent the entrance of persons not entitled to admission. Each of these officers has a list of those who, not being members of the House, are yet authorised by the Sergeant-at-Arms, on behalf of the Speaker, to enter here without let or hindrance. They include a number of public officials, private secretaries to the right hon. gentlemen, the accredited agents of leading political organisations, the City Remembrancer, and a representative of each of the press agencies, as well as of the principal newspapers. Other persons may be introduced for a short time by members, upon whom there are many calls daily for the exercise of this prerogative. Frequenters of the Lobby soon learn its habits, by which may be understood the times when this select area is seen to most advantage. Between eight and ten o'clock each evening the place looks empty and deserted, most of the members having then gone to dinner; but at certain other hours, both before and after that quiet interval, it is thronged by those whom public business or private friendship brings together at this favourite rendezvous. Opposite the entrance passage are the portals of the House of Commons, jealously guarded on either side by trusty servants of the State. No rash intruder dare cross this threshold, save only the favoured few whom members, by virtue of an order from the Speaker, may conduct to the select seats under the galleries devoted to peers and distinguished strangers. The more absolute line of reserve is drawn at the Bar, within which none may enter but the duly elected and sworn representatives of constituencies. On the left hand side of the Lobby is the members' private entrance, and the Conference-room - where deputations frequently interview representatives of the Government. Near this apartment are the offices of the political "whips", who look closely after the due attendance of the members of their respective parties in critical divisions, or, more reluctantly, arrange the "pairing off" of such as partially atone for absence from an important vote by getting coupled with other absentees from the opposite side. The Liberal and Conservative parties have each two responsible whips and a couple of assistants, who are seldom absent from the Lobby when the House is in session. A staff of messengers is in constant attendance upon these gentlemen, ready to be sent upon such hurried errands as the exigencies of Parliamentary business may require.

From the right-hand side of the Lobby there branches off the carpeted corridor which leads to the reading-room, dining room, library, tea-room, smoke room etc, which all contribute towards placing the House of Commons foremost in some respects among the many clubs of London. On mild summer evenings the favourite retreat for members is the private terrace by the river-side where overlooking the Thames, in full view of St Thomas's Hospital and the electrically lighted Embankment - wearied legislators escape for a time the prolixity of dull debates. In describing the other accessories of the Lobby, a post office and refreshment bar, occupying opposite corners, should be mentioned as two convenient institutions which both command a due share of patronage.

Cassells Family Magazine, 1883.

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