Order, Order! Wacky Westminster revealed

When you take away the seven Sinn Féin MPs who will choose not to take part in a decision of historic significance, there are 643 MPs who will play a role in deciding on the island’s fate.

After more than two years of stuttering, and occasionally farcical, negotiations, Theresa May reached agreement with the EU on a withdrawal deal.

But as she lost three votes in the House of Commons this week, it became clear that she has lost significant influence over the outcome.

The power lies with the Westminster parliament, an institution that clings to arcane and anachronistic rituals, presided over by a Speaker who at times behaves like an over-exuberant headmaster vainly trying to bring order to a classroom of unruly teenagers. So what are the ABCs of the mother of parliaments, where MPs of opposing parties must always be two swords’ lengths apart?

A is for Abstention

Sinn Féin prefers to sit on its hands and avoid the House of Commons, despite having seven members of parliament elected. The party treats abstentionism as an obscure article of faith, refusing to take part in debates or vote. As a result there is now no nationalist representation in Westminster. Although they don’t turn up and do not receive a salary, the MPs still manage to claim over €100,000 in annual expenses between them.

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Usher of the Black Rod David Leakey walks with Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow (L) across the Central Lobby of the Palace of Westminster after listening to the Queen’s Speech during the 2017 State Opening of Parliament

B is for Black Rod

The Lady or Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, or Black Rod for short, is Queen Elizabeth’s representative in parliament. The post is currently held by a woman Sarah Clark. Black Rod plays a crucial role at the State Opening of parliament, when she enters the Commons telling members to come to listen to the Queen’s speech. During the ceremony the door of the Commons is slammed in Black Rod’s face to symbolise the independence of parliament. He or she then bangs three times on the door with the rod. The door to the Commons Chamber is then opened and MPs follow Black Rod.

C is for Contempt

MPs this week passed a historic motion to hold the government in contempt of parliament over its failure to release the cabinet’s legal advice on the Brexit deal. In former times, the Commons could imprison members found to be in contempt in a room in the tower containing Big Ben. But there was no sign of Theresa May being carted off to the clock tower this week.

D is for Dennis Skinner

Known as the “Beast of Bolsover”, the acerbic veteran Labour MP (pictured below) can often be seen hovering near the front benches, where he is renowned for his heckling. He even makes quips about the Queen at the State opening of parliament. In 2006, he asked the Queen’s offical Black Rod during the ceremony: “Have you got Helen Mirren on standby.”

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Dennis Skinner

E is for Expenses

When it comes to sheer extravagance on their expenses claims, British MPs make our own TDs seem like Trappist monks. There was uproar in the House of Commons some years ago when it was revealed what MPs were claiming for. Sir Peter Viggers put in a claim of €1,645 for the purchase of a floating duck house for his garden pond, while Douglas Hogg claimed €2,200 to clear the moat at his stately home.

F is for Feminist

The suffragette Emily Davison hid in a cupboard in the Houses of Parliament during the night of the 1911 census of population. By doing so, she was able to record her address as “the House of Commons”, thus making her claim to the same political rights of men.

G is for Green benches

The benches of the House of Lords are red which denotes royalty. Members of the House of Commons have sat on green benches for hundreds of years. Nobody is sure why, but one theory holds that it was chosen because archers wore green, and it was the colour of the “common man”.

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Emily Davison (see F for feminist).

H is for Hats

Just before the House begins sitting, the inspector on duty in the Central Lobby shouts: “Hats off, strangers!” Traditionally members reserved their places in the chamber with a hat. But this system was reportedly disrupted by an Irish Member arriving in parliament with a “cab full of hats”.

I is for Irish

The Irish Parliamentary Party was a powerful force in Westminster in the decades leading up to World War I, winning 74 seats in the 1910 election. Under Charles Stewart Parnell, the party mastered the art of filibustering – delaying unfavourable legislation by speaking continuously.

J is for Johnson

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson MP is still taken seriously in some quarters as a possible future leader of the Conservative party. Taking a hardline stance on Brexit this week, he used an impossible football metaphor: “We may be 1-0 down at this stage of the negotiation with the EU – but we can still win 2-0.”

K is for Kidnap

During the Queen’s speech at the opening of parliament, it is customary for an MP to be “kidnapped” and “held hostage” at Buckingham Palace. The original purpose was to ensure that the reigning monarch had a bargaining tool in case anything untoward happened to him or her in parliament.

L is for Liar

MPs are not allowed to accuse other members of lying, and the Speaker of the House of Commons clamps down strictly on those who disobey this rule. Members get around this rule by using a euphemism for a lie such as “terminological inexactitude”, a term originally coined in the House of Commons by Winston Churchill.

M is for Mace

The Mace is a gold staff which resides in the chamber when Parliament is in session, and it represents the authority of the Queen. Any debate that is carried out without the Mace in place is said to be without legal authority. Occasionally an MP has been known to run off with it.

N is for Norman French

If you are considering a career in the British parliament, a smattering of Norman French may be a help. The Houses carry out some of their business in the language, a legacy of parliament’s 11th-century origins. For example, if the Lords have agreed to a Commons bill, it carries the message: “A ceste Bille les Seigneurs sont assentus.”

O is for Order! Order!

Order is kept in the House of Commons by the headmasterly Speaker John Bercow. When the Speaker of the House is elected, he or she is physically dragged to the chair by two MPs – an historical reminder that nobody in their right mind wants to do the job. The Speaker has to ensure that government and opposition MPs are always two swords’ lengths apart. The are still purple ribbon hooks where members are supposed to leave their swords.

P is for Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster is the official name of the sprawling parliamentary complex built on the site of William the Conqueror’s first palace. It was rebuilt in dramatic Neo-Gothic style in the 19th century after a fire. There are 100 staircases, more than 1,000 rooms and three miles of passages. The iconic clock tower which houses Big Ben was designed by Augustus Pugin, whose son designed Cobh Cathedral. Much of the building is in a dilapidated state, plaster work is crumbling and it is infested with vermin.

Q is for Queen

Queen Elizabeth officially appoints the Prime Minister after a general election. By tradition, she chooses the leader of the political party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons. She has had 13 PMs during her reign, starting with Winston Churchill in 1952.

R is for Rifle range

Until recently, the House of Lords boasted its own rifle range in case members wanted to fire off a few shots. The 25-yard range in the bowels of the building was founded in 1915 with the aim of “promoting a stronger sense of citizenship among members”.

S is for Snuffbox

Snuff, the powdered tobacco which is traditionally taken through the nose a “pinch” at a time, is kept by a doorkeeper in a wooden snuff box with a silver-plated lid at the threshold to the Commons chamber. It is the only form of tobacco allowed in the vicinity of the Commons.

T is for Titles

MPs are banned from referring to each other by name, and must not use “you” unless referring to the speaker. Instead they refer to an MP’s constituency using “the Honourable Member for …”, or if it is a senior MP, “the Right Honourable Member for…”. Members of the same party are most often called “my Honourable (or Right Honourable) friend”.

U is for Unparliamentary Language

Members can occasionally get away with insults. Michael Foot called Norman Tebbit a “semi-house-trained polecat” and Tony Banks MP said Margaret Thatcher had the “sensitivity of a sex-starved boa constrictor”. Ordinary swear words are obviously banned and it is considered bad form to accuse an MP of being drunk. Other words that have been considered off-limits over the years include “blackguard”, “git”, “guttersnipe”, “hooligan”, “rat”, “stoolpigeon” and “pipsqueak”.

V is for Vellum

Acts of parliament are printed on vellum. This is a parchment made from goatskin or sheepskin. The phrase “Going goat” is still used to describe the moment when the Queen’s Speech, printed on vellum, has to be finalised.

W is for ‘Who goes home?’

Two doorkeepers (one behind the Speaker’s chair and one in the Members’ lobby) simultaneously shout “Who goes home?” when the House rises. This is often explained as an invitation to MPs to join together in bands to cross what in the past were the dangerous unlit fields between Westminster and the City or to hire boats homewards on the Thames.

X is for X-Rated

Leinster House simply does not measure up with Westminster when it comes to sex scandals. From the time of the Profumo scandal, when a “showgirl” Christine Keeler was stepping out out with a married minister and a Soviet diplomat at the same time, affairs of state have filled the tabloids. More recently the peer responsible for overseeing standards of behaviour in the House of Lords was filmed as he reportedly snorted lines of cocaine during a “romp with two prostitutes”.

Y is for Youngest

Scottish nationalist Mhairi Black became the youngest MP since the 17th century when she was elected in 2015 at the age of 20. She is not impressed by Westminster at all – and says she “hates the place”.

Z is for Zzz

There was a time when members of the Commons or the House of Lords could sleep quite soundly on the backbenches without undue attention from prying cameras. The Duke of Devonshire was once reported as saying: “I dreamed that I was making a speech in the House of Lords. I woke up and found that I was.”

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