Martin Salter - working hard for Reading West

Nervous new MPs feel stranded on a high wire without a safety net

Life at the moment can’t be easy for the 200 or so newbies who woke up on May 7 to find themselves Members of Parliament for the first time. In contrast to the 1997 Labour landslide that catapulted so many of us into the Commons in what already seems like another lifetime, this time it’s really not clear who’s in charge.

The new MPs have a Prime Minister and a Deputy Prime Minister from what were once diametrically opposed political parties who look and sound like twins separated at boarding school. Having spent years attacking and loathing each other, scores of Lib Dem and Tory MPs now have to play happy families so that their leaders can enjoy the trappings of office - at least until the whole “rag-tag and bobtail coalition”, to quote the excellent Dennis Skinner, completely unravels. The Labour newbies, meanwhile, have to adjust to life in opposition under an acting leader who has wisely declined to take part in an endless contest between two people called Milliband. (For the record, I’m backing the one called Ed. )

I’ve heard some wonderfully naive nonsense about the new Parliament with its large new intake ushering an era of “new politics” bereft of the bad old ways. Well, the resignation of David Laws following the Telegraph’s revelations about his personal accommodation claims, coupled with Number 10’s clumsy attempt to censor the BBC’s Question Time panel, must make the new boys and girls feel they are back in a time warp rather than wandering in the sunlit uplands of a new world.

And of all of them are having to grapple with a crazy new system of allowances and a press pack just waiting to pounce on any mistake or indiscretion, however minor or inadvertent. With memories of the last “Manure Parliament” giving them nightmares, no wonder some of the newbies feel stranded on a high wire without a safety net. In fact, I’ve already seen one posting on ConservativeHome from a recently elected Tory MP wondering if they’ve made the worst mistake of their life.

Luckily, some good advice has been provided by kindly and experienced souls from across the party divide. I particularly liked Paul Goodman’s nine-point plan for newly elected members in which he said:

“Remember that your family and friends matter more, in the end, than being Under-Secretary of State for Ball Bearings and Cycle Clips. Give them time and trouble. Get out of the constituency when you feel you have to. Don’t do anything on Sundays unless you must. Make time for books, if you read them, films, if you see them, and passions, if you have them. Switch the BlackBerry on to silent mode and turn up the volume for Mozart… well, for LL Cool J, since you say that’s your thing. Cook dinner. Write a sonnet. Climb a mountain. And talking of writing, never, never trust a journalist. Except, of course, this one.”

Last week The House Magazine produced a handy Survival Guide for New Members which aims to help them settle in and avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls. The contributors include Tory Treasury Committee sage Michael Fallon on how to be effective on Select Committees; Labour’s Gisela Stuart and Ian McCartney on dealing with the Whips and the perils of the greasy pole of power; Conservative rebel Douglas Carswell on being an independent backbencher; and the scandal hit ex-Tory MP Michael Brown on handling the media. My own contribution on being a constituency MP was inevitably somewhat more parochial:

“Never lose touch with your constituency. Produce regular reports detailing your work, both in the patch and in Parliament, and try to get a column in your local paper. Pick your fights with care, but it is good to get a rebellion in as quickly as possible to put the whips in their place and show your constituents you are not a gutless patsy. Remember this bit of advice given to me in 1997 and pass it on to those who follow on from you: “No matter how tough things get, never forget that the House of Commons is the best megaphone in the world. Use it well and use it wisely for the issues that matterto you and your constituents and you won’t go far wrong”.”

I genuinely wish all our new legislators well, but I suspect that this Parliament is going to be heavy going, at least for those who don’t have access to a reliable political compass (and a private income).