A House Divided is largely set in the House of Commons, which is a great setting for a book but a godawful place to work.
But did you know it has rooms and spaces that only MPs are allowed to enter?
I have to admit, I didn’t until recently when an MP friend read A House Divided and gave me feedback on the setting.
I spent a lot of time there in the late nineties when I was working for the Labour Party. I wasn’t based there – I was up the road in Millbank Tower – but I had regular meetings in the building and was the proud owner of a parliamentary pass (after they did the mandatory security checks).
The building is beautiful and packed with history and atmosphere. In A House Divided, Jennifer Sinclair is often in awe of the place. The sight of the building rising up from the banks of a misty River Thames early on the morning of a crucial vote makes her heart race.
But it’s not an easy place to work. There are what feels like dozens of staircases, corridors all over the place, and a long courtyard running through the centre of the building which is often an easier way to get around than trying to find your way inside.
What I didn’t know about when I was working there, and never got to see, was the rooms and spaces that are out of bounds to anyone except MPs.
There are rooms you’re only allowed in with an MP (or a Member, as they’re referred to in the House). But the Members’ Dining Room, Members’ Tea Room and other spaces are for MPs only.
This is where the real business of the house goes on. The Members’ Tea Room has zones for each of the political parties, where alliances are forged and negotiations take place. Prime Ministers are rarely seen in the tea room, but those who have deigned to spend time there have often been able to build relations with their members and cement their influence.
Another space which was a complete mystery to me (and is featured in the book) is the space behind the Speaker’s Chair.
This is a small space inside the Chamber of the House of Commons but invisible to the cameras, and to Members sitting on the benches. If a Member goes there during a debate, they haven’t officially left the Chamber (so they can still speak in the debate) but they can’t be seen.
People go here for private conversations and negotiations (Jennifer and John do so in the book’s climactic scene). They also go there for a sneaky snack without being seen by the cameras! Something Jennifer doesn’t do – she’s far too anxious about her son’s welfare to think about eating.
If I hadn’t been lucky enough to have the book fact-checked by an MP, I’d never have known about these spaces. And they make great settings for my story. Not only that, but I learned more about the building where I used to work.