Well, it looks like W4MP’s new young protégé (or should that be protégée?), Harper Pepperswitch, has managed to escape the confines of the office and is venturing out.  Shows initiative; this rookie will go far. W4MP Ed.

Sitting at my desk, executive chair swivelled round and staring at the brick wall outside, I realise that I have been here one whole calendar month.

Besides the relative anti-climax of my first payslip it has been an exhilarating time; I’ve made plenty of friends, bought every single item from the parliamentary gift shop and I’ve even got a bit of banter going on with the counter ladies at Bell’s.

In this edition I want to talk about Parliamentary events as, besides the growing pile of parliamentary questions on my desk, I also have an unhealthy number of little name badges, each one marked:

Harper Pepperswitch
Office of Jim Poole MP

There is most defiantly such a thing as a free lunch in parliament. In fact there are free drinks, mouse mats, mugs, key rings, trips abroad and, if you are lucky enough to hold on to your ACA, free plasma televisions too.

Having someone ask for the “pleasure of your company” is a common occurrence once you work in parliament; that little portcullis on one’s business card opens up a positive myriad of doors, an Aladdin’s cave of finger food, a king’s ransom of booze, a… well you get the picture.

Below I have detailed some observations from the different events I’ve attended: what to say, who to avoid and most importantly what is worth your time!

All Party Parliamentary Group (A.P.P.G.) Meetings

The tamest of the lot and technically more a ‘meeting’ than ‘event’. However, a good few have sandwiches and light beverages which is why I’m going to class it as a freebee and worthy of note.

A.P.P.G’s cover every facet of the human condition, besides pretty much every country. We also have groups devoted to “Skin” and “Light” (not belittling these groups, of course, both skin and light are very important aspects of the human condition).

The typical A.P.P.G. meeting will consist of a half dozen members and peers sitting around a table with a guest speaker or so giving a briefing them on a chosen topic. If you are lucky a glass of orange juice will be on offer and a couple even have wine and associated nibbles (jackpot).

Be warned however, many of these A.P.P.G.’s take place in the Portcullis House Meeting Rooms. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ADJUST THE LIGHTING CONDITIONS – having several lords and honourable members plunged into darkness whilst simultaneously roasting them with the climate control never bodes well. The obvious questions are who invented those control panels and why do we need electric blinds anyway…as the Daily Mail will always reiterate, is it never appropriate to be in the dark with elected members of state.

Ambassadors’ Receptions

Despite the kudos, these are not the most exclusive tickets in town. With around 195 countries in the world, each one with a national day, emperor/king/dictators birthday you will be surprised at how many invitations will come through. If you’re connected to the APPG you may well get your own, if not then your MP will usually have a plus one (so be sure to drop a couple of hints when you see it in the post).

There will of course be the customary stack of Ferrero Rocher going round. Do remember to thank the ambassador as you select one, perhaps accompanied by an approving nod at those around you.

At one time or another you will probably find yourself hosted by a country that you never knew existed or know absolutely nothing about, never fear you can always tell the calibre of a country by the wares on offer:

 Champagne! Olives on sticks.
European State:
 Prosecco/Wine, vol-au-vents.
Failed State: Frosty Jacks Sparking Perry/Aftershave, Wotsits.

What to say
“Can I just say, I am a BIG fan of your nuclear stockpile”
European State:
 “This food is definitely better than roast beef” 
Failed State: 
“On my way, I saw your recent tourism advertisement, it looks super”

What not to say
“…remember Ambassador, the sun never sets on the British Empire”
European State: 
“I hear that some of our football enthusiasts were recently in town?”
Failed State:
 “At university we were taught that it was technically genocide”

Terrace Reception

Certainly an afterthought of parliament’s construction are the rather ramshackle marquees on the terrace of the Houses of Parliament; yes they do look like they belong at a golden wedding anniversary celebration in Hampshire but in the balmy summer months, there is nothing better than sipping a fruity glass of young house red under one of these awnings.

All sorts of events take place on the terrace; one night you could be celebrating the success of a Greek shipping company (ok, bit unlikely in the current economic climate) and the next, at the launch of a new charity to combat scurvy (perhaps more likely in the current economic climate?).

There are several golden rules to follow at the terrace reception:

1. Don’t bother with the name badge

You defiantly do not want to end up in formal discussion with the events organisers; the likelihood is that you have a very tenuous link to the function subject and any form of identification would only promote fruitless conversation. You are far better off talking to your equally tenuously linked peers in the corner… by the bar.

2. Remember to clap at appropriate times.

Yes, the triumphant oration of a care in the community award for the aforementioned Greek shipping company will merit a hearty round of applause at its conclusion. However, not every speech should end with a clap. E.g. if you have just witnessed an opening speech to launch the “Friends of Scurvy Survivors Guild” a concerned nod will suffice at the end.

3. Don’t light up

Just because there it is an open air setting, don’t whap out the Superkings, even if some of the guests are… if you really need a cigarette, go and smoke in the archway by the Sports and Social with the catering staff.

4. Pick up the literature on the way out

Coupled with an articulate comment to one of the door hosts, this ensures a repeat invitation. Slipping a card into the handshake normally seals the deal.

Public Affairs Event

Now these are jolly little affairs, an innocent looking e-invite to a drinks reception hosted in an art gallery or converted warehouse. On the outset a very smart occasion, plenty of mid-range wine, bottled larger, fancy apple juice and beef carpaccio.

However these receptions are like having a drink with an ageing sugar daddy; yes a glass or two of Merlot is welcome at the end of the day, but be sure to keep your wits about you as “daddy” will ultimately want something in return.

Evading certain topics in conversation is the best tactic to avoid slipping up and bringing down your boss/political party/government. Topics that are out include; politics (obviously), journalism, global affairs, the economy, sport, relationships, food, weather, shopping and war. I find that discussing carpentry and woodwork keeps me clear of committing a mishap.

Following the above advice will ensure that you not only have a pleasant evening but also a job to go back to in the morning.

Pub Drinkathon

I’ve entitled this event the “Pub Drinkathon” because I thought it would be the most appropriate use of terminology to describe the scenario, I also thought it would be best to leave till last.

Basically a Public Affairs/Lobby Group will put a small bounty of cash behind the bar of the Red Lion/Two Chairman, invite as many researchers as possible and leave a few pamphlets scattered around.

The resulting deduction is a vast gaggle of highly educated parliamentarians, crowding round the bar, shouting orders, clutching fistfuls of drinks and basically adopting the most primal instincts possible.

Everyone at the bar is doing the same equation, what is the most expensive, most alcoholic drink I can buy, how many of them can I hold and how many different varieties are there that I can request in one order.

The bar queue itself will typically command a 30-45min waiting time and there will always be one berk in the corner with a triple Glenmorangie.

Despite the downsides these are perhaps the best attended events, just remember to drink early and often to avoid disappointment.

So there we are, a brief run-through of parliamentary events, by no means are these all the categories but then I have only been here a month!

One thing I’ve realised is that although the work of parliament is serious stuff, behind the veneers of formality and policy lie ordinary people who all enjoy a good time.

Despite the obvious entertainment these events provide, they also play an important role in the mechanics of parliament. Forming ideas and policy is not always done over a book of statistics and formal discussion.

These different events provide people from different industries, countries and interest groups with the opportunity to engage with parliamentarians. It may well be a casual conversation that shapes a parliamentary question or idea for a speech.

On that note, I must get back to work; I can’t have the good people of Weaselthorpe thinking that all I do is drink and be merry now can I?

Harper Pepperswitch

Added: 13th July 2010