Diet nannies will spend Christmas telling us ‘you are what you eat’ but in the House of Commons ‘you are where you sit’. Are you a Tory Whips’ stooge or a Dominic Grieve groupie aching to block Brexit, a braw new blue Scot or an English provincial plodder without hope of advancement? Parliament-watchers discern plenty about your political leanings from where you park your posterior.
Each side of the Commons chamber has five green-leather benches that are divided by a gangway. On the government side of the chamber, all MPs are Conservatives except for a couple who have had the Whip withdrawn. On the opposition side, the lower four benches ‘beyond the gangway’ (i.e. further from the Speaker’s chair) belong mainly to the Scots Nats, Lib Dems, Northern Irish and Plaid Cymru. At the very front of that area, the first four places have been retained as Labour territory by Dennis Skinner and his mates. This enclave, a relic of the ‘awkward squad bench’, is where you find the last of the Labour pit men: the Ronnie Campbells and Ian Laverys. The SNP did try to boot them out after the 2015 election but Skinner would not budge.
The Tories used to have their own awkward squad bench. It, too, is much reduced. Thirty years ago this was home to glowering Ted Heath as well as Michael Heseltine, Ian Gilmour and their languid ilk, Jermyn Street-shirted patricians who thought Margaret Thatcher a Lincolnshire Poujadiste. Today it attracts less snooty Eurosceptics. At least two (Nigel Evans and Tom Pursglove) have a weakness for brown shoes. Aldridge’s Wendy Morton perches here, a daily reminder of what we lost when her bookish predecessor, Richard Shepherd, retired. At the far end of the bench, beside the two little double--seater boxes, one may spot Southampton Itchen’s Royston Smith, perhaps the most taciturn of all MPs. He sits there holding his chin, waiting, waiting — itchen’, you could say — for the moment to begin that career-defining speech. It has yet to happen.
Europhile successors to Heseltine and Gilmour now gather around the fourth and fifth benches directly to the right of the Speaker’s chair. Simon Burns (who retired in 2017) and Keith Simpson began this ‘naughty corner’ cluster in the 2010 Parliament; it has grown like a wasps’ nest. Anna Soubry sits there hour after hour, twitching, obsessed. Nicky Morgan comes waddling in occasionally, all avian bulgy eyes, an overfed puffin in search of mates. Give her and Soubry League of Gentlemen headscarves and they could be Blackpool ladies awaiting the tram to Cleveleys. Other Naughty Corner denizens include m’learned friend Grieve, his munchkin Bob Neill and Huntingdon’s not entirely scintillating Jonathan Djanogly.
Towards the gangway, back row, sit Tory blowhards led by three-piece-suited Alec Shelbrooke, a successor to Alderman Foodbotham. In his wake, a repartee artiste called Hoare (N. Dorset) and Tamworth’s Christopher Pincher. They have a sniper’s view of Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs and can see when Compo’s eyes are darting and therefore when to spear him with a heckle. Below them, closer to the ministers, sit the suck-ups, Hon Members happy to do the Whips’ bidding. The most egregious of recent years have included Alan Mak, spongy Oliver Dowden and ‘Sir’ Michael Ellis (not yet knighted but it is surely only a matter of days). Ellis is now deputy leader of the House but still plonks himself on the backbenches to moo for his ministerial colleagues.
Beyond the gangway on the Tory side, things become more Eurosceptic. Sir Bill Cash, Brexit’s John the Baptist, is a fourth-row fixture, as is Andrew Bridgen, who sits with a flourish of his right wrist. Jacob Rees-Mogg bags the end seat on the third bench, reclining like a man balancing a cocktail olive in his navel. The back row offers various independent-minded souls, from look-at-me liberal Heidi Allen to righter-wing Richard Drax, Andrew Percy and Sir Edward Leigh. On the Labour side, Paul Flynn takes the top left corner spot, an ancient mariner stopping one and all.
The Blairite rump has colonised the four benches before the gangway. Here sit Yvette Cooper, Pat McFadden, Mary Creagh, Hilary Benn. Ben Bradshaw likes the gangway seat on the third bench. Two benches behind him, in the back row, are Labour wits Steve Pound, Chris Ruane, Kevin Brennan. They keep their distance from Keith Vaz, who uncoils his limbs a few seats on. The outer fringes of Labour opt for the rearmost bench at the far end. That is where Jeremy Corbyn sat for years. Now it is home to Graham Jones, Sir Kevin Barron and decent but silent John Grogan.
The longer one watches Parliament, the more one is haunted by memories. DUP parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds has inherited the late Ian Paisley’s niche. Bernard Jenkin sits in the spot from which the wonderful Ian Gow (murdered a year later by the IRA) made the first televised Commons speech in 1989. I seldom see polite Hampshire Brexiteer Ranil Jayawardena without thinking of tremendous Tory battleaxe Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman, who for years occupied the same second-row gangway seat. And when Michael Fallon made his first post-resignation speech from the backbenches, he stood in the fourth row beyond the gangway, second seat in. Had he been in the third row, Fallon would have been in exactly the seat from which Geoffrey Howe launched his November 1990 rocket at Mrs T. Close but no Exocet.