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Mark D’Arcy: My farewell to Portcullis House

Portcullis House (Alamy)

6 min read

Mark D’Arcy, outgoing BBC Parliament correspondent, bids farewell after more than two decades of haunting Portcullis House

The morning routine is always the same. Out of the underground and through security into Portcullis House (PCH), up the escalator, and into the atrium. Pick up an order paper (and six more for the Today in Parliament team). A latte. An almond croissant. The breakfast of champions.

I think I was one of the first journalists to spot the lurking potential of the Portcullis House coffee bar, and to realise quite how forthcoming parliamentarians can be before their first caffeine hit of the day. So I lurk close by, sipping my latte, ready to waylay them about their amendment, their 10-Minute Rule Bill, or their forthcoming select committee action. Maybe it will be Meg Hillier grabbing a coffee before a morning Public Accounts Committee, David Davis languidly surveying the scene, or Alistair Carmichael fortifying himself with a full English.

When great events are afoot, you can watch a rumour ripple across the atrium, and then ripple back again, embellished and amended

There’s an interesting thesis to be written on the impact of the Portcullis House atrium on our politics. In the old Victorian Palace of Westminster the spaces are hierarchical and exclusive; some areas are MPs only, some reserved for MPs and guests. In PCH, MPs and Lords, staffers and journalists, clerks and think-tankies all mingle, queue together and inevitably fall into conversations. When great events are afoot, you can watch a rumour ripple across the atrium, and then ripple back again, embellished and amended.

Sometimes key players promenade through. After the 2010 election, as the Coalition was negotiated, all eyes tracked the movements of previously obscure Lib Dems as they strode past, the spectators wondering just what might be in the sheaf of documents they carried. More recently, the sight of Chris Pincher, newly appointed deputy chief whip by Boris Johnson, parading through with his boss Chris Heaton-Harris had plenty of wise old heads shaking with what turned out to be justified trepidation.

Portcullis House is not without its hazards. There are some parliamentarians who are best avoided and spotting them in my peripheral vision and scuttling out of range became a vital survival skill. Failing that, fall into deep discussion with someone else about anything at all.

This was my hunting ground – a quick question here, a longer conversation there. Sometimes even an impromptu interview, recorded in one of the committee rooms just upstairs. At least a couple are normally empty, although I still treasure the memory of blundering into a meeting of the Labour Remain Conspiracy, circa 2018, with Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie looking up in horror at the journalist who’d just opened the door; the tableau was rather like one of those 17th century engravings of the Guy Fawkes conspiracy, although neither the Pope nor the devil were present.

Reporting Parliament, as opposed to capital “P” politics, is a specialised business. There are plenty of veteran reporters in Westminster who cover the wider picture of cabinet intrigue and high strategy; in my role the prime minister may be teetering, the government may be tottering, but I’m focused on an interesting Lords amendment to the Marine and Coastal Access Bill.

It’s a target-rich environment. With 1,500 mostly energetic and motivated MPs and Lords, there’s always a plot or a manoeuvre, and an election or a coup. And since 2016, if not earlier, a succession of crises – Brexit, Covid and Ukraine – have kept the pot at a roiling boil.

So after a messy, occasionally mad few years, how does the institution of Parliament emerge?

On the one hand, there’s power on the green benches. The last three prime ministers have departed because MPs’ confidence in them collapsed. On the other hand, this happened not through any formal Commons process, but through a crystallisation of Conservative opinion, culminating in three painful visits to Downing Street by Sir Graham Brady to administer the coup de grace.

So the mood in the Commons Chamber matters, particularly on the government benches. But the actual proceedings of the House have less impact. The highest profile event, PMQs, is now an empty, bombastic farce. It’s not just that neither of the main players are very good at it (maybe that’s to their credit), it’s that most times nothing of value comes out.

All the analysis is around “who won”. And what does winning even mean? Who best delivered their pre-scripted joke? Who won the loudest cheer from the troops? Even when the troops know their main job is to cheer and bray “more, more” pretty much whatever happens. It’s worse than meaningless, it’s demeaning.

Commons “scrutiny of the executive” through questions to lesser ministers is, at best, not very good. Sometimes morsels of information do emerge at departmental questions, but seldom. And the House is not much better at legislating. A few experienced guerrillas do know how to play the system to make a little difference. Formidable operators like David Davis, Stella Creasy or Margaret Hodge regularly use the bouncing of bills between Lords and Commons to extract concessions from ministers, but these are often the modest dividend from years of campaigning.

These are the people I admire most in Westminster; the ones with the street-smarts and the determination to pursue a cause, if necessary over years. This is what the core Brexiteers did over decades, while grander folk treated them with disdain. Now those once-fringe campaigners are the Tories’ new establishment, struggling to learn the arts of government, while the previous establishment struggles to master the insurgent arts.

It takes a while for new MPs to grasp how limited their powers and abilities really are. Government control over what they debate is almost total, and as the Johnson government demonstrated in 2019, their sittings can even be suspended against their will, although the Supreme Court eventually spared their blushes on that occasion.

The reality is that Parliament is now configured as a mechanism to rubber stamp and deliver a government’s priorities with as little fuss as possible and no government has much incentive to change that. The one instance I saw of a major reverse for a government in the Commons was the 2013 vote against the United Kingdom joining the United States to intervene in the civil war in Syria. This was a huge moment which created a de facto War Powers Act requiring parliamentary approval for future interventions – but the defeat of a prime minister over a recommendation for military action did startlingly little collateral damage. It was as if everyone was ignoring some dinner party faux pas, and David Cameron essentially carried on as if nothing had happened.

After 21 years reporting the system, I’ve decided it’s time to do something different. I’m going to miss it because, for all its flaws, Westminster is a fascinating, all-consuming environment. All human life is there: personal dramas and high politics, party games and real impact on people’s lives. And despite its limitations, the law-making process in Westminster has to be reported and it’s my old colleagues on Today in Parliament who are there chronicling the works of honourable Members and noble Lords day in, day out. Whether it’s political mayhem or humdrum law-making, someone has to. 

The law matters, and the process of writing it deserves more attention than it usually gets.

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