The Mace guide to being a novice MP

Still finding your way around the Palace? Not sure where to sit in the Chamber? Former minister Brooks Newmark is here to assist


We’re sure many of you are finding it surreal having the letters ‘MP’ after your name. When I was elected in 2005, at the third time of trying, I couldn’t believe it. When the returning officer announced me as the winner, I hadn’t dared to write a speech for fear of jinxing the result.

There are several challenges you will face as a new MP. The first is handling the media. Immediately, you are a ‘public person’ but your priority is always your local media: they are the direct voice to your constituents. Get to know everyone’s name and offer the local editor to write a weekly or monthly column.

The national media are different. They’re not always your friend (trust me on this). Their stories can be unhelpful to both you and the party (that might be the former whip in me speaking).
On social media, everyone suddenly thinks that they can abuse you. It may be tempting to reply to obnoxious comments: resist the temptation. These online battles are psychologically debilitating and give oxygen to your abuser, who will likely never agree with you anyway. Best just to say nothing. Social media should be your instrument for transmitting your message on local or national campaigns. It’s worth getting someone to double-check every post.

At Westminster itself, your first challenge will be finding an office. The whips will likely give you the smallest and least attractive office available. When I arrived, I was given a windowless room in one of the upper corridors in the main building. It would have failed any health and safety test. Finding your office is another problem: Westminster is a labyrinth of offices and committee rooms – it really is like Hogwarts. I’ve always found the staff and police incredibly helpful. Get to know as many of them as possible.

Once you’ve located your office, sit down and write thank-you notes to all those who got you to Westminster. To those close to me I wrote handwritten letters (time-consuming but appreciated). For the wider campaign team, I opted for a typed letter, topped and tailed by me. After that, thank your constituents. Get an article in the local press making it clear that you are representing everyone irrespective of how they voted. Now is also the time to seek out half a dozen individuals or organisations to whom you can drop a handwritten note on something achievable locally. Over 10 years, I wrote more than 2,500 such notes.

After all that’s done, spend lots of time in the chamber and get a feel for the place. Get your maiden speech done early so you can participate actively in debates. Your speech should be relatively short and include three parts: thanking your predecessor; talking about your constituency and what you will do for them; and addressing the issue that is being debated.  You may wish to check Hansard for inspiration.

It helps also to grasp the formalities of the chamber. Remember that if you wish to speak in a debate you should get your name into the Speaker’s Office 24 hours beforehand. To participate, remain in the chamber: if you don’t, the speaker won’t call on you. I remember my first Treasury debate: I had spent hours working on my speech: I had to sit in the chamber for over six hours and only got three minutes to deliver my well-prepared 15 minutes of oratorical brilliance.

Another aspect of chamber etiquette is to rise to “catch the speaker’s eye”. If you don’t stand up, you won’t get called. The protocol for addressing another MP varies: for someone on your side, it’s “my honourable friend, the member for…”. For someone on the opposing side, it is “the honourable member for…”. Privy councillors, meanwhile, are “right honourable”; QCs are “honourable and learned”; and ex-military are “honourable and gallant member”. Always put your name in for Prime Minister’s Questions. This is your chance to ask the PM a question on an issue that is important to your constituents.

It’s also important to get onto a select committee. This is a competitive process, but if you have a strong background in a particular area that may create a window of opportunity, even in your first year. The more engaged you are, the more relaxed and confident you will become.

Most importantly, be responsive to your constituents. Answer every letter and do so promptly. Even if some letters are abusive, respond courteously and, if necessary, let them know there is no need to be rude. I found most people backed down once they realised I had zero tolerance for abuse, especially to my staff.

For the same reason, you should hold regular surgeries in your constituency. Begin as you mean to continue: if you start off having them weekly but then revert to monthly, constituents will notice. I found them valuable. Constituents will often give you ideas for local campaigns. Once you raise an issue on behalf of someone, send them a copy of Hansard. Showing that you are a hard-working local MP is your priority – and that means hard-working for everyone, including those that did not vote for you.

Brooks Newmark was MP for Braintree from 2005 to 2015, a government whip and minister for civil society. He is a member of the Rough Sleepers Advisory Committee that advises the Home Office.

16th January 2020