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Westminster Confession: The Working Life of an MP

By Dana Huntley 
Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: January 30, 2012 
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While we are chatting, Big Ben and his friends, just yards away, interrupted us ringing the Westminster Chimes.

"It varies, but generally we start voting at about 8 in the evening. The voting process usually takes through to the small hours of the following morning. Actually, time can weigh very heavy on your hands in the evening hours when you're waiting to vote," confesses Mercer.

Life seems a little simpler in Parliament than in Congress. Mercer's staff totals just two and a part-timer. He has a crack personal assistant in the outer office of his two-room office suite. Another valued aide maintains his constituency office back in Newark. A part-time assistant works on legislative or constituency issues. MPs may choose to take work on parliamentary committees that customarily meet on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Though Mercer has chaired the Homeland Security subcommittee, he doesn't presently serve on a committee.

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The division bell rings; MP Mercer is summoned across the street to vote. "Just sit tight; I'll be back in a few minutes." I picked up a magazine and read an article Mercer had written on military history. Among Mercer's own outside interests, he also writes historical novels, most recently Red Runs the Helmand.

On his return from the vote, Mercer suggested we continue chatting over dinner. The Commons had adjourned early tonight. We crossed under Bridge Street into Westminster Palace. Colleagues brushed by and Mercer was stopped several times for brief exchanges as MPs headed to their offices and then out into a rare Wednesday evening away from the house.

The member's dining room in the Commons is suitably impressive, with ceilings rising to infinity, dark oak and ornate plasterwork. We have a table by the arching window, overlooking the River Thames. All is white linen and silver service. Dinner is as sumptuous as the surroundings.

After coffee and a bit of English cheese, Mercer led me through the central rotunda, rich with gilding and mosaics. We surreptitiously captured him next to Gladstone's statue, and turned out onto the floor of the Commons. The chamber was empty, yet fully lit; the galleries and back benches, so full of history, rose in tiers on either side and those famous lines two sword-lengths apart indicated that they must have had pretty long swords in the old days. We stood chatting by the desk from which so many great PMs have customarily addressed the House.

I shook my head. "Patrick, you probably take all this for granted after a while," I said, "but you work in some pretty fabulous surroundings."

Mercer chuckled, "Yes, it does become just the office."

He offered to let me out the front door. It was quiet, dark and foggy as the massive door swung open facing an empty Parliament Square. "I'll take your visitor badge back to security," Mercer volunteered.


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