It is just after prime minister’s questions, and it’s all rather lively in the Strangers’ Dining Room in the House of Commons. Sir Peter Tapsell, father of the house, is at a corner table, burbling contentedly. Tory and Labour MPs are rigidly segregated. A staff member with Charles Darwin’s beard spoons out crumble and custard. Down the corridor in the empty bar they are serving “Top Totty Blonde Beer”, with its bunny-eared model. By the following day this will be withdrawn, after a complaint from the shadow equalities minister, Kate Green.
I am here as a guest of MP Kerry McCarthy, having read recently of the appalling hardships our Honourable Members endure in their dining rooms and refectories. “Literally uneatable” was Tory MP Laurence Robertson’s verdict on the food served in the Commons last year. Another member bewailed their “bucket” of chips, adding that while such presentation is “no doubt trendy”, it makes the chips “soggy”. (“The tower arrangement is better,” this gourmet claimed.) Packets of crisps from Commons vending machines are 10g too light. The beetroot is “tasteless”, the eggs are “watery” and the salads are “cold”. In all, despairs one MP from the wood-panelled dining room with its sweeping views of the Thames, eating in the mother of parliaments is “a dismal experience”.
There are, remarkably, 28 different food outlets in the Westminster complex. The grandest and most traditional are the adjacent Members’ and Strangers’ Dining Rooms. These share a menu, the former’s being heavily subsidised. Only MPs and officers of the Commons are allowed in the Members’, the Tea Room and various other places. “I don’t like the food and can’t eat most of it,” says McCarthy, who is a vegan. “I think it’s generally pretty OK – though some of the combinations are a bit bizarre.” Starters at the Strangers’ include rabbit and apricot terrine or roast partridge breast, both £6.75. I have chicken with cabbage and black pudding potato cake: tepid but tasty and, at £13.55, cheap compared with many central London restaurants.