Members of Parliament are an unadventurous lot. Once safely inside the Palace of Westminster, most are unlikely to venture on to the streets of London until they head home to their constituencies two or three days later. Politico's bookshop was the exception to the rule. For the past seven years, members, lords and the politerati made their way up and down Victoria Street for book launches and glasses of bad wine. The last time I saw Alan Clark, he was muttering darkly about the wine as he walked back to the Commons.
But Politico's is no more - it closed on 12 March. Its owner, Iain Dale, gave a raft of reasons for its demise: the congestion charge, a 40 per cent rise in overheads, more business online. "I let my head rule my heart," he told me. In fact, Dale has lost his heart to the green benches: he is the prospective Tory candidate for North Norfolk. Shame. We need a bookshop much more than another Tory MP.
Westminster has its own gymnasium, but some of the more high-profile MPs and lords prefer the anonymity of outside establishments. The one I belong to, a hand grenade's throw from the Palace, has a good cross-section of ministers, law lords and senior spinners sweating it out on the machines. It was here that Lord G did all that stationary cycling while he made up his mind on the war in Iraq. No one took a blind bit of notice. But you couldn't help noticing the arrivals of Lord Alli. A large, dark, chauffeur-driven vehicle glides to a halt just before 8am and out hops His Lordship, nattily attired in navy shorts. His driver passes him his day clothes. His Lordship takes his suit and heads off to the locker room, exchanging pleasantries with the staff.
My husband, Austin Mitchell, the Labour member for Grimsby, is a worried man. He came home one recent afternoon to find me struggling on the floor with Borlunda, a Swedish side table from Ikea. I begged him to take a turn with the Phillips screwdriver. One thing led to another and he missed a vote. I urged him to tell the whips the truth, but he says it makes him sound like a Leicester City footballer.
This week various old-timers, trying to shore up their case for a return to late-night sittings, moaned that Westminster had become a desert in the evenings. Tom Harris from Glasgow Cathcart confessed to watching videos to pass the time and the parliamentary trencherman-in-chief, the very un-PC Sir Patrick Cormack, moaned: "Now you can't have lunch unless you forsake the chamber." But Sue Harrison, director of catering services at Westminster for the past 12 years, says that although there has been a decline in formal meals in the Members' Dining Room, other restaurants are flourishing.
The style of food Westminster wants to eat has changed dramatically. The two new restaurants in Portcullis House, the self-service Debate and the more formal Adjournment, have been a huge success, with Debate serving 2,000 customers a day. This week, "Indian-spiced breast of
corn-fed chicken with aubergine compote
and a light curry cream" (£6.95) and "sweet potato roulades with warm wild mushrooms and balsamic dressing" (£4.25) are on the menu. The place has proved so popular that the Lords wants its own modern self-service restaurant.
Linda McDougall is a television journalist and documentary-maker
Paul Routledge is away