Drinking is practically a sport in Westminster. What goes on in the bars of SW1 is often as important as what takes place in the chamber of the House of Commons; without its warm white wine, the whole establishment would collapse.
In the long months of lockdown, journalists and MPs alike yearned for the terrace of the Palace of Westminster. In their darker moments, some even fantasised about the comically overpriced pints sold at the Red Lion pub on Parliament Street. Why, then, have they not flocked back to their favourite drinking spots? The country reopened months ago but still, the pubs of Westminster remain noticeably emptier than they used to be.
“To be honest, I couldn’t tell you where the House of Commons social life is now,” journalist Dan Hodges complained to me. One minister of state agreed. “I do think there is less visible drinking,” he said. “The terrace is much less busy than it was beforehand.”
“The regular socialising hasn’t really been there, in the sense that you could always see if there was someone in the Strangers’ bar or someone at the Red Lion, and just go on the off-chance,” a Labour adviser added. “There’s not much serendipity to it anymore.”
It is an odd state of affairs; many people in Westminster say they miss the old days, yet most pubs are empty long before last orders. What’s happening?
“My theory is that people are keeping more to their social groups which have solidified during the pandemic,” said one lobby hack. It is a worthy thesis, and one that was brought up by others as well. In normal times, Westminster thrives on grey areas; there are people you are friends with and people who are straightforward work contacts, but most end up falling somewhere between the two. There are the acquaintances you bump into every other week; the people you talk to at drinks receptions and nowhere else.
These rely on the Westminster village being just that; when everyone was sent off home in March 2020, only the bona fide friends remained. “You couldn’t build new contacts and casual contacts were less willing to engage,” Hodges explained. “You found yourself locking onto the regular contacts you had a lot more.”
The physical places that these encounters used to happen within have also played a part. When Covid regulations eased over the spring, most Westminster pubs remained shut. Eager to see each other again, people had no choice but to take their drinking elsewhere.
“At some point, we realised we could go to other pubs! In other parts of London!” a House of Commons staffer gleefully said. Suddenly, people remembered that other neighbourhoods existed, and were – shock, horror! – quite pleasant to drink in. Some headed south of the river, while many trekked to Soho to take advantage of the al fresco terraces. The Westminster Arms, the Two Chairmen and the other pubs did reopen eventually, but by then it was too late; the spell had been broken.
And even if you do venture in to SW1, there’s no guarantee these days anyone else will be there.
“Hybrid working now seems to be sufficiently persistent that it’s quite complicated to find a time when you’re all in Westminster,” said Catherine Haddon, a fellow at the Institute for Government. The pandemic has changed the way people approach their life. “When you’re in the office, you’re in their office for a reason,” she argued. “It’s not just because that’s where you live your life during daylight hours, and home is just where you sleep. My default is now to be at home, and going out is the exception.”
As a result, we are now stuck in a reverse Mexican standoff. People might be more eager to go out in Westminster if they knew they would spontaneously see a lot of people there, but that is unlikely to happen because everyone is waiting for everyone else to return to the office first.
What this means in practice is that people are now more likely to go out in smaller groups and in places away from SW1. MPs go out for dinner together and so do advisers; friendships derived from WhatsApp groups can lead to drinks, but it no longer is a free-for-all.
There are other ways, too, in which the dynamic around Westminster has subtly shifted. In the years immediately following the referendum, it often felt like the government was only holding onto power by a piece of string. Every amendment and every vote could bring the whole administration tumbling down, with little notice. In that context, being physically around parliament mattered a lot more, because countless people worked endless hours and those who didn’t still wanted a piece of the action.
That is no longer the case. Boris Johnson’s leadership is not going to unexpectedly fall at 10.23pm on a Tuesday, and there is no need for anyone to hang around just in case. And even if it did, the lockdown switch to remote working means people don’t actually have to be near the House of Commons.
“The place to be was very much at a computer watching Parliamentlive.tv and on Twitter and WhatsApp,” Haddon explained, referring to the debate on Owen Paterson’s recommended suspension for lobbying and subsequent discussion on MPs’ second jobs. “And that’s not really because of Covid; I do think something has changed in terms of people’s conception of how they do the job and where they physically are.”
Could this be a good thing? On a personal level, several people I interviewed did mention that they enjoy their new, healthier lifestyles – or at least work-life balances – that come with not hanging around Westminster all the time.
But there are downsides too. “We joke about it and we enjoy it – the going out and the lunches and the drinking are obviously very fun – but that’s how the information that’s not meant to circulate comes out,” said Hodges. “It was good for the government when we couldn’t all talk to each other.”
He has a point. Much of what happens in Westminster takes place behind closed doors, and strong informal relationships with MPs are needed if journalists are to challenge the official narratives. If lobby reporting only relied on press releases and formal briefings, scrutiny would suffer. People do not solely go out drinking in SW1 for the sake of it; most political jobs benefit from idle chats and quick asides.
The socialising can also be useful to those who do not come from particularly well-heeled backgrounds. Who you know in politics can be just as important as what you do, and not everyone can rely on the friends they made through their education or family. A lively and accessible drinking culture is another way in.
“Maybe it’s a good thing that the people that used to gain access by knowing to turn up at the right venue, at the right time, with a glass of wine in their hand, can’t do that so much anymore,” Haddon countered. But even she conceded: “It wouldn’t be the worst thing for Westminster to not be fuelled by alcohol, but you don’t want that to increase the likelihood of people not networking for the good reasons, not getting out of their own bubble.”
Much has been made of the corrosive effect of the Westminster village on lawmakers, and the way this culture leads to politicians and journalists being out-of-touch with the rest of the country. But there’s no denying that bars are useful because they are where people in all parts of politics can meet and talk in a relaxed manner. Perhaps that drinking ecosystem will return next year, once people are confident that the risk of Covid has reduced; perhaps it will be remembered as a relic of the pre-pandemic era. There is no way to tell for now, just like there is no way to tell whether the move should be celebrated or viewed with concern.
For all its faults, the Westminster drinking culture was happening out in the open – even its fiercest critics will miss it if it all goes underground.