This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
Ask the average person what they think of stories of alcohol consumption in the Commons, and they’d probably slam ‘subsidised’ prices and ‘rowdy’ conditions.
Indeed, the Commons bars have had their share of column inches and controversy in recent years, with the arrest and conviction of Falkirk MP Eric Joyce forefront in our minds, and certainly high in the consideration of the House authorities, as Speaker Bercow confirms.
According to an official reply to a freedom of information request published at the end of 2011, the Commons boasts many rooms, restaurants and facilities where alcohol is or can be served, but the House “operates four venues that are entirely, or substantially, bar services: the Strangers’ bar, the Members’ Smoking Room, the Pugin Room and Moncrieff’s”. They are not licensed in the same way as public pubs and bars.
But it may surprise many to learn that because “selling prices in the House of Commons bars are kept broadly in line with the prices charged in nearby pubs… the prices are not subsidised”.
One veteran barman tells me while serving up my order: “Our margins are not just comparable to outside. They’re frequently better than the high streets, largely because we’re not tied in to buy from any particular supplier, so we can often buy booze in much cheaper than your high street.”
Responding angrily to press reports of highly subsidised, Life on Mars 1970s-priced alcohol, he says: “It’s a hypocritical lie that could be so easily quashed by honest reporting. There has been no subsidy on the price of alcohol since 2002, when a 45 per cent margin was imposed.
"Since the last general election, even the 45 per cent profit cap has been lifted, and profit on some drinks dwarfs that figure.”
Despite impressive claims of profitability, high street benchmarking and ‘professionalisation’ of the bars, usage, custom and success vary greatly. “There is no future for Moncrieff’s,” says one active patron.
“The old press bar was one of the liveliest in the place, with hacks and politicians – the only people allowed in at the time – enjoying a real ‘sawdust’ drinking environment. The new bar now closes at 7pm, and when it does, there’s nobody in there because it totally lacks atmosphere. Everybody goes to Strangers’ because it resembles a bar. That’s why it’s so crowded.”
However, Chris Moncrieff, whose name was used for the new press bar, disagrees: “The Strangers’ bar isn’t as lively as it used to be. It was like a spit-and-sawdust place, very noisy, very rowdy, but now it has a carpet, which is all wrong. It’s not the right atmosphere at all.”
“The Smoking Room is nothing more than a clerks’ drinking hole,” explains a rebellious 2010 intake MP. “The whips encourage you to join their gang – but those who do, while undoubtedly receiving preferment, are identified to all as snivelling ‘yes’ men and women. They wanted me to join, but frankly I don’t see how sucking up to the whips will help my constituents.”
Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson, far from being a whip’s ‘yes’ man – he resigned as PPS to Owen Paterson as a principled stand against the three-line whip on Europe – expresses sympathy for Smoking Room dwellers, where House rules state only Members are permitted.
“Personally,” he confides, “I like to pop my head in to most bars whenever work schedules allow, but it’s easy to see how some MPs would rather not roll the dice of publicity by drinking in what are, to all intents and purposes, quite public bars. But I’m the same Stewart Jackson wherever I happen to be. So no, for me, I like to mingle.”
I had a cup of tea in the Pugin Room with a Tory MP who agreed initially to an on-record chat, but later withdrew for fear of “his constituents and whips taking it badly”.
He explains, as he slurped from a Portcullis-embossed cup, “They serve alcohol in here, but I’m usually meeting constituents or colleagues over a tea, or winding down before or after a big meeting. You’ll be pushed to see this room as much of a pub, honestly.”
He calls for a degree of realism from the press: “You’re always reading about cheap beer or wine, and thuggish behaviour of MPs, but as anyone who’s ever been involved or worked in politics knows, this is the poshest prison in Britain. MPs are expected to kill many hours in between votes or debates, on top of a full day’s casework and meetings – so no, they’re not working men’s clubs or particularly rowdy, they’re just a means for colleagues to get advice on helping constituents, or bars, like any other. Why would anyone begrudge an MP a pint at the end of the day?”
Four researchers, I collar in the Sports and Social club – commercially-run but technically under the control of the Lords – tell me that gossip was their primary motivation for “haunting all the bars”.
A Lib Dem research assistant says: “My MP has told me to keep it zipped when I’m in the bars. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I’m not very good at it. We all come here to unwind and share stories. It’s a place where we can all meet on equal terms and where no one can order anyone else about.”
The two Labour researchers agreed, but one warns: “You have to take everything with a pinch of salt. One Labour MP is notorious for using her staff to fish for gossip and to spread it when it suits her, but I’ve heard a lot of really juicy stuff over the years. Who cares if half of it is crap? It’s always great fun.”
By contrast, a senior female Tory researcher says: “Gossip is fun, but I’ve been knocking around the block long enough to totally ignore the political whispers – but as for gossip on our colleagues behind the scenes, that’s gold. But mainly it’s about unwinding, socialising, and a little bitching about our bosses.” That’s something that three separate MPs claimed to me would never happen with their staff.
Significantly, every MP I spoke to talked about a certain Falkirk MP’s misfortunes in Strangers’ earlier this year. SNP MP Angus MacNeil brands the bar “Punch and Joyce’s”, but the common thread running through all the conversations was the major concern that MPs would be tarred with the same brush by the press and the public.
“It’s always a bad thing when you’re overreacting to single incidents, and it’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to suddenly say dozens of MPs have a drinking problem. It’s all nonsense,” says Stewart Jackson.
MacNeil backs his Tory opponent’s comments: “People are more intelligent than to think this was a regular occurrence. It’s one man, one night, one aberration. It happens in every bar. The Commons is no different.”
Even the Lib Dems agree. Leeds MP Greg Mulholland of the all-party beer group, says: “A lot of false debate goes on about Commons bars. The notion that it’s all about MPs drinking and having fights is not only incorrect, it’s deliberately mischievous.
Clearly, the Joyce incident was very unfortunate, and Eric’s admitted that he has a problem, but some people are using his situation to cast aspersions on MPs, the vast majority of whom are taking the chance to enjoy a good British beer and drinking in a very responsible way.”
But although Speaker Bercow has indicated that the recent incident with Eric Joyce has highlighted a real problem, it’s difficult for Members to win any argument by blaming sensationalism of this story alone.
Last year, Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, a medical doctor on the health select committee, said drinking in Parliament had got out of control, with “legislators blind-drunk” in Westminster’s bars. And Commons consultant occupational health physician Dr Ira Madan has also told the House authorities that for the sake of Members’ health, a much “more responsible” approach should be adopted.
One Commons insider admits: “Basically, we’ve got a number of MPs with very real drinking problems, and other problems that are made worse by exposure to alcohol.”
Not everyone blames Joyce’s intercessions for Westminster’s declining drinking culture. Legendary lobby hack Chris Moncrieff, former political editor at the Press Association, believes the “family-friendly” hours brought in under New Labour are responsible for destroying bar culture in the Commons: “I lay the blame fairly and squarely at the Blair Babes.
"They managed to get the whole system changed, the timetable changed, and because everybody’s scared of the feminists, they just let it go through. I don’t think Blair is specifically to blame for this, but it doesn’t work. Bars are closing down, so the MPs are now going to the drinking holes in Soho.”
As a consequence, he continues: “You don’t have to fight your way to any of the bars to get served any more, as used to be the case not so many years ago.”
But one of ‘Blair’s Babes’, a former cabinet minister who, like most other MPs, opted to speak on an unattributed lobby basis, disagrees: “Nonsense. It’s hardly feminist clap-trap to consider people’s home circumstances, regardless of their sex. I never told Robin Cook or Tony Blair that I wasn’t prepared to work late into the night, and actually we still do work late into the night.”
Jacqui Doyle-Price, the Tory MP for Thurrock, agrees. “We’re talking about a generation that’s been and gone, really. Certainly when I speak to parliamentary colleagues who’ve been here for many years, frankly, we’re made to look tee-total. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s important to have sufficient opportunity, but also to drink moderately.”
But another veteran hack says Robin Cook’s reforms under Blair were highly significant in changing the face of Parliament’s boozers.
“I’d say the most significant change was probably the advent of New Labour, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, all of whom had given up drink entirely. Blair and Mandelson, and Gordon Brown, were not drinkers. They spent all their time involved in politics and didn’t frequent the bars.
“When Labour won power under the whiter-than-white banner, mixing with journalists in bars was just not on. You couldn’t be seen to be enjoying yourself, and had to be seen taking yourself seriously. There was no time for fun any more.”
Turning his attention to the opposition: “The Tories at this time were so reduced, down to about 160, that to even be Members of Parliament they didn’t like mixing in bars with anyone. And the ‘Kremlin culture’ of the 1960s and 1970s, died as New Labour MPs drank tonic water and competed with each other to be purer than pure. They were desperately trying to be noticed so they could become ministers.”
I put these points to freelance lobby journalist Ian Hernon in Strangers’ bar. He explains why the bar culture of old helped the Fourth Estate to hold politicians to account, and how its decline has aided the era of the ‘spinner’.
“When I came here in the late 1970s – for the first 15 to 20 years, in fact – most of the story-gathering was done in bars. We had, in those days, Annie’s bar, where hacks and politicians mixed as equals. A level of trust was built up, and it was a place where you would be mixing with politicians on the way up and on the way down, and both were great story-generators.
“Particularly towards the end of Callaghan’s term, and during the 80s, you’d be rubbing shoulders with all sorts of people who were at one moment no more than lobby fodder, the next ministers of state, so of course you discussed internal politics and areas where the government wasn’t doing what it should.
“The atmosphere was very convivial, but now the climate of the place has changed. MPs, for the last generation, have been too scared or too uptight to take risks and to speak their minds. The whips’ culture was always strong, but you used to be able to tell MPs apart. Broadly, the Labour benchers were divided among heavy industry, which has now collapsed, and the trade unions, which followed their own agenda.
"The Tories were divided among the ‘Squire-archies’ and the Dell Boys, but now I don’t think there’s a qualified engineer in the House, and there are no more than a few old miners. As the make-up of MPs changed and some died off, so did the bar culture – and, may I say, the golden era of a nod and a wink here and a story or two here and there.”
Having explored the Commons bars in some detail, I can say categorically that there are many false myths, to put it charitably, and downright damned lies, to put it accurately.
As anyone who works in Parliament will know, fights are few and far between. As one barman put it: “Two fights in 19 years isn’t bad. Mind you, I suppose there have been a few more altercations, but now I think of it, I don’t suppose I saw those, either.”
Drinks are not subsidised, and the Commons makes a high profit margin on all booze sold in bars – but, as Speaker Bercow told me, myths can be hard to shift when they set in.
Bars in Westminster, like anywhere else, are social places, and the 21st-century worker, whether MP or cleaner, just doesn’t see drinking as part and parcel of their working day.
In 2012, drinking is a sub-culture and, in years to come, may become an under-culture.