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Strangers in the Night

Our resident booze maven went for a night out in Parliament.

The Red Lion is a deeply weird place to drink. For one, it’s the nearest pub to Downing Street, located where Whitehall bleeds into Parliament Street and Westminster Abbey comes looming into view. Which means there’s a hefty police presence about the place: an MP5 to go with your IPA; a sauvignon blanc resting casually on a matte black anti-terrorism bollard. Then there are the tourists, hoping somehow to catch a glimpse of Boris Johnson, or Daniel Craig, or Mr Bean, or the new King, quietly supping a Beavertown in the corner of the narrow bar. And then, of course, there are the hacks, Spads and staffers: the kind of people that zestily refer to Westminster as ‘SW1’, or think that political sketch writing is a legitimate art form. But I was here not for sleb-spotting or tittle-tattle. I was here because I, much like a winner of some provincial Kindness in the Community award or a low-ranking Kyrgyzstani diplomat, was about to have my big day out in Parliament. After the whirlwind critical success of my first article in The Fence, about an evening at The Lighterman in Barking, the editors promptly promoted me to the lofty appellation of Pints Correspondent. Would I be interested in writing about another night out in another pub? Well, yes, I suppose I would. But I wanted to go somewhere that was the polar opposite of the spit and sawdust gaieties of The Lighterman. I didn’t want to go to where the normal people drank, I wanted to go to a place where plum-voiced Durham graduates got woozy and felt each other up. I wanted to get pissed with some of the worst people in the world. I wanted to get pissed in the Houses of Parliament.

Who drinks in Parliament? Is it still a hotbed for debauchery and Etonian excess? And just how subsidised is the booze? To find out, we had to peel ourselves away from The Red Lion and its £6 pints of mid-tier continental lager to meet our fixer for the evening – they don’t just let any old sod in the bars there, so we needed someone on the inside. Somewhat ominously, we were due to meet opposite the statue of King George V, a man who notably gave up drinking for the duration of the First World War in an attempt to help Old Blighty’s effort. Would our night slip into similarly dull and dry circumstances? Or would it veer down the course of Herbert ‘Squiffy’ Asquith, Prime Minister at the time and famously such a fan of brandy that he refused to take part in the wartime abstinence? My expectations were high, as today was the last night before Parliament’s summer recess.

And so in we went, first past the Tory peer, Times journo and non-executive board member of Chelsea fc Danny ‘The Fink Tank’ Finkelstein; then down the wheelchair-accessible ramp; through the airport-style security checkpoint; into the cavernous Westminster Hall; over the spot where Mel Gibson was tried for treason in 1305; down numerous golf club-like corridors and past a thousand serving staff until, finally, we arrived at the first stop of the night: Strangers’ Bar.

Walking into Strangers’ Bar is a bit like stumbling upon a particularly genteel village hall coffee morning. At the end of the room is the bar itself; a basic affair that wouldn’t look hugely out of place in a suburban working men’s club: Carling, Stella, Guinness, Stowford Press. It was only the presence of Greene King’s Noble Lager, and its crowned portcullis logo, that marked the place out as anything somewhat parliamentary. Protruding from the bar was a well-formed single-file queue ten deep, the back of which we joined. If this was drinking in Parliament it was certainly a world away from the excess and extravagance of yesteryear. And then, within seconds, our first snag:

‘Sorry, but you’re not supposed to be in here. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’

Somehow the draconic barlady had clocked our guest passes from about 10 metres away. Maybe we looked a little too shifty; a little too unconfident. Maybe it’s because we weren’t wearing the pale-blue, non-iron T. M. Lewin shirts that seemed to be the uniform of the drinkers here. Either way, Strangers’ was apparently only open to Members of Parliament and their guests, and despite our fixer’s protestations, we simply did not have access. Out we shuffled, dejected.

But Strangers’ isn’t the only bar in the Palace of Westminster, and after a quick stop in an unassuming smoking shelter more suited to a sixth form college than the centre of British government, we made our way over to The Woolsack. Originally known as The Sports and Social Bar, it achieved notoriety for a series of punch-ups and altercations involving mps from across the political spectrum in the 2000s. The name was changed in 2018 following a refurb and a switch of management, to reflect the Lord Speaker’s sexy ottoman in the House of Lords. But despite the attempts to clean up its reputation, when you enter The Woolsack you do feel like this could almost be a Proper Boozer. There’s the faded Spoonsian carpet, the low-slung burgundy bar stools and the wood-panelled walls covered with all manner of tat. If it wasn’t for the parliamentary annunciator monitors in the corner, you could be in a backstreet locals’ pub – but only if the locals were a motley crew of middle-aged hacks and world-weary civil servants.

About once every three months, a menu from Parliament goes viral on Twitter, usually accompanied by much hand-wringing and incredulity from across the political spectrum. £8.04 for a roast lamb loin and smoked carrot purée! £3.59 for a semolina tartelette with wild mushroom and truffle cream! Well, the price of three pints in The Woolsack was £12.30, and while ~£4.10 a drink is a quid cheaper than most places in Zones 1 and 2, it’s certainly not the cheapest pint in London, and in fact puts Parliament roughly in line with the aforementioned Lighterman. I plumped for the mysterious Noble Lager, and as we found our seats in an interminably hot sub-section of the pub I couldn’t help but feel a bit deflated. Yes, I had my reasonably priced drink in Parliament, but the whole experience felt a bit flat, like we were sitting at the kids’ table for Christmas dinner. There were no politicians here. They were probably all in the Strangers’ Bar, snorting coke off of each other and listening to Drexciya. Devoid of celebrity, The Woolsack was just a pub, and not a particularly great one at that. I’d been hoping for all the roar and titillation of an old-world members’ club, but had ended up somewhere with the vibe of a touristy Covent Garden pub on a rainy Sunday.

Still, it felt silly to leave after just one disappointing pint. There had to be some magic in here somewhere; some reason to continue. So we decided we would try Strangers’ Bar once more, but this time we would be bold. We would be purposeful. There’d be no joining the queue; no pondering the guest ale – just three lads desperate for a piece of the action. We marched straight through onto the terrace, and were greeted with probably the only vaguely stirring part of the evening: a gorgeous view of the Thames and Westminster Bridge. It’s not often you see London from this angle, and the prospect of downing a few more poxy Noble Lagers as the light fades over St Thomas’ was tantalising. Any Wordsworthian elation was short-lived, however, as we were informed by a passing Labour minister that the bar had, in fact, called last orders. At 8pm. On the last night of Parliament. Virtually all of the MPs drinking in Strangers’ had left before we’d arrived. It was time for us to get out of there.

By the time we got back to The Red Lion, what buzz there had been earlier in the evening had dissipated. The ruddy-faced journos and staffers had all left; the younger ones presumably by this time halfway back to a party in Balham or Baron’s Court, abba on the AUX and a blue bag of Brut jangling at their feet. The pub was different in this light, and for all the talk of it being the place where factions are formed or gossip spread, The Red Lion is ultimately just a substandard boozer, much like many of the other vibeless pubco-owned establishments that litter this bit of London. Post-covid, and with the price of a pint so high and the trust of politicians so low, it’s little wonder that much of the political chatter is conducted over private WhatsApps rather than public pints of Stella. Besides, the current crop of insipid ministerial ghouls reflect a much wider trend. Drinking rates have been declining since the mid-2000s, and Gen Zers and millennials are, according to various studies, drinking less than their older counterparts. Even the recent boozy scandals of Partygate and Beergate seem depressingly continent in comparison to Eric Joyce having to be forcibly dragged out of a sottish karaoke sesh in The Sports and Social by police officers. Then again, he turned out to be a nonce, so maybe it’s for the best that most MPs boozy days – at least in public – are behind them.

Would I drink in the Palace of Westminster again? No, obviously I would not. There are prettier pubs in the City, cheaper pubs in outer London and better pubs for salacious gossip in Soho or Mayfair. The drinks were average and the walls smelled of bad decisions. It was a strange place, really. I can’t think of a single other industry where boozing is actively encouraged while on the job. Other than small-town nightclub owners and high-end sex workers, it’s only really politicians who are allowed to get pissed during working hours. And that’s probably why this country is so fucked.

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