Sunday National, 6th February 2022.
The king has evil advisers. Well, pished advisers. And the king himself might have had a few. Anatomising the scandal still gnawing away at the leadership of the Conservative Party – now in its umpteenth week – there are different strands to the story, different details which have pissed the public off.
First, there’s the idea that senior politicians and their henchpersons see themselves as rule-makers not rule-takers, doling out lectures and dishing out restrictions which they expect others to abide by but didn’t feel applied to themselves. This isn’t just about Johnson and his coterie. It goes deeper. This sense of impunity scratches away at old political sores about the Conservative party’s sense of lazy entitlement, its perceived contempt for the common man or woman, the idea politics is a game, and you and me are the saps for not realising this is how the world really works. Jonathan Swift famously said that “laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” Be a hornet – if you can get away with it.
Then there is the dishonesty. In December, Johnson told us he was “sickened” by the footage of Allegra Stratton joking about a Downing Street Christmas Party. His press spokesman was shown the door. First, we were told there was no party. Parties. Okay, there was a party. I’d say more of a gathering. Gatherings. But I implicitly believed it was a workplace gathering. Rings. There was no cake. The Prime Minister was ambushed by cake. He only attended for 25 minutes. For ten minutes. He just stuck his head in the door. Carrie’s spiritual advisor must have caused him to astrally project himself into the Downing Street garden in his sleep by accident.
If reports this weekend are to be believed – and the Metropolitan Police now have photographic evidence of the First Lord of the Treasury necking a can of lager while Rishi sipped a slim line orange squash, we can expect the same absurd word games to tumble out of the skeleton crew of loyal Tories still touring the radio and TV studios. The pattern has been consistent. First denial, followed qualified admission, followed by deflection, rationalisation, minimisation, and ultimately – justification.
To my knowledge, the Prime Minister never drinks Heineken. Alright, he knocked back one can on this isolated occasion. No, he didn’t finish the can. Let me be clear: he took one glug. Just a sip. He didn’t inhale. He held it for a friend. Keir Starmer also took a pint during lockdown, the hypocrite. Actually, Johnson was only holding the lager for an official as they took dictation of his next speech on the party’s level up agenda for this great United Kingdom and rolling out Britain’s world beating booster programme. Actually, the Prime Minister needed that drink, because of the pressures of dealing with Covid, and I believe most of my constituents share that view. In my experience, you become better at your job after four or ten cans. Most of my constituents are probably drunk right now.
And so the rat-brained defence of the Prime Minister blunders on, battering the credibility of any muppet who volunteers for the gig. These equivocations are only slightly more absurd than the defences being mounted by the Fraggle Rock of Tory MPs still prepared to act as the Prime Minister’s media proxies, from Michael Fabricant and Jacob Rees-Mogg to Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries. The Culture Secretary seems to regard every awkward press interview she gives as a personal affront, and further proof that the BBC should be sold to Rupert Murdoch and Channel 4 replaced with a 24 livestream listing opposition politicians who should be prosecuted for sedition. Now that’s what I call unbiased broadcasting.
But this week, I’ve been wondering if there isn’t something else at play here which explains the strength of the public backlash. It isn’t just the lies. It isn’t just the apparent rule-breaking. It is the booze. In her update report published at the start of this week, Sue Grey suggested “the excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time. Steps must be taken to ensure that every Government Department has a clear and robust policy in place covering the consumption of alcohol in the workplace.”
In recent years, there has been a dawning recognition that parliament – and it seems Downing Street – seems one of the last bastions of workplace tippling. Across the rest of the culture, the routine muzzying of work and play has dried up.
In a recent BBC documentary about life in the Scotsman newspaper during the 1980s and 1990s, the doyens of the Scottish print press reflected on the heavy-drinking culture in the paper. Their intake matched the intoxication of even the most committed Lunchtime O’Booze on Fleet Street. “As a young reporter, I would expect to be in the Jinglin’ Geordie virtually every day by midday,” Andrew Marr remembered from his days on the paper. “The first thing you learned was to produce apparently lucid copy in a state of almost catatonic drunkenness.”
While hacks may have set a high bar for lunchtime intoxication, talking to older friends, relations and colleagues suggest they were not alone in incorporating liquor into their everyday professional life during the 80s and 90s in a way which looks pretty wild in retrospect.
While you can only hope thoracic surgeons had steadier hands than Andrew Marr as he rattled off his afternoon copy, doctors and nurses popping out to the pub at lunchtime wasn’t the professional sin it would be now in the NHS. Academia was much the same – but I know of nobody now who’d consider stepping into a seminar room or lecture hall after a glass or two now. How many corporate offices have drinks cabinets now, I wonder? The Mad Men look like mad men.
Like journalists, lawyers – and judges – once had formidable reputations for being mighty toppers, demolishing a bottle of claret with lunch before popping back into court for an afternoon’s debate on the law of landlord and tenant. Grogblossomed Court of Session judges of the 18th century used to liven up dreary legal cases by keeping a decanter on the bench, generously dosing themselves throughout an afternoon’s submissions. A sheriff cracking open the drinks cabinet in court now would find themselves in swift receipt of a conduct complaint. And quite right too, you might well think.
But in politics? Different mores still seem to obtain. And I wonder if this discrepancy isn’t one of the less obvious drivers of public hostility over the twelve sessions across the Number 10 campus the Metropolitan Police are now investigating. Did these people never celebrate with an evening of sobriety?
Everyone has their stories of the uses and abuses of the House of Commons “refreshment facilities” and surrounding watering holes around the working day. The tales go back decades, and cross all political parties. I was talking to someone the other day who met a senior politician in the House of Commons for a breakfast meeting – only to be presented with a double brandy. It was well before noon. It is difficult to think of another working context in modern Britain where this could happen.
There’s a palpable sense that the Prime Minister regards criticism of the drinking culture in his office as a kind of nannying puritanism. If his survival demands it, it is clear he’ll play act his concern, condemning others to save his own skin. But is difficult to believe the “good time prime minister” sees anything wrong with his court at Downing Street having a good time in the way Sue Grey criticised. If Winston Churchill needed champagne to get him through the day, who has the right to criticise a knackered press officer for keeping a stash of Coronas under the desk for Friday afternoons? And if people sometimes overdo it after a long week and conk out on an office sofa – what business is that of anyone else’s?