I never thought the day would come. I can’t even remember when it happened; some time in May I think, maybe June. I was sitting alone at home – where else? – and it hit me: a deep, painful yearning for the House of Commons’ own-label wine.
If you are reading this, you have probably drunk it before. If you haven’t, imagine wine, but worse. I was sitting there, a few miles away from Westminster, and all I wanted was to be in a room in parliament that was either too cold or too hot, and I wanted to grimace as I took each warm, acidic sip while talking to someone I did not want to be talking to.
Like a child idly daydreaming of summer camp in early September, I thought of receptions in the Thames Pavillion on the terrace, which were somehow designed to only ever look so empty to be soul-crushing, or so heaving they felt claustrophobic. I longed for drinks in those fancy rooms on Carlton House Terrace, where the ceilings are so high it never gets warm and everyone has to awkwardly stand there, still wearing their coats, holding onto their champagne for dear life.
I sighed and reminisced about evenings spent in College Garden behind Westminster Abbey, where it would invariably rain, and the ones in the dark and cramped downstairs of the Red Lion, always held on nights when it was glorious outside. In my darkest moments, I yearned for the awkward layout of that one bookable room in Walkers of Whitehall, which ensured you would only ever bump into the people you hated and never the ones you liked.
I know I am not alone: across London, many denizens of Westminster have been wondering what is wrong with them as they find themselves missing the tedium of endless drinks receptions. We had whinged and whined about having to show our faces at too many of them yet here we were, dreaming of subpar canapés and awkward small talk.
Perhaps it is because we did not have a winter party season, thanks to Boris Johnson’s selfish decision to hold an election instead. Or maybe it is that we are finally realising those dreary drinks had a purpose.
As one Westminster wag puts it: “I like them because they are free, good for staying in touch with people you like but not enough to be friends with, and also an easy way of keeping in touch with people you find a thorough bore but might one day give you a job”.
More than a shameless way to be handed free fizz, those many receptions – organised by lobbying firms, think tanks and anyone else with too much money on their hands – were work. Well, they were work but better. Westminster is a place where who you know is as important as what you do, so why have stale and sober meetings when a chinwag over cold fish goujons can do the trick?
It would also be daft to pretend that the challenge of it didn’t add some fun into the mix. Especially in the first few years of one’s Westminster career, the drinks circuit feels like a game where finding out something is happening and figuring out how to get in is more satisfying than attending the event.
“It’s competitive partying. You’re trying to outdo each other by invites and quid pro quoing,” is how another (proud) SW1 hanger-on described it. For those still paid a pittance for endless hours and largely dull work, getting to nab the occasional glass of champ-, sorry, nondescript fizzy wine feels like a victory.
Without those receptions, it is hard for the newcomers to establish their networks and gain a foothold in Westminster, especially if they did not go to the right school or university. If you are comfortably senior and wish the pandemic could mark the end of evening events, congratulations: you’re pulling up the ladder behind you.
It is also easy to forget that now Parliament is back, it is all work and no play. We may not be able to gather in stuffy rooms to chomp on chicken satay skewers anymore, but everything else has started again.
“I get the sense everyone’s having a fallow year”, says another sad and thirsty hack. “No one’s drinking, no one’s having fun, I’m just working every single day. Will politics stop? Definitely not. Legislation isn’t stopping, but it’s just not fun in the same way.”
And so, here’s to room-temperature bottles of Peroni. Like an annoying but well-meaning relative, we took you for granted when we should have realised how much you meant to us. May we be reunited soon.