There’s no denying that last week was especially torrid for the prime minister, with news emerging of endless parties hosted at No 10 during the peak of the pandemic. It seems a drinking culture at the heart of government refuses to subside, even during a crisis.
Boris Johnson’s critics say this culture was endemic under him, but as someone who also worked in the civil service under David Cameron and Theresa May as well, I know this isn’t the case. The prime minister doesn’t have a drinking problem; No 10 does.
I had my first taste of this as a junior civil servant in Downing Street in 2015. I was prepared for the long hours, the low pay (No 10 jobs are poorly paid compared with other departments) and the caffeine addiction. But I wasn’t prepared for the drinking culture, which I experienced from the end of my first week.
Contrary to recent reports, it wasn’t a daily knees-up with people getting blind drunk and projectile vomiting everywhere, but more a form of gentle day drinking. A drink or two between meetings, a quick trip to the local, the Red Lion, to celebrate the end of the week or see off a colleague, or a weekend commiseration for having been duped into agreeing to do the graveyard shift. If the week had started really badly, I remember one team had “prosecco Tuesdays” to drown their sorrows. It was never seen as a “party” because the drinking took place in the workplace or near it. The only exceptions were the notorious Christmas party and riotous trips abroad, where anecdotes of streaking and drunken midnight swims were common.
Some of this might be expected in any high-powered and frenetic workplace, but the biggest surprise was the “gratitude drinks”. It wasn’t lost on the senior team in No 10 that people worked very long hours for less pay than their peers in other departments. A drinks party here and there wouldn’t plug that gap but it made staffers feel valued and kept them motivated enough to stay for a few more years.
There were also advantages to this approach for No 10 staff, as drinks at work felt safe and inclusive. There was less of a chance of someone drunkenly blurting state secrets to a journalist at the local or being pictured comatose surrounded by bottles from the local supermarket. It was the easiest way to include everyone – by virtue of them being at work all the time – and seen as an effective way to prevent a “boys’ club” as everyone could get their “drink fix” at the office. (In my later years, this tactic was less effective as the boys’ club element became more prominent, with people coming together over sport – particularly American football – and often without women.)
But broadly, this drinking culture never changed, regardless of who was in post, with the culture outliving even the most loyal of staff. It was often remarked how the culture in Whitehall had improved since the Blair/Brown days, when day drinking and mini fridges under desks were more commonplace. In recent times, the only change in No 10 was the poshness of the snacks, depending on who the PM brought in.
This is one of the reasons why it doesn’t seem unusual to anyone who has worked in No 10 that there should be office drinks and that the prime minister would attend. Many question why intelligent people thought this behaviour was acceptable, but it’s partly because these drinks sessions are seen as routine and low risk. Before now, they were never picked up by the media and if it weren’t for Covid-19, no one would know about them.
In any case, hosting and attending these parties during the peak of the pandemic was wrong, and it’s absolutely right that the prime minister apologise for attending that event, among the countless others that shouldn’t have taken place. But it’s also not sustainable for any workplace to compensate staff for high stress and relatively low pay through drinks. Nor should it be the example that the government sets for businesses across the country. But the bigger risk is that if No 10 doesn’t tackle this drinking culture, and if it isn’t addressed in the report by Sue Gray next week, Johnson and his successor risk more of the same problems emerging. The country won’t be able to move forward with life-changing policies and improve the outcomes for millions if we’re stuck discussing endless rule-breaking.
Sonia Khan is a former special adviser to Sajid Javid