- Parliament has a unique drinking culture fueled by long hours and the isolation of being an MP.
- Westminster is home to “lots of functioning alcoholics,” sources suggest.
- But MPs are afraid to seek help because of shame or in case the information is used against them
Parliament’s reputation as a booze-fueled political playground took a breather during the pandemic. Many of the bars, both on the parliamentary estate and in the nearby stretch of Whitehall, were shut for months on end.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to end COVID-19 restrictions earlier than planned – in part to distract from multiple allegations of lockdown-breaking parties and gatherings in Downing Street – has seen a return to a drinking culture that many consider unique to British politics.
With business hours frequently running to 11 pm, MPs, staffers, and journalists are returning to Westminster’s watering holes to socialize, network, or simply kill a few hours while they wait to vote. And with that comes renewed concern about problematic behavior and substance addiction.
During the course of reporting this article, several sources made claims about individual MPs. Insider has made the decision not to name them because it is clear that many MPs drink in lieu of pursuing therapy or medical help for their mental health.
One whip told Insider that excess drinking was one of the “top problems” his team dealt with.
‘Coming in with alcohol on their breath, stumbling into the lobby’
“It’s a small number of the same people but it does happen quite often,” he says. “The sheer number of bars close to the voting lobby in the chamber makes it a big temptation.” Uniquely among the world’s legislative chambers, the Palace of Westminster contains eight bars and other licensed venues where booze is sold cheaply.
Efforts are made to speak to friends, he says, to “try to discourage them, rather than going in heavy-handed.” But “it’s very difficult to change behavior — and they are adults, they can do whatever they want in their free time.”
Drinking sessions have sometimes “ended in fights and arguments and other embarrassing situations … MPs have gone up to other members in the lobby and started slurring, or you get men harassing women,” he adds. “You have the same names always in [the MP-only bar] the Smoking Room, coming out with alcohol on their breath, stumbling into the lobby [to vote].”
‘We will take it down and use it against you’
His characterization of the behavior of a select few individuals was corroborated by several MPs, with one noting there were “people going through the lobby who wouldn’t want making a speech, but they’re not being carried through.” However, they told a different story when it came to the support on offer.
One junior MP said party whips “would much rather some members, especially those more rebellious ones, get inebriated so they are easier to guide as to which lobby to go through” when voting.
Another suggested the attitude was “always that ‘we will take it down and use it against you’ — surely if we are friends and colleagues, just checking in would be a start?” Party whips’ offices on both sides of the aisle have decades-long reputations for storing negative information about members of parliament in case they need it to persuade them to do their bidding.
One former minister told Insider: “The whips are openly trawling the bars — not for the welfare aspect, but because they think ‘let’s get Joe Bloggs, let’s get the dirt on his behaviour.'”
The senior Tory MP added: “If you have a colleague who is clearly unhappy, anesthetizing with alcohol, surely it isn’t about punishing them.
‘Westminster picks its casualties and spits out the weak’
“It is a hard, difficult job, it is hugely pressured – you are working morning, noon and night if you are doing the job properly — and there isn’t enough in the way of support to individual MPs. Westminster picks its casualties and spits out the weak. You have to have a certain level of resilience to survive.”
Even threats aside, the reaction “ends up being suspended from the party, a disciplinary matter — which is not what is needed for someone in the grip of alcohol,” says another Labor MP.
One former staffer told Insider problem drinking was a widespread phenomenon and had been for many years. “It’s definitely used as a medication for the insanity of the job, for sure. So much networking is still done via informal drinking. Often you actually can go a whole day without doing any work and then get a week’s worth of networking done in one night at the [nearby pub] Red Lion.”
“Then you’re drinking with people who can really put the pints away, so it’s easy to slip into what I would think is definitely low-level alcoholism… everyone in Westminster drinks like a fish.”
‘They don’t want to go back to their room on their todd — it’s just lonely’
One Labor MP says parliament was “almost set up to perpetuate” drinking, because of the late-night voting as well as the fact that many MPs are living away from their friends and families, spending much of the week in flats or hotels on their own. Another source claims parliament is home to “lots of functioning alcoholics”.
A Conservative backbench agrees. “Quite a lot of people are drink-dependent,” he says. “Some are struggling with personal issues and are hitting the bottle quite hard. It’s how they cope.”
There is particular concern that the newest intake, those who were elected in 2019, are “struggling to adjust, being away from home four nights a week,” particularly in the supposed return to normality after the pandemic. “We haven’t seen each other for months and so now some of them just feel a little bit released,” the Tory adds. “They don’t want to go back to their room on their todd — it’s just lonely.”
Another MP agrees. “People would say ‘I can go and sit on my own in a hotel and watch TV, or I can socialize with new friends and colleagues — of course, that was the preference for many, myself included.”
During the pandemic, drinking patterns changed on the estate. Parliament’s bars – as with those in the rest of the country – spent much of the pandemic shut or under restrictions. When MPs returned to Westminster but the bars stayed shut, they and their staff made frequent use of the much-derided local convenience store — Tesco Metro — to buy wine and spirits, several sources claim.
While not on the same level as some of the alleged revelries in Downing Street, MPs would then have colleagues over for a few glasses of wine in their office or even venture to local parks.
MPs cannot go to counseling because ‘it would be leaked and briefed out’
Dan Carden is one of the few MPs to have gone public with his alcohol addiction. In 2021, he told colleagues of his battle with drink – revealing that he had nearly lost his life twice as a result – and that he was three years into recovery. The key to his well-being was ongoing therapy, he tells Insider, although noted that there has been a lack of support within parliament.
“For anyone struggling with alcohol, working in Westminster can be a challenge,” he says. “While we are fortunate to have access to a range of health and well-being services, there has been a lack of peer-support available on the Parliamentary Estate, until now.”
Carden has been working with the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, to start a peer-support group that provides a safe space for anyone struggling with alcohol.
Sources welcomed this, saying more needed to be done to help MPs and others working on the estate with their mental health – but there was skepticism as to whether it would be used.
The former staffer says MPs were unlikely to take advantage of counseling because “it would be leaked and briefed out,” adding: “Parliament isn’t a safe space for anyone to seek help.”
“Look what happens to people bullied by MPs, they raise complaints and it gets brushed under the carpet. It would be more damaging to be helped by parliament than not.”
A wall of work and a wall of abuse
A Tory backbencher contest. “People would be worried about asking for mental health support,” he said. “In some ways, the parliamentary party is a big beast, if it wants to close ranks and be supportive it can. Labor is the same. But I don’t think any of the parties are very good at helping people when you become an PM.”
“There is a wall of abuse and a wall of work and a wall of expectations and pressure. But both main parties say ‘you wanted to be an MP, so deal with it.'”
He adds: “In some ways it’s the best job in the world, in others it is incredibly difficult — there are a lot of people who come in for one term and you can see within six months they have given up.”
Fear of losing their seat at the next election – something that is particularly acute among Tories in the Red Wall, where Labor has the traditional stronghold – also looms large. “It’s existential,” says one. “And that can lead people to quite a dark place.”
But this culture pre-dates the generation-defining 2019 election. A 2013 survey by Alcohol Concern found more than a quarter of MPs believe there is too much drinking in Westminster.
Dr. Richard Piper, chief executive of the charity which has since rebranded as Alcohol Change UK, tells Insider that it hasn’t improved.
“Westminster is in a right state, in my view,” he adds. “The combination of long working hours, plus high accessibility, plus an old boys drinking culture — it is a really toxic mix.”
It should not be about blaming the individual, he argues, but rather tackling the culture. “It’s like if you have a fish tank and the fish keep dying but you never change the water. What we have in Westminster is dirty water.”
A House of Commons spokesperson said: “The parliamentary health and wellbeing service is on hand to offer support to members, peers, staff of either House and the parliamentary digital service, with physical, mental health or wellbeing issues.
“Additionally, our assistance programs in place offer 24/7 confidential advice and support on personal or work related issues.”