it was my enormous privilege to be invited for a drink at the House of Commons. And not in some reception or drinks party, oh no; but for a glass of wine with a Member of Parliament in the famous Strangers’ Bar.
Westminster is the kind of place where history breathes, and where traditions survive, along with some equally elderly attitudes. When I tell a policeman at the entrance that I am expected by a Member of Parliament, he asks “Where will you be meeting him?”
To which I reply, “Her.”
Of course there is serious security, at an x-ray, metal detecting, belt-removing level, before you get to the departure lounge. Sorry, Westminster Hall.
And there you encounter… the gift shop. Here, visitors can buy house wines which are, for once literally, House wines. A House of Commons red, boldly emblazoned “Claret”, and a rather more interesting white, a Madeleine Angevine, grown in Hampshire. Both are labelled with the House of Commons portcullis, and sold in the extensive shop along with various branded trinkets, knick-knacks and gew-gaws. Oh, and Speaker Bercow’s single malt Scotch. Known no doubt for its emollience.
From there it’s a stroll with my host to the Central Lobby (Peers one way, politicians t’other) and on, through panelled corridors, to the closed oak door of the legendary MPs’ drinking den, the Strangers’ Bar.
Despite its fame, The Strangers’ Bar is tiny; a close, wood-panelled room, with a “hole in the wall” bar at one end. Along one side wall are wooden ledges, upon which standees can rest a drink; along the other, high round tables each surrounded with padded bar stools.
The public are not admitted except as guests, as the sign makes clear, and only Members themselves can actually buy drinks. Despite this, the crowd at the bar was three deep.
There is a comfortable attitude towards drinking in the Palace of Westminster. MPs cannot formally accuse each other of being drunk in the House of Commons, although Clare Short did once famously declare that Alan Clark was "incapable”. (He later admitted in his Diaries to having been “muzzy”.)
But another MP, Mark Reckless, had to apologise in 2010 for failing to vote because he had drunk too much. "I remember someone asking me to vote,” he said afterwards, “and not thinking it was appropriate, given how I was at the time.”
Well, prices in the Strangers’ Bar are encouragingly low – but they are not subidised; it’s simply that the Bar doesn’t have to be run like a High Street pub. So wines are from £15 a bottle, and from less than £3 a glass.
And there are more than the House souvenir bottles on offer. Half a dozen varieties each of reds and whites; on the white side, for a warm evening, a couple of chardonnays, a brace of sauvignon blancs, a pinot grigio and… a Picpoul de Pinet. Finding a Picpoul de Pinet in a pub would be unusual. Finding one in a members’ bar at less than £4 a glass was impressive. But then, so will be the palates of some of the MPs.
We took our wines outside, on the Terrace. This is a real treat, a view of the Thames which you cannot get from any other vantage point. The wine was cool, crisp and bright, a really excellent example. And there’s a friendly, relaxed and gossipy atmosphere; no obvious cabals in the corners, and absolutely no sign of the Terrace, as former MP Hazel Blears once observed, “Getting a bit lively”.
If some of the attitudes at Westminster might be outdated, it’s refreshing to see it retain a relaxed attitude towards the conviviality of drink. My host remembers once leaving the Bar with an unfinished bottle of beer, taking it to finish at a dinner elsewhere in the Palace. She was stopped at the door of the dining room; not with a warning about taking alcohol through the corridors, but with the words, “Have you brought a bottle for everyone, madam?”
As Big Ben struck 7 – rather sonorously, when you’re sitting nearby – half of the Terrace got up and left. It was a division (or, for our foreign readers, vote). Guests are allowed to remain unaccompanied for 15 minutes, time enough for my host to pass through the lobby (or, for our foreign readers, vote). And I saw no-one incapable of doing so.
With a combination of excellent wine, good company and fabulous location, I have never drunk in a better members’ bar, let alone Members’ bar. And having resisted the temptation to become even “muzzy”, perhaps I might be invited back. Whereas, following his own unfortunate episode, Mark Reckless said that “given this very embarrassing experience I don't intend to drink at Westminster again." As he lost his seat in the General Election, this may not be an issue.