Tuesday, 17 January 2006

Overtired as a newt

As strangers to this part of the Internet have been known to be partial to the odd drink, I thought it might be worthwhile to consider the odd stiff one in the Palace of Westminster.

Charles Kennedy may be the first politician to admit publicly that he has a drink problem, but it is no secret that for centuries the Palace of Westminster has been awash with premiership-class imbibers. The late Ray Gunter, a Cabinet Minister in Harold Wilson's day, who used to queue up most mornings for the well-concealed Lords' staff bar to open at 9am, once said "Drinking goes on here only three times a day: morning, noon and night".

And in the nearby Annie's Bar, a small, disreputable and unselect group was formed, rejoicing in the name of Alcoholics Unanimous, now, alas, disbanded. As the veteran Tory peer, Lord Deedes (an ex-MP) observed only this week: "I forget how many bars there are in Parliament, but they are not just ornamental. They meet a need".

One "regular" was Harold Wilson's Foreign Secretary, George Brown, whose intake was awe-inspiring and prodigious. Wilson used to say of him: "He was a brilliant Foreign Secretary until four o'clock in the afternoon". Brown himself once said: "Many British statesmen have either drunk too much or womanised too much. I never fell into the second category". Once, as Foreign Secretary, in 1967 he attended an Embassy reception in Peru, when he espied a remarkable creature in a flowing scarlet gown and asked for a dance while music was being played. The reply came: "You are drunk. That is not the cha-cha-cha, it is the Peruvian national anthem. And I am not a delectable young thing in red, I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima".

Once when I was drinking with him in a Middlesbrough bar, Brown - who was supposed to be on a period of abstinence - was also the unwitting source of the expression "tired and emotional" used by a BBC press officer to describe Brown's overwrought condition on TV immediately after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

Winston Churchill also had a considerable capacity, with brandy being his favourite tipple. He once said: "I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me". And once when he was upbraided by a woman Labour MP who told him: "you're drunk!" He replied: "Madam. You're ugly. I'll be sober in the morning."

Churchill once vowed that he would never take strong drink before lunch, later amending that to: "It is now my rule never to do so before breakfast," at which meal he occasionally enjoyed a glass of hock with a clear conscience. When delivering a Budget, Churchill would drink whisky and soda or brandy, euphemistically described as "an amber-coloured fluid". As he gulped it down, he paused briefly in his speech to proclaim: "I shall now fortify the revenue".

The only Minister to be accused of being drunk at the Despatch Box was the late Alan Clark, after an over-exuberant wine-tasting. The accusation was made by Labour MP Clare Short and Clark admitted that she was right. Later, Labour MP Paul Flynn described Mr Clark as being "overtired as a newt" and suggested that all MPs should be breathalysed before entering the Chamber.

The righteous Labour MP Dennis Skinner once tried to stop drinking in the Commons. It was always a losing battle. He said: "There's people going into the chamber to vote and legislate for the whole country when they've been in the bar suppin' ale half the day. Well, not me. If a miner can't drink and work, nor should an MP." Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister at the start of the First World War, was also said to be frequently "manifestly the worse for wear" at the Despatch Box. He was the subject of a ditty regularly sung in London music halls: "Mr Asquith says in a manner sweet and calm, another little drink won't do us any harm". No wonder he was known as "Squiffy" Asquith. His wife Margot reputedly tried to cut down his intake by diluting his brandy when he wasn't looking. One recent Serjeant-at-Arms who used to visit the nearby Red Lion in full regalia to quaff gin in great quantities, was ordered by his wife to stop this habit. So what he did was to leave his overcoat on a peg with the money for a bottle of gin in the pocket. One of his minions collected the money, bought the gin and replaced the bottle (and change) in the pocket, leaving his wife unaware of his brilliant subterfuge.

William Hague recently admitted (Ed: boasted?) that he drank 14 pints a day as a lad on a dray. But now the serious drinking culture, partly because of the new daytime hours and the tut-tut-tutting of some of the Blair Babes, has markedly abated. No more rough-and-tumbles in the Strangers' Bar. No more wild scenes in Annie's. And no more incidents like the former press gallery member who was thought to be dead and was taken away in a vehicle, only to shock the other occupants by raising the blanket from his head and demanding: "A large whisky please..."

Well done everyone.