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Westminster Insiders Call For A "Reset" On Downing Street Booze Culture After Lockdown Parties Went Too Far

6 min read

Downing Street needs a serious “reset” after its well established booze culture spiralled under lockdown and “went too far” according to those familiar with Number 10's now notorious "Friday night wine time".

Reports of staff sleeping on sofas after a night of drinking and a suitcase to carry drinks from the shops into Downing Street are all "true", and it "wasn’t professional", sources familiar with life in Downing Street, but who had not attended lockdown parties, have told PoliticsHome.

So-called “Friday night wine time”, believed to be established under the premiership of David Cameron and which then continued under Theresa May and Boris Johnson, led to far too many people staying in the office until the early hours of the morning and sometimes the fun boiled over, according to people who spent time in the building.

“It wasn’t professional. It went too far and I think the line between professional relationships and personal ones has been blurred," one source familiar with both the May and Johnson administrations said.

"I’m sure in hindsight people would have acted differently.

“You work in a pressure cooker, but I think there has to be boundaries."

They described "soft sofas" tucked away in the building and said they had been aware of people sleeping on them after hours. 

"I just think the building almost needs reset," the source added.

A former Downing Street staffer, who worked at Number 10 during the May era, defended having a drink at work sometimes because staff are often expected to work long and unusual hours. 

"Having a drink at work is a function of the fact you were at work an awful lot, rather than you being totally slack,” they explained.

The staffer said it was "true" that there had been a suitcase used to get drinks from nearby supermarkets when they worked there, but did not recognise the sort of bacchanalian behaviour –including DJing in the basement, and a staffer breaking Johnson's son's swing – that has been a feature of recent reports on partying in Downing Street while Covid regulations were in force. 

An May 2020 email leaked to ITV earlier this month showed Boris Johnson's principal private secretary Martin Reynolds inviting 100 staff "to make the most of the lovely weather" in the Downing Street garden that evening. He urged them to "bring your own booze".

“Staff may have drifted into this kind of behaviour in lockdown," they said. “The 20 May [event] is obviously very problematic."

A former special adviser from the May era refuted that the lockdown events were especially unique to 2020, but instead reflective of a wider culture of socialising with colleagues in Westminster. 

"Work and social life have always been blended in an unhealthy way in Westminster and that’s been a problem for decades," they said. "You don’t have a personal or a work life, they are one and the same. You are always working."

While the focus on the drinking culture in Downing Street has been brought into sharp focus because of the investigations around gatherings and Covid rule breaking by senior civil servant Sue Gray, sources have said there have been Friday night drinks in Downing Street for years.

It would be something some members of the press and policy teams would get involved with, one source said.

Former director of communication James Slack used the wind-down time on a Friday night to give an award to press office staff who had gone above and beyond in the week. One very senior Theresa May staffer even had a golf putting game in their office for colleagues to let off steam.

“'Wine time Friday' was a thing – it was just the Number 10 press office, civil servants and press spads [special advisor] joined, and it only ever happened on Fridays after 5pm," said one former staffer from the May era.

“Everyone would contribute some money into a box for wine and crisps. It was great and not uncommon to most workplaces on a Friday to be honest.”

Another source said "I think on some occasions people got too drunk" but it was only ever a handful of people.But most believed it was inappropriate for the tradition to have carried on during lockdown when the rest of the country was abiding by the rules.

"Under lockdown this probably spiralled. You can certainly tell yourself that the rules allow you to be in Downing Street full stop [but] you’re stretching it entirely if you think it means you can do some of the things reported," said one source familiar with life at Number 10. 

Ex-senior adviser Dominic Cummings' rules may have also inadvertently increased the level of drinking in the office by instigating a very strict ban on special advisers drinking with lobby journalists, a source suggested.

"If you’re told you can’t go to the pub with journalists I wouldn’t be surprised if people didn’t think let’s go for drinks with each other [instead]," they said. 

"You’re working 20 hour days, and in that first six months when they banned holidays and you were working all the time, I think there was quite a bit of [drinking] then, because there wasn’t drinking in the pub, it would be in the offices."

However SNP MP and breast cancer surgeon, Dr Phillipa Whitford, accused Downing Street of double standards in an interview with The House magazine this week, arguing that other key workers involved in long hours working on the Covid pandemic would not have been drinking in a group after their work had finished for the day.

“The idea of any key workers, particularly, nurses, doctors and care workers, piling out into the carpark outside the hospital and cracking open bottles of wine is unimaginable," she said.

Some of the former staff and people aquainted with Downing Street assume that the reported lockdown breaking parties would not have happened under May, if the public were also enduring public health rules at the same time.

While one ex-staffer was reluctant to draw comparisons between May and Johnson, they did say that it was clear May was a "serious minded person" adding that staff need to remember “it’s a privilege to work there”.

They said it's clear that different Prime Ministers set the tone in Downing Street. "One of the things about being PM, is it does reveal the truth of who you are, good or bad."

Another said that they heard laughing in the building for the first time in years when Johnson took to office. "He did bring a fresh attitude and way of doing things and there are positives and negatives to that. We are seeing some of the negatives now," they added. 

A spokesperson for Number 10 did not comment on the allegations of a drinking culture in Downing Street when contacted by PoliticsHome. They pointed to an ongoing inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Grey into the allegations of parties held during lockdown. 

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