'Most politics is done in pubs' - in praise of the Red Lion
“It’s the lowest common denominator – people say ‘I don’t go there’ but then everyone ends up there.”
The Red Lion is a place that brings people together to trade in gossip and information. Thank God it's back.
There are dozens of places to drink across the sprawling, decaying Palace of Westminster and its surrounding streets. Each establishment has its own personality – from the raucous Strangers’ Bar with stunning river views to the airless Pugin Room and its old-timey service. But perhaps none has a mythology quite like the Red Lion on Parliament Street.
This is strange, because it is widely considered by locals to be the worst pub in Westminster, if not London. It is cramped, the food may be decent but no one has tried it, and at £6.10 for a pint of Peroni, it certainly is not the prices that draw the punters in. And yet, Westminster would not run without it. Last week, the Red Lion opened its doors for the first time since lockdown, and I went down to talk to parliamentarians, staff and civil servants about Westminster’s pub of least resistance.
Proximity to the Parliamentary Estate is perhaps the Red Lion’s greatest asset. The possession of a parliamentary pass seems to warp holders’ sense of geography, and the idea of venturing as far as Charing Cross – roughly 800 yards away – is akin to crossing the floor.
“It’s not our first choice, it’s expensive but it’s just convenient”, said Mahyar Tousi, a political YouTuber and former Parliamentary staffer. One researcher to a Conservative MP explained: “The thing about the Red Lion is it’s very close. The Westminster Arms is great, but you have to walk five minutes to get there.”
Marie Le Conte, author of Haven’t You Heard?: Gossip, politics and power, compares the Red Lion to the main stage of a festival, but in Westminster. “It’s the lowest common denominator – people say ‘I don’t go there’ but then everyone ends up there.”
It is the strangest thing. Countless parliamentary staff were cheerily condemning the Red Lion for being too expensive or just a bit rubbish, and yet there they were, some of whom for the second or third time since reopening. But beyond its proximity, people love (or love to hate) the Red Lion for another reason – it is a refuge for MPs, staff and journalists to speculate on Westminster’s truest currency: gossip and information.
“Gossip is what we’re here for,” says Andrew Boff, Conservative Member of the London Assembly. “The Red Lion is a place for people who want to talk. Most politics is done in pubs.”
The magic of politics happens in bars and coffee shops, not in the chamber
Matt Vickers, Tory MP for Stockton South, agreed. “It’s a chance to network, talk to other MPs and people in the political arena. The magic happens in bars and coffee shops, not in the chamber.”
Gossip matters because politics is “fundamentally an informal business”, Le Conte says. “You learn things not through meetings but around a drink.” Most parliamentary staffers agreed.“We all love a gossip and spending time with each other, not in our bosses offices or in PCH [Portcullis House],” said one researcher. “Though I’m always wary here – you don’t know who’s around.”
While gossip is a key driver of traffic to the Red Lion, for others, it is the opportunity to network for their next role. “It’s a way of getting your next job,” one parliamentary researcher confided. “The past six months have put most people’s career progression on hold. As far as my career plan is concerned it’s added an extra six months.”
The stratified nature of the Parliamentary Estate means that Westminster’s bars play an important role in bringing people together. Parliament can be both a social and intensely isolating place to work. MPs operate like their own small businesses, with 650 offices spread across 28 acres of labyrinthine hallways. One staffer to a Conservative MP told me: “We work in small offices. If you don’t come to places like this, you don’t really get to meet people. Going to the pub is part of the package of working in Parliament.”
Quite a lot of the staff who work in Westminster have also never lived in London before. Researchers, often fresh out of university, may lack their own social network and so the Westminster drinking scene becomes their primary support group.
There are of course dangers to political drinking, infamously demonstrated by the former Labour MP Eric Joyce, who in 2012 was arrested for hitting Conservative MP Stuart Andrew in the Strangers’ Bar. Meanwhile for staff, the perils more often redound to sharing something you didn’t mean to share or the digital version – accidentally tweeting from the boss's account.
The Red Lion’s reopening also signified something else – that Parliament was, at least superficially, getting “back to normal”. Even if Westminster is unable to convince workers to return to their offices or bailout Pret, it can at least fill its most famous pub.
“The moment the Red Lion opened is when you know from a Westminster perspective that lockdown’s over. It was the last frontier,” said Tousi. “Things are getting back to normal,” Boff told me, “or as much as you can describe working in Parliament as normal.”
But with masks mandatory inside, it inevitably feels different. “We’re a long way from normal,” said Alex Cunningham, MP for Stockton North. “But it is nice to stand out on a warm evening. Though at £21 a round for two glasses of wine and a pint, I wish I was back up north!”.
The narrow strip of pavement opposite Derby Gate remains one of the most popular stretches of real estate in Westminster. It is the sort of place that makes the village tick, where you might go for a couple of pints and a quiet night and end up having lots of those five-minute chats that define the SW1 grapevine.
Many of the social connections in Westminster are fairly loose. But the Red Lion is the place that brings people together - if for no other reason than it is nearby and everyone else will probably be there too.
Jack Kessler is a freelance journalist and former Treasury official