Britain’s hard-drinking political culture alive and well at Conservative Party conference

The festival atmosphere helps smooth out some of the glaring divisions exposed by the Brexit referendum

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2016, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2016, 10:01pm

After days filled with lofty speeches, Britain’s political party conferences take on a very different feel at night, when alcohol flows freely at gossipy parties stretching into the small hours.

In one of the stories of debauchery that are a staple of the events, outgoing UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage went swimming in his underwear at his party conference after a drinking session last month.

At the Conservative Party’s conference in Birmingham, central England, Britain’s departure from the European Union has been the talk of the town this year – often over French, Spanish or Italian wine.

The festival atmosphere helps smooth out some of the glaring divisions between Conservatives that emerged during a bitter campaign ahead of Britain’s shock vote in a June referendum to quit the European Union.

The most important thing is that people are getting along, are not allowing any divisions to affect anything at this conference
Aric Gilinsky, Conservative supporter

“The most important thing is that people are getting along, are not allowing any divisions to affect anything at this conference. It’s a genuine environment,” added Aric Gilinsky, a 25-year-old Conservative supporter who works in banking.

“Networking happens everywhere,” said Gilinsky as he chatted to friends outside Birmingham’s luxury Hyatt Regency hotel – a hub of networking and political chat during the four days of the conference.

Party loyalists in black tie and cocktail dresses crowd the hotel’s bars and a pile of empty beer bottles on the piano grows as the night wears on.

The revellers earlier in the evening were at a “Beers of Europe” event hosted by the think tank Open Europe and a pub reception featuring performances of traditional sea songs sponsored by a ports operator.

The Brasshouse, a red-brick pub along one of Birmingham’s famous canals, was heaving with young Conservatives pushing to get to the bar.

“It’s good to have young people in the party,” said Aaron Watkins, a smartly dressed 25-year-old, who works in online marketing and is also a local councillor in eastern England.

Party conferences used to be held in faded seaside resorts like Blackpool, where popular nocturnal attractions included a seaside light show and Funny Girls, a nightclub featuring drag acts.

Early in David Cameron’s coalition government from 2010, ministers tried to avoid being photographed sipping champagne at the party conference as they imposed biting austerity cuts on Britain’s economy. But champagne – or at least sparkling wine – is now back on the menu for thirsty guests at many receptions.

When it comes to juicy political scandals, the British are the best

But in recent years, they have moved to major provincial cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, which offer conference facilities and plentiful hotel rooms in a more modern setting.

It is not just the Conservatives who like a tipple after a hard day listening to choreographed addresses.

Late-night drinking is a fixture at all of Britain’s party conferences, reflecting a wider, lingering alcohol culture in politics.

There are around a dozen places where MPs and staff can drink around London’s Houses of Parliament, even if more female MPs, the introduction of family-friendly hours and a 24-hour news media means they are less crowded than in the past.

May, who became prime minister in July, made a virtue of the fact that she was no big drinker during her pitch for the leadership.

UKIP chief Diane James quits as party leader after just 18 days in top job, citing lack of support

“I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in parliament’s bars. I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me,” she said in June.

She has limited herself to a few low-key appearances at evening receptions in Birmingham.

For most of the ordinary activists, party conferences are a chance to rub shoulders with politicians and journalists at receptions sponsored by think-tanks, pressure groups or companies.

Particularly for younger ones, nursing a hangover over a cup of coffee the next morning is as much of a ritual as debating Brexit or grabbing a selfie with their favourite MP.