A political life: Christmas at Westminster, when party politics give way to plain old parties

It's important for politicians to project an image of bonhomie

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The Independent Online

This week, it’s been party time in Westminster. On Tuesday, political journalists could drop in at Ed Balls’s office in the House of Commons for a glass of mulled wine, and then head off to Downing Street for a mince pie with the Prime Minister. George Osborne, Ed Miliband and the host with the most, Chuka Umunna, have all thrown spectacular bashes for the journalists who cover their beat. Whatever impact the Leveson Inquiry has on the relationship between politicians and the media, it won’t stop this tradition. Like any other bit of the PR industry, it’s important for politicians to give people a good time, project an image of bonhomie on their circuits of the room, and show that none of the criticism thrown their way is taken to heart.

For the journalists, it’s not just a free drink and a glimpse behind the scenes; it’s an opportunity to be playful and irreverent with the politicians, and thereby gauge their genuine mood. It’s also an unmissable chance to tease a Boxing Day splash out of a drunk civil servant, particularly those who’ve had the chance to peruse the New Year’s Honours list.

When it came to chucking-out time at Downing Street parties, it was my job to make sure all the guests actually left. It didn’t matter how many glasses of wine they’d had, no journalist could walk past a desk covered in confidential papers and not be tempted to take a look. Does Leveson want to stop that kind of thing? He’s silly if he does.

Tired and emotional

There’s another reason those kinds of parties will persist in the post-Leveson world. They are riotous good fun. The glass windows in the Treasury atrium still carry the facial imprint of an economics editor who tried to walk through one after a particularly heavy night at the Exchequer’s expense. One night in Downing Street, I stood at the exit holding back a furious mob of civil servants and journalists trying to make last orders at the Red Lion on the grounds that Newsnight was broadcasting live outside, and half of them couldn’t stand up.

Having said that, I was no saint myself. I will forever admire the security guard who, at two o’clock in the morning, patiently listened to me explain who I was, what I did, and the fact that if he didn’t let me back into the office, I wouldn’t be able to do my Boxing Day briefing to the papers, before gently saying: “I think you want the Treasury; this is the Foreign Office.”

Gordon Brown’s stand-up routine

One of the few never to indulge at those parties was Gordon Brown himself, who – despite enjoying a drink – had the greatest dipso-discipline of any politician I ever met. He was quite capable of nursing the same glass of wine for two hours at a Downing Street reception. For him, those occasions were work, and he never touched a drop when there was still work to do in the day. The private Christmas parties he and Sarah threw for friends and close colleagues were a different matter. We would gather in their Downing Street flat to drink champagne, eat lasagne and swap Secret Santa presents. You knew Gordon had been your Secret Santa if you received the same Kennedy biography he’d given you for your birthday. There was singing, too: stirring renditions of “Bandiera Rossa” and “The Fields of Athenry”; Ed Balls channelling Elvis in Hawaii; and at least three full-throated versions of “Jerusalem”.

But the highlight was always Gordon’s stand-up routine. I have never laughed so much as – each year – he attempted to tell his jokes about life in Glasgow, most of them inherited from Donald Dewar or the late great union leader Jimmy Reid, gradually becoming unable to speak because he was laughing so hysterically himself under the constant heckling from Balls. Tears streaming from his face, he would always – without fail – botch the punchline, itself the perfect ending to jokes that were all in the telling. So if you ever find yourself on a flight to Edinburgh with Gordon Brown, don’t ask him about the economy or football; just ask him to tell you about Jimmy Reid and the Japanese admiral. It’ll make the hour fly by.

Spend January  on the wagon

I’m celebrating my own minor piece of dipso-discipline today. It’s a year to the day that I gave up drinking at home, in an effort to avoid last Christmas turning into the usual stag do on the sofa. This paved the way for my giving up booze altogether for Lent to raise money for CAFOD, and I could never have done that if I hadn’t first kicked the habit at home, knowing that every evening I made it back indoors, the temptation was over, and a Sunday spent at home watching sport on TV felt like a healthy pursuit. So my advice to anyone contemplating a booze-free January is to empty the drinks cupboard at home over Christmas. Not that you needed an excuse. Bottoms up.

Damian McBride is a former special adviser to Gordon Brown. He is now the Head of Communications for CAFOD

Chris Bryant is away