The good, the bad and the ugly: a guided tour of Westminster’s pubs

Alex Wickham goes on a crawl of SW1’s hostelries in search of a killer scoop

Home News

12 Sep 2016

My phone vibrates with a three-letter text message heralding another inevitable Westminster hangover: “MoG?”. The Marquis of Granby pub on Romney Street is an old-fashioned sort of boozer: mahogany-panelled bar with a chandeliered burgundy ceiling and a gents you have to wade through. There’s none of your poncey hipster food served on slabs of wood here; if you head to the upstairs dining room you’re having a pie and a pint. You can see why Nigel Farage loves this place for a photo opportunity. I’m meeting another journalist for an ale and a gossip, but this used to be a Tory haunt before Conservative Central Office moved from Smith Square. These days you’re more likely to bump into policy nerds from the wonk world epicentre of neighbouring Tufton Street, or a broadcast pro who’s mastered the art of sinking a couple before heading back to the studio. 

The MoG is rammed so we decide to pop up the road to the Westminster Arms on Storey’s Gate. Run by a moustachioed Irish firebrand named Gerry Dolan, who boasts of having served Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Prince Edward and Bob Geldof, the Arms is the heart of Westminster. I once had an Asahi here with Andy Burnham, self-proclaimed scourge of the SW1 elite. “I just thought I’d come and check out the Westminster bubble,” he tried to convince me.

UKIP’s top names are a permanent fixture, they’re here so often they should really start paying rent. Unusually, tonight they’re buying their own drinks because George Cottrell, a moneybags hanger-on who often picks up the tab, has been nicked in America for alleged fraud, money laundering and extortion. (Odd, he always seemed so generous.) A few feet from the Kippers are a circle of Tory spinners and advisers, for whom Thursday night is their chance to forget the burdens of government.

Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP enjoys a pint of shandy at the Westminster Arms (Getty)

Nigel Farage enjoys a pint of shandy at the Westminster Arms (Getty)

A scoop eluding me thus far, I make for the Red Lion on Whitehall, halfway between Downing Street and the parliamentary estate. This is a great spot for people-watching, or specifically minister-watching, as politicians flit back and forth from their departments to Portcullis House. Loved by MPs (at one point they considered nationalising it so they could carry on boozing here), it used to be the perfect place to pick up some scuttlebutt from David Cameron’s thirsty SpAds. Yet under the Theresa May regime, fraternising with hacks is frowned upon. Her staff prefer a quieter drink at the Clarence on Trafalgar Square, away from the ears of the Lobby. I do however catch red-handed an aide to the Labour leader holding a pint. A flagrant breach of party policy, since Corbyn has condemned “early evening socialisation” down the pub as sexist. Minutes later, Jezza’s strategy chief Seumas Milne walks past. You won’t see him discriminating against mothers though, he’s off to catch the District Line home.

An old friend who works for an MP texts: “Sports?”. Oh, go on then. The Sports and Social is parliament’s cavernous watering hole frequented mostly by young bag-carriers. It is also a regular haunt for rowdy SNP MPs, but tonight a throng of sweaty 21-year-olds are making me feel like their naff uncle. It’s fashionable to say hook-up apps like Tinder have seen a decline in getting pissed and pulling on a night out. The Sports proves this to be nonsense. Half the room have bonked each other, future husbands and wives have met here, and many a dangerous cross-party liaison has been embarked upon. Quite a few are giving me the eye, though I suspect that’s more to do with my expense account than romantic appeal. I head to the bar to pay for a preposterously large round, though somehow (cheers, taxpayers) it comes in under £20.

Last orders at Sports mean it’s on to Strangers, where the real action is. In order to maintain some semblance of exclusivity, the rules dictate that MPs must pay for the drinks. This slipped the mind of the Honourable Member who requested I bring him a “bottle of Chardonnay. The nice one”. Take your drink out onto the terrace overlooking the Thames and you’ll witness plots hatched, alliances forged and leadership bids surge or crumble. Labour’s Tom Watson and Michael Dugher hold court; the old Brownites might not control their party any more but they are certainly dominant among the drinkers. The terrace is where Tory MPs booze too, when they’re not at their clubs. Liam Fox celebrated his return to Cabinet here with his ‘associate’ Adam Werritty and eight bottles of champagne, while David Cameron was known to down pints and smoke fags after difficult days during the referendum.

Reader, at this point I must confess things get a little foggy. The final stop of the evening is the dive bar Players. No one would ever come here sober. It is a downmarket piano bar hidden under the arches by Charing Cross station, packed with researchers acting like that creepy guy at a university nightclub who stays after his mates have left, hoping to take someone – anyone – home. Lembit Opik is a regular. Sally Bercow loves it. Full disclosure here: I am relying on the garbled notes bashed into my phone to refresh my memory. “Piano. Sticky carpets. Don’t Stop Me Now. Whiskies. Never return.” With that, it’s into an Uber and home. We’ve got work in five hours, and these stories won’t write themselves, after all.  

Alex Wickham is news editor for Guido Fawkes and gossip columnist for GQ


Close