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Boris Johnson and the mini-fridges of doom

Even while the Tory party has often lent itself to caricatures of boorish, red-faced frat boys in various states of inebriation, last week’s “partygate” revelations about Downing Street’s activities during lockdown illuminate a drinking culture that is still quite startling.

Reports of a suitcase being filled with booze and smuggled into a basement party, drunkenness resulting in damage to a child’s swing and days punctuated by heavy drinking suggest a degree of licentiousness that few modern offices would tolerate. The stories seemed more in keeping with tales of City excess in the 1980s, than the muted Google hang-out minutes that pass for leaving parties now.

I was especially tickled by Sonia Khan’s comments. The former aide says that the drinking culture at Downing Street was so normalised when she worked there in 2020 that “drinks could start at lunch time” and it “wasn’t uncommon” for staff to install mini-fridges under their desks. I wonder what my colleagues would think were I to mark the “great return” to office living by installing the same beside my feet.

In fact, I would be curious to know FT readers’ attitudes. Does your office sequester little bottles for cracking open when under pressure? Or perhaps you have a full drinks cabinet set-up, like Mad Men’s Roger Sterling, so that you might observe the office workings while knocking back the gin.

Britons will put up with a lot in the interests of national safety — but not, it seems, if someone else is getting all the beers

The FT Weekend office does enjoy some shared refrigeration, so in the interests of full disclosure, I have ventured to our kitchen to find out what is contained therein. Currently, the fridge boasts a plethora of different milk products — some of which are possibly fermenting — a Pret A Manger yoghurt, a mini bottle of prosecco, some sparkling tea by Fortnums and a “vegan sports drinks” by a company called Nocco.

Which is not to say that the Number 10 crowd are so very different from us regular civilians. In acknowledging how deeply alcohol pervades the lives of Tory leaders, “partygate” has perhaps drawn more on the shared passions and weaknesses that unite us than the qualities that set them apart.

It still strikes me as astonishing that Boris Johnson has been able to withstand such a slew of scandals. The British public don’t seem to care about the degree of cronyism in the party, or the million-dollar contracts handed out to ministers’ contacts. But should you so much as sip an icy shandy with your mates while denying others the same delicious privilege, the entire country goes into conniptions, shouting that their trust in the PM has been forever lost.

A British citizen will put up with a great deal in the interests of national safety — but not, it seems, if someone else is getting all the beers. It says a lot about our own relationship with alcohol. Just as staffers are being cross-examined about their mini-fridges, the government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities reports that 8m people in England were drinking at “increasing or higher-risk” levels in the last three months of 2021.

The numbers have become more alarming since lockdown, as people have upped their intakes and started drinking for greater lengths of time. It may not feel like binge-drinking when you’re opening a second bottle while mainlining Dopesick of an evening, but according to Professor Julia Sinclair, chair of the addiction faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, such drinking sessions typically last several hours longer than they would do in a pub.

Lockdown unlocked some pretty scary drinking habits. Last year’s survey by the UK’s Office for National Statistics reported that deaths caused by alcohol in 2020 were 18.6 per cent higher than in 2019. Alcoholics Anonymous experienced a huge jump in calls to their helpline, and many addiction counsellors are so overwhelmed with queries that many have closed their books to any further clients.

“Hunk, chunk or drunk,” observed my colleague of the three lockdown types that are now emerging. For every Adonis doing multi-sessions of pilates, there are a dozen others chowing down the biscuits, or throwing back the wine.

People have railed against Johnson because he feels himself to be exceptional. And indeed he seems to occupy a different realm. He’s never really dallied with the idea of being normal, so it comes as no surprise that he should have thought himself a bit too special to follow the provisions of a basic social contract that was supposed to protect us all.

As for the other revellers, while stupid, they have every sympathy. Who wouldn’t feel compelled to drink away their responsibility for the shambles they have managed in this past year? Who blames them for wanting to anaesthetise the details? If I had presided over this pandemic shit-show, I too would need a drink. And I would definitely have installed a mini-fridge and drowned my sorrows while slumped on little Wilfred Johnson’s swing.

Email Jo at jo.ellison@ft.com

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