As Tories battle on the summer reception circuit, should small talk be a gateway to the elite, asks Paris Gourtsoyannis
They take place behind closed doors but are as much a part of the Westminster calendar as Black Rod’s famous knock at the Commons door. Few will ever set foot in one, but we’ve heard a lot in recent weeks about the far-reaching consequences of summer drinks receptions.
In modern politics, they appear to fill the role once held by duelling. If you want to dispose of a rival, concealing some whispered gossip behind the clinking crystal can be as deadly to a political reputation as pistols at ten paces.
Equally, a poorly aimed shot from a clumsy briefer can consign their own career to a wooden box.
For gleeful political journalists, this summer has been like the OK Corral. Bored, exhausted politicians hanging on for the holidays have ignored the health warning about “too much sun and warm prosecco”. It all sounds incredibly self-indulgent, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s leaders should have more to do than stand around getting sunburned and skewering each other with the chicken satay cocktail sticks. But with Downing Street stripped of authority and discipline, the pre-recess Westminster reception circuit has erupted into a Pimms-fuelled proxy war over who gets to succeed Theresa May.
Carrie Symonds, newly installed as director of communications at Conservative HQ, was gamely tweeting away on Sunday, trying to direct the fire towards Labour, but was powerless to distract Tory ministers from their real enemies: each other.
Cabinet discussions have become private in name only, with Philip Hammond accused of sexism over female train drivers and accusing public sector workers of being overpaid. Rumours swirl about Boris Johnson’s personal life. And reporting that David Davis called the foreign secretary a “failure” at one summer bash, one Sunday newspaper carried a mock-up of Davis, Hammond and Johnson in a pistols-drawn, Reservoir Dogs-style stand-off.
With so many seersucker-clad bodies stretched out on the lawn, the cabinet civil war could be scripted by Agatha Christie. Invitations to these supposedly genteel events should really come with hostile environment training - but not just for politicians. For mere mortals, making small talk with the great and good at an exclusive drinks reception can be a daunting experience, something one host has recognised.
No summer is more exclusive than the bash thrown by The Spectator on Thursday, where Davis and Johnson were said to have clashed “like a pair of rutting stags”. No warm prosecco here – only chilled champagne. It is, according to magazine editor and former Scotsman political reporter Fraser Nelson, “the high point of Westminster’s social calendar”.
You’ll have to take his word for it, because like the unnamed friend who Emily Thornberry failed to blag past the bouncers, I wasn’t on the list. But the stars of the event weren’t from Britain’s elite, Nelson wrote in a blog post the next day, but a group of students from its toughest estates.
This year The Spectator invited along a dozen interns from the Social Markets Foundation think-tank. They came from some of the most deprived parts of the UK, including one from Glasgow’s Easterhouse; many are from minorities still badly under-represented at Westminster.
With top marks and offers from elite universities including Oxbridge, they have exceeded their circumstances through hard work. However, as Nelson rightly observes, despite their effort they and their peers remain at a disadvantage. The children of the wealthy and privileged are exposed to similar occasions from an early age, and learn how to ‘network’ and interact with people of power and influence.
They rely on the experience and confidence it gives them as much if not more than their school tie or special pleading from well-connected parents. It can make the difference in getting into a top university, law firm, investment bank - or newspaper.
Last month the UK Social Mobility Foundation confirmed that journalism, a profession where who you know matters as much as what you know, is as exclusive as it was 20 years ago - in fact, slightly more so, with 51 per cent of journalists last year educated privately compared with 49 per cent in 1986. I was unaware, until I read it in Nelson’s account, that selection for the Stern Fellowship, the most coveted prize for young journalists in the UK, includes a ‘cocktail party test’ where candidates are thrown together to see how they socialise. Unequal access to the social capital needed to perform in those situations, The Spectator editor argues, is one of the last areas “where the British class system has gone unchallenged”.
He’s not wrong. The issue isn’t necessarily one of class as much as confidence, something that is distributed in our society as unequally as wealth and status. It’s concentrated at the top, where it can be trained for certain social settings, but it occurs naturally throughout. The SMF interns are probably good examples, and I’ve met young people who have been through a horrific amount in childhood but have thought nothing of speaking their mind to First Ministers.
From the pictures of the interns gabbing with cabinet ministers, being at last week’s drinks party will have had a huge impact on them individually. Nelson should be commended for opening up the event, and for encouraging the leaders of elite employers who attended last week to do the same with their corporate functions.
But on a fundamental level, training people to pass a ‘cocktail party test’ isn’t challenging the status quo - it’s perpetuating it. Sociability, confidence and drive are all qualities worth cultivating across class boundaries. Making small talk at a gossipy drinks reception shouldn’t be the key measure of them. For all the SMF interns’ peers to get an equal chance, those tests should be obsolete, rather than part of the curriculum. Political journalists might have a harder time when they do, but ministers might equally be able to focus more on the job at hand.