How the Kebab Awards became a mainstay in the parliamentary calendarby Marie Le Conte / March 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
It isn’t always clear where the Westminster bubble starts and where it ends. We know that it exists and that some people are definitely of it while others definitely aren’t, but its edges can be blurry.
Still, there is now a convenient way to establish someone’s status: mention the Kebab Awards and see how they react. If they passively nod and don’t pick up on the absurdity of that sentence, it almost certainly means that they work in or around Parliament.
The link between the British political elite and occasionally tasty but often cheap and greasy meat isn’t obvious, but that hasn’t stopped increasing numbers of the former descending on the Westminster Plaza Hotel once a year to celebrate the latter.
Why? Well, there are a number of reasons. This is how Mikey Smith from the Daily Mirror puts it: “It’s my favourite political piss-up of the year. It started with a couple of London MPs turning up because there are a lot of kebab shops in their constituency, and then someone decided to dial up the banter and invite literally everyone.”
“You have dozens of MPs showing up and drinking an inordinate amount of free booze. The food always comes out super late too, so everyone’s hammered by the time the belly dancers come on.”
The “someone” in question is Ibrahim Dogus, who Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds describes as a “force of nature.” He isn’t wrong; among other things, Dogus owns three restaurants and a beer brand, founded the Centre for Turkish Studies, launched local paper Lambeth Life, and serves as a local councillor in the area.
He is also the organiser of the BKA, of course, and isn’t shy about promoting them: one journalist was amused to find himself messaged by Dogus earlier this year and asked to promote the event. The group who received the message, they say, included Corbynite activist Ash Sarkar, Conservative party chairman Brandon Lewis and comedian Shappi Khorsandi.
Beyond the amusing randomness of that selection of people lies another reason why the award ceremony has become so popular: everyone is invited. Though politics can be a boozy affair, most events tend to be divided by party, faction, interests, level of importance, or a combination of the above.
Just as a drunken, late-night kebab is the great British social class unifier, the Kebab Awards are the place where you can bump into anyone in Westminster. Parliamentary staffers can mingle with ministers, humble backbenchers get merrily sozzled with lobby journalists, and trade unionists can find themselves sharing their bread and wine with Tory councillors.
Even the table plan can be joyfully unpredictable; a few years ago, a right-wing tabloid hack found himself sat close to Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader politely asked him what he did for a living, listened to the answer and apparently refused to interact with him again for the rest of the evening.
It is also worth coming back to Smith’s point; either by mistake or design, the night starts early, and the main course doesn’t make it to the guests until about 10pm, by which time a consequential amount of free wine has usually been drunk. While the scheduling would seem witty if the food served was kebabs, it puzzlingly never is.
What this means in practice is that while the best and brightest kebab shop owners of the nation fight over titles including “Best Takeaway Regional” and “Best Kebab Van Of The Year,” about half of the gigantic ballroom pays no attention to the stage and happily chats away as the awards are being handed out. It might be disrespectful for them to ignore the people dressed to the nines who paid over 200 pounds to attend when they got in for free, but drunk journalists and politicians aren’t really known for their self-awareness.
If they were, they would also be honest about why the British Kebab Awards have become such a fixture of the Westminster social calendar. “MPs probably lent their support to it initially as a favour to what is a minority community, ie the Kurds”, says Jim Pickard from the Financial Times, “and now it’s ballooned into a networking event for people who wouldn’t normally like openly networking events.”
Though much of politics and political journalism is based on who you know, it often seems gauche for anyone to be openly trying to make those not-fully-professional, not-quite personal connections. Most people will be much happier pretending they’re only there for the free booze and three-course meal.
Ibrahim Dogus realised this early on and has been using it to his advantage. There is no definite consensus on how much of a front for the Kurdish cause the event is, but most will agree that the awards probably wouldn’t exist if he didn’t have a cause to promote.
Not that this matters a lot for the attendees; as long as they can tweet about the comically large bottles of chili and garlic sauce they got in their goodie bags, they will keep flocking to what is effectively an unrelated industry bash.
As the Guardian’s Jim Waterson explains; “it clearly thrives on the juxtaposition of ‘stupid topic being taken incredibly seriously’ in a Westminster setting, which is part of The Banter Politics era where Liz Truss needs some material for her Instagram account.”
This year will be even more special, as it is due to take place 11 days before the UK leaves the EU. If Nero fiddled while Rome burnt, Westminster might as well stuff its face as the country steps into the unknown.