With the Easter holidays bringing some much needed calm to the Westminster village and giving those warring MPs at least a short period of respite from the constant Brexit bickering, it seemed a good time to let our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer step away from having to analyse Theresa May’s latest voting disaster for a week.
Here we present the first chapter of his much-anticipated memoirs from a storied forty plus years of experience reporting on events in Westminster. Having interviewed every Prime Minister from Harold Wilson to Theresa May, there’s little Mr Spencer hasn’t seen in domestic politics over the years. So without further ado, take it away Peter…
Chapter One: LYING BASTARDS !!!
Not sure if I was too young, or too naïve, to ask myself ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ Maybe the phrase hadn’t been coined back in 1967. But the fact is, the first politician I ever met told me a horrible lie immediately.
Lots more did, over the years. Some obviously, some less so. Though the one that sticks out almost as far as the bloke’s nose did at the time was a newly created minister in the Blair government. It’s a kick in the goolies to find your workload quadrupling overnight, especially when you were already doing an 80-hour week. So it came as no surprise when he admitted to me, as a mate, that he was ‘totally knackered’.
The Big Fib came a few days later when he came by the Sky News studios again looking no less knackered and I asked him how he was bearing up. ‘I’m fine, absolutely fine,’ he insisted, though I read a different story in his totally knackered eyes. They caught mine, unblinkingly, and held them.
‘You sure about that?’
‘Oh yes, Peter, absolutely fine.’
The accompanying Jim Callaghan-style jutting jaw didn’t tip the balance. But I noticed his civil service minder, who’d overheard his earlier confession, looked more chilled this time.
No more a Damascus moment than the end of a beautiful friendship. In the scheme of things, no big deal at all. A shock nonetheless, to get that treatment from someone I really did have down as a friend. Also an insight into the straitjacket every Sir Humphrey has measured up for every hapless Hacker. Seems that old beardie weirdie scribbling away in ancient Greece had a point. In war, truth is the first casualty.
There was certainly one helluva battle waged in the noughties, as is now public knowledge, between the Downing Street neighbours before the sainted Tony finally had to come out with his hands up. The TBGB’s, as we media folk characterised them, were always vehemently denied. Yerright, pull the other one, was the consensus from our side, and it was years before the lying bastards, aka the special advisers, finally came clean.
And yet, and yet .. There was a moment when the cameras were invited into Downing Street to witness Prime Minister and Chancellor working harmoniously together in a communal den, solving the nation’s problems, putting the world to rights and all that. Before the cameras started whirring the mikes were recording, er, the sound of silence. Two men sitting at two desks exchanging not a word. As the lights came on a press officer was heard to say ‘start talking, now’.
We should have made more of it at the time. It told us all we needed to know.
On a lighter note, from a little earlier and marginally happier time, Cherie Blair once admitted to me what everyone had long suspected. Her husband really was Tony B-liar. It was PMQ’s day, and the poor sod had a cold. He hadn’t by then admitted that the weekly ordeal by ire sometimes made him sick, literally. But having hundreds of florid faces bellowing at you is the last thing you need when your brain feels dislocated and all you want is a good blow.
‘Feel so sorry for you, Tony, a bugger innit?’
‘What can you do? Kids …’
Stock sympathy. Stock response. But the interview we’d just done took place in Number Ten and afterwards Cherie was passing through the lobby at the same time as me. ‘Feeling Tony’s pain’ quoth I. ‘Bloody colds. Bloody kids’.
Never knowingly understated, the lady almost shrieked at me. ‘Bloody kids? What? HE gave it to THEM !’
It’s official then. Tony Blair’s a liar. If the lady says so, it must be so.
Charming expression. Lethally deployed by a West German Chancellor in Bonn in the early 80’s during a joint press conference with Margaret Thatcher. A local journalist had asked him a question, but the Iron Lady, rather rudely it was noted, leaned across and held forth.
When she finally stopped going on and on, not something that came easily, as history later related, the German journalist piped up again. ‘Thank you for that, Prime Minister, but the question was addressed to Herr Kanzler’. All eyes turned on Helmut Schmidt, who combined the magnificent form of words with the Teutonic equivalent of a Gallic shrug. Exquisite in its execution. If the Franco-Prussian wars had been waged not with guns but shrugs they’d have all ended in a draw.
Suffice it to say it was the ultimate put-down posing as courtesy. A double meaning to rival those signs one sometimes reads in America. ‘We thank you in advance for your co-operation.’ Sounding so polite but actually saying ‘do as we say or we blow your fucking brains out’.
Not that La T clocked it. Or if she did she didn’t let on. She was good at deadpan when she chose, or maybe when she wasn’t particularly interested. There was a moment in Madrid when she was being shown Picasso’s Guernica at the Prado museum. Quite a long moment, as a Spanish official gave her chapter and verse on the painting’s history.
Leaving aside the torment it depicts, it’s striking for its sheer size. More than 11 feet high and 25 across. Me, I just gawped at it, as did many fellow hacks on the trip. But she? Her face could have been speaking ancient Cantonese for all it was letting on.
It’s possible she was thinking about whoever or wherever was next on her itinerary. Or maybe she was bursting for a pee, or had a raging headache, or had gone temporarily blind and deaf. Or perhaps she couldn’t see a problem with Fascist massacres anyway. It’s even possible she was thinking about the jolly good rogering she’d like to give Denis when she got home. But the simplest theory is often the best. That she was just bored.
Check back for more of Peter Spencer’s memoirs over the coming months.
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