Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

The Lobby is doomed. Alastair has sentented us to a slow death by 'openness and transparency'. Our briefings will soon be accessible to all-comers, thus widening and diluting the stream of questions. So I'd like to use this Diary to provide a glimpse of how it works before it becomes extinct. On Tuesday, as on every weekday morning, we troop into a Downing Street dungeon for what we call the 'Eleven o'Clock'. Tom Kelly, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS), rattles off a few dates for our diaries and after 15 minutes seems set for an early bath. So I ask why Cherie Blair never gives interviews. Tom correctly links this to the revelation that Cherie has chaired a dozen seminars at No. 10 on issues such as health and transport, but insists that her role has no policy implications. But if the Prime Minister's unelected wife is using Britain's hottest political address to hold debates attended by the PM and Cabinet ministers on issues central to Labour's promise of 'delivery', doesn't that have an impact on policy? And, if so, shouldn't she be accountable? Tom says that this is silly. It is not a story. Michael White of the Guardian suggests that I am motivated by 'rascalism', but presses for answers. Alastair, reading the transcript later, is furious. Why didn't we ask about important government announcements, or about murdered Pim Fortuyn? We did. But it seems that Cherie is a sacred cow and not to be tormented by muck-raking hacks. When the Lobby is eviscerated, there will be no opportunities for such questions. We also have a 'Four o'Clock', in a garret high above the Thames, where we are the hosts, with James Hardy of the Mirror in the chair. Has Stephen Byers misled Parliament over Martin Sixsmith again? Absolutely not. What about pharmaceutics tycoon Paul Drayson's second L50,000 donation to Labour after winning that smallpox-vaccine contract? That's a party matter. Is Jonathan Powell involved? Powell does not solicit donations any more. Does the PM have a view on adoption by gay couples? He will decide after examining the arguments.

Wednesday's 'Eleven' leaps into action as it becomes clear that the `Liar Byers' story has got legs. PMOS job-sharer Godric Smith is in the chair and ITV's John Sergeant demands to know why the embattled/stricken/beleaguered Transport supremo won't do the right thing and apologise for misleading the Commons. Godric, who has the decency to blush, responds in gobbledegook: Byers may have told MPs 14 times that Sixsmith had quit, despite being told that he hadn't by the colourful Permanent Secretary, Sir Richard 'We're all f***ed' Mottram. But he was acting in good faith, so it doesn't count. At 3.30 p.m., from my perch above the Speaker's chair, I watch Tony Blair trying to defend this preposterous line at Prime Minister's Question Time. He is scaldingly contemptuous, but even he cannot square this gross discourtesy to the House. By teatime Byers is negotiating a deal with Speaker Martin to let him 'explain' to MPs without actually being dragged before the House.

Thursday. Female Lobby members tut-- tut irritably as we troop through the big steel gates and wait in the drizzle to be searched for knives and bombs. They are cross with Ann Treneman whose article about us in this morning's Times is even more amusing than David Aaronovitch's in Tuesday's Indie. Ann seems to think that the Lobby is an all-male affair, despite a huge photograph alongside her article showing women sitting happily at the front as Alastair arrives with his Burnley tea mug. …

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