W.G. Runciman

10 June 1993. Fellow-guests with Tony and Cherie Blair at a BBC dinner. Blair says immediately to my wife: ‘Weren’t you kind enough to ask me to a drinks party for Frank Field’s 50th birthday?’ She answers: ‘Yes, and you neither came nor replied.’ ‘Didn’t I?’ says Blair, and subsequently sends a charming letter of apology. The thought that this smiling young Scottish public schoolboy could be the next prime minister doesn’t cross either of our minds. On the other hand, John Birt is suitably impressed when I tell him that I actually met the great Lord Reith on the day of his extraordinary speech in the House of Lords likening commercial broadcasting to the Black Death. It was as if I’d said to the present Chief of me Defence Staff that I’d met the first Duke of Wellington.

15 March 1994. A reply arrives from John Major to a letter I’d written to him trying to persuade him to reform the House of Lords. It begins with ‘I have to confess that this is not an issue which I am strongly minded to open up at this stage,’ and ends with ‘may I reiterate’ thanks to me for chairing the 1991-93 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (which is, I suppose, all the nicer since in fact it’s the first thanks I’ve had from him). He tells me to go and talk to John Wakeham, which I do. Wakeham is as cynical as he is agreeable, saying that I’m one of many who’ve said the same to him, but it isn’t on for three reasons: first, a lame-duck government couldn’t get a constitutional Bill through the Commons; second, they need the backwoodsmen to get their current legislation passed without hassle; third, the punters don’t give a toss. Suggests I write to the Times, to which I reply that I wrote to the Prime Minister precisely because I know that a letter to the Times from me or anybody else would have absolutely no effect, but I thought reform of the Lords might be better achieved by his party.

28 April 1996. Derry and Alison Irvine are fellow guests at a dinner party at the Dworkins. The collective rate of encroachment on our hosts’ wine supply is truly awesome. I am reminded of Winston Churchill saying to my father about his – my father’s – teetotal father, who had been a colleague of Churchill’s in Asquith’s Cabinet: ‘I have often thought that your father would have been a happier man if he had taken an occasional glass of whisky, as I do.’ Derry is ebulliently confident of soon tasting the fruits of high office.

27 March 1997. Seated next to John Prescott at lunch at the Chamber of Shipping. Am careful not to mention the last occasion, which I’m sure he has forgotten, in (I think) 1985, when he came to a similar lunch in the House of Commons, addressed not a word to me after the initial handshake, launched into a diatribe about P&O replacing Brits with foreigners in the catering department of one of their cruise ships, and then left before the P&O representative at the lunch was able to explain that all the proper procedures including a shipboard ballot had been followed. On this occasion, Prescott plays the working class patriot and statesman in the Bevin mould and does it rather well – exuding an expansive sense of power being within reach at last.

1 May 1997. Run into John Eatwell, formerly economic adviser to the hapless Neil Kinnock and now Lord Eatwell, President of Queen’s, at Cambridge station. We naively agree that it can’t possibly be a landslide, given the percentage of the British electorate which will vote Conservative no matter what the level of arrogance, disunity and sleaze. When first disenfranchised, I was rather glad not to have a vote, since although wanting Thatcher out I didn’t at all want Kinnock in. But this time I am sorry not to have a vote to cast for Blair, however little he turns out to need it

5 May 1997. Frank Field describes being rung up from Downing Street in the aftermath of the election to be asked to take the job of Minister for Welfare Reform outside the Cabinet, to serve under Harriet Harman as Secretary of State. Frank is surely right to accept on that basis, even though he’s by now forgotten more about the details of the system than Harriet will ever learn, rather than consign himself to the back benches at the very beginning of a government whose attitude to welfare reform he has already done so much to change. Harriet, as it happens, used to be a baby-sitter for us, when her parents lived next door to us in St John’s Wood. As we say in writing to congratulate her, when one’s baby-sitter is a cabinet minister one realises one is really old!

21 May 1997. Howard Davies is appointed chairman-designate of ‘SuperSIB’ (or, as it is later christened by Gordon Brown, the Financial Services Authority), as much to his surprise as everyone else’s. He had been on his way to South America in his capacity as deputy governor of the Bank of England, having just been involved in that same capacity in seeking a successor to Andrew Large as chairman of SIB in its existing form, when Brown rang him up and put it to him. All very good news, both because we (the SIB board) had been trying without success to persuade the last government to give legislative time to reform the manifestly inadequate Financial Services Act of 1986 and because if all financial regulation, including banking supervision, is to be wrapped up inside a single SuperSIB, Howard is unquestionably the right person to head it. But why does Brown not disown the anonymous spinner who told the newspapers that the Governor of the Bank was ‘playing into our hands’ by letting it be known that he didn’t think he’d been adequately consulted about the transfer of banking supervision? Can it be that he intends to appoint one of his acolytes to be governor instead of giving ‘Steady Eddie’ George a further term and letting the markets know it sooner rather than later?

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in