Living with Monsters

Ferdinand Mount

  • Where Power Lies: Prime Ministers v. the Media by Lance Price
    Simon & Schuster, 498 pp, £20.00, February 2010, ISBN 978 1 84737 253 6

One of the odder political books I have read is The Abuse of Power, by James Margach, the veteran lobby correspondent of the Sunday Times. Published in 1978, the book was subtitled with a flourish: ‘The war between Downing Street and the media from Lloyd George to Callaghan’.

For 40 years and more, Margach had enjoyed the confidence of prime ministers. He was in the private sitting room of Number Ten when Ramsay MacDonald returned from the palace on resigning. He belonged to Chamberlain’s magic circle of lobby men, lunching with him at St Stephen’s Club once a week. He saw Harold Wilson every week too, with the other members of the ‘White Commonwealth’, as the handpicked political editors were then called. Yet he did not grow to love or respect these great men. On the contrary, in his book he portrays most of the prime ministers he was intimate with as vain, bullying, deceitful, paranoiac, unscrupulous and vengeful. But what is so strange is that for virtually half his life he lived with these monsters and never wrote a thing in his newspaper about what they were really like. He kept the lobby’s vow of omertà. Only after he had retired (and as it turned out only a year before he died) did he spill the beans. It is as though a war reporter had gone through the whole campaign from Omaha Beach to Berlin without apparently seeing a single dead body.

Margach’s book came out the year after I joined the parliamentary lobby for the Spectator, and I suppose what I saw were the last glory days of that hermetically sealed organisation, with its fiercely imposed code of conduct. It was like getting an inside view of the papal curia before Vatican II. The novice was issued with a little booklet bound in maroon rexine entitled Lobby Practice. Its instructions read like a mixture of an etiquette book and a secret police training manual, now and then lurching into unnerving capital letters:

The cardinal rule of the Lobby is never to identify its informant … don’t talk about Lobby meetings BEFORE or AFTER they are held … Do not ‘see’ anything in the Member’s Lobby or any of the private rooms or corridors of the Palace of Westminster … Do not run after a Minister or Private Member … When a member of the Lobby is in conversation with a Minister, MP or peer, another member of the Lobby should not join in the conversation unless invited to do so … NEVER in ANY circumstances make use of anything accidentally overheard in any part of the Palace of Westminster.

The highlight of the lobby week was on Thursday afternoon after business questions, when we climbed a winding stone stair to a remote attic chamber to be given an unattributable, wholly deniable briefing by Red Leader and Blue Leader – alias the leader of the house and the leader of the opposition, or the other way round, depending on which party was in power. Under lobby protocol, these encounters never existed and the poison was never dripped into our ears, nor the kite floated, nor the lie broadcast. With the aid of a system like this, a politician could survive for years with a false public face, his real behaviour unguessed at by those who were not in the know.

We used to think of Neville Chamberlain, for example, as a stiff, misguided but relatively honourable man. Yet Margach reveals him to have been as slippery a manipulator of public opinion as ever made it to the top of the greasy pole. Throughout the Munich crisis he used threats and lies to coerce the press into co-operation. His fixer, the sinister Joseph Ball, had the telephones of the anti-appeasement MPs tapped. When Eden resigned as foreign secretary in February 1938, Ball put it about that the real reason was that he was exhausted and could no longer cope with the job. Chamberlain founded the Conservative Research Department to pump out propaganda on his behalf to such an extent that it became known as ‘Chamberlain’s private army’.

He was not the first premier to use devious means to mould public opinion and improve his image. It was Lloyd George who coined the maxim: ‘What you can’t square, you squash. What you can’t squash, you square.’ His press secretary, William ‘Bronco Bill’ Sutherland, had a reputation every bit as evil as that of Alastair Campbell or Gordon Brown’s frightful pair, Charlie Whelan and Damian ‘McPoison’ McBride.

Nor was it always the PM’s press spokesmen who dripped the poison. At the time of Suez, Eden’s spokesman, William Clark, was startled to get a call from the Tory whips’ office suggesting that he might hint that the rebel MP Sir Anthony Nutting was ‘terribly under the influence of his American mistress’. I am not sure whether this was better or worse than Campbell’s ultimatum to Robin Cook that he must choose between his wife and his mistress. In any event, Clark resigned soon afterwards, complaining that ‘news management’ had become ‘news invention’. Even the young Queen Elizabeth was moved to remark to her press secretary: ‘I think the basic dishonesty of the whole thing was a trouble.’

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