9.45 in the morning and the black door at the side of Number 10
swings open to allow us inside. We are here for the Prime Minister’s
monthly press conference, which this time around has already been
denounced as a shameless attempt to upstage Gordon Brown’s speech.
Whether cock-up or conspiracy, the scheduling fuels the story that
dominates the press conference and which will dominate the coming
An hour of occasionally tetchy questions and answers is relieved by
the Prime Minister raising the vest issue; a newspaper has claimed that
if the PM is wearing a vest it’s a sign of flagging health. “I’m
waiting for you guys to ask me about the vest,” he says. “Do you tuck
it in your underpants?” somebody shouts. “There are bad precedents for
that,” he shoots back. Is that non-denial an implicit acknowledgement
Another cryptic clue for lobby journalists to decipher.
our fourth day on air with the new Five News and for our main bulletin
at 5.30pm I am live outside Downing Street. As part of the interview we
plan a little stroll to take me from the door of Number 10 to the door
of Number 11.
As usual there are some government cars parked in
the road and I make a quick request to see if one of them can be moved
to help our shot. A government driver obliges. “I see what you’re
doing,” he winks. “Number 10 and Number 11, Blair or Brown. Which one
are you backing? I’ll tell you which one we’re all backing… ” He
looks over each shoulder like a comedy conspirator and whispers:
Since it is recess, and a Friday Westminster goes doubly quiet, I
head to our base in Osterley. The Five News newsroom sits in a new
unit, which will soon also house Sky News.
At least our bit is almost complete. We no longer have to wear hard
hats to get to the studio and most of the windows are in. The great
advantage of the building site is the works canteen, which sells
industrial strength bacon sandwiches.
One of those at 10.00 am and you’re not hungry again until the next day.
night we lead with the new estimates of British dead from Jack Straw
and new pictures of the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami from Sri
Lanka. Already, the Sky News tie-up with Five News has proved its
value, providing us with a network of reporters and resources that we
could not have matched before.
My Saturdays now tend to be built around a cross-country meeting
somewhere as one of my daughters has discovered running. At a recent
competition I was stopped in my tracks by a gruff voice from under a
woolly Burnley FC hat. As well as being a runner himself, Alastair
Campbell has a son who runs at many of the same events as my daughter.
Instead of politics we talked about ropy knees and pulled muscles
(ours)n and personal bests (our children’s).
The event was in the grounds of a public school on a day of sharp
winter sunshine, and I remarked on the beauty of the parkland. The old
glint came back into the Campbell eye. “I don’t know,” he says “a place
like this just brings out the class-warrior in me.”
The Sunday papers confirm that the Blair-Brown fever is hitting one
of its periodic boiling points. Most of them run with a variation on
the theme, and the Sunday Telegraph leads with the Chancellor’s
supposed quotation that he will never trust the Prime Minister again.
In a BBC interview on the Sunday morning Tony Blair seems evasive when
the quotation is put to him. Sometimes I feel the Blair-Brown stories
are exaggerated – the Prime Minister’s inability to squash this one
immediately convinces me otherwise.
With an election approaching politicians find themselves having to
make sacrifices, and Michael and Sandra Howard have allowed us in to
watch them have breakfast. Both are hospitable but Mr Howard is clearly
more comfortable with a straightforward political interview than the
man-behind-thepolitician version we are after on this occasion. He may
be a volunteer in the coming battle, but his wife has more the air of a
conscript, albeit a very loyal one. It is plain she doesn’t enjoy many
of the duties that go with being the wife of the leader of the
opposition. She admits in our interview that she constantly worries
about “putting her foot in it”.
Unfortunately for me, she doesn’t.
The non-denial denials continue. When asked about his alleged
comment that he could never trust the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown will
only say “I’ve dealt with that”, when he quite plainly hasn’t. This is
the same form of words often used by the Prime Minister as a means of
avoiding answering a question directly. It comes from the same Number
10 handbook as “we don’t want to give a running commentary”, meaning
“we will answer this one when we’re ready”; and “I don’t recognise the
question”, which means “I won’t answer this one at all”.
Labour MPs may be annoyed with their leaders, but Prime Minister’s
Questions allows them to put that to one side and indulge in good
old-fashioned tribalism. They whoop and bellow at Michael Howard and
mock the way he elongates the “oo” in “schools”. Tony Blair also takes
the wind out of the Howard sails by giving a straightdenial of the
Brown quote. Conservative members look resigned. Visitors behind the
glass screen at the end of the chamber look bewildered.
The day ends with a flurry as Five News’s Stuart Ramsay breaks the
story first of Mark Thatcher pleading guilty in South Africa. That
evening the Conservative Party happens to be having New Year drinks.
“What about a Thatcher pleading guilty to being in a coup plot?” I ask
one of the Party top brass. “One for you to worry about?” “Oh, I don’t
think so,” he replies smoothly. “Definitely a personal matter.”