A relentless attack on new Labour by Conservative Party chairman David Davis at the Newspaper Press Fund’s annual lunch was interrupted by an angry outburst from a guest.
Former Financial Times sub-editor Jim French got to his feet as Davis was midway through his speech at the Savoy Hotel and declared: "I am not a Labour Party supporter but I cannot stomach party political speeches at this function."
French then walked out of the dining room to a smattering of applause from some of his fellow guests.
Davis shrugged off the outburst and ploughed on with his assault on the Government. He accused Labour of internal bickering, dithering, confused policies, producing hopeless outcomes, being control freaks and having an obsession with media management.
Davis was particularly caustic about Labour’s spin doctors and the circumstances that led to the resignation of Stephen Byers’ special adviser, Jo Moore. Davis claimed that civil servants needed a code so they could be protected from the influence of Labour’s political advisors.
He said one of the tasks of the Conservatives on returning to power would be to "end the climate of media manipulation".
Davis’s aides insisted that the NPF was aware that the party chairman was going to make a political speech. Previous speakers at the fund’s annual lunch have included Labour politicians Tony Blair and Betty Boothroyd.
But some of the guests sided with French and shared his view that the speech was too politically partisan for a charity lunch and had made virtually no reference to the fund.
One said: "It was ironic that he should attack spin doctors when he obviously needed one. He was badly briefed."
Carlton chief executive Clive Jones, the NPF’s 2001 appeal chairman, revealed that the downturn in the economy had hit fundraising efforts. Last year’s appeal raised £138,500, which was well down on previous years. The appeal was hit by the decision to scrap the London Press Ball in the wake of September 11.
Jones said last year had seen the biggest media recession since the war.
"It wasn’t an easy year. The money we raised was a fantastic result because when times become tough donations to charities always come under the cosh," he said.
Bill Newman, chairman of the NPF council, said the fund was planning to build a new care home and would be spending substantial sums over the next two to three years. He said that, over the past year, the fund had made grants of £210,000 to help journalists and their dependents. The average age of residents in the NPF’s sheltered accommodation was 78 and those in the residential home was 89.
"There must be something in the air in Dorking," he said.
By Jon Slattery