11 JANUARY 2003, Page 20


Frank Johnson on his debt to one of

the dominant politicians of the age

MANY of us cannot get enough of these reminiscences from the lunchers of Roy Jenkins. You know the sort of thing. 'I suppose I must have had lunch with Roy at least twice a decade. The last time was immediately after Labour lost the 1955 general election, just 47 years before his death. He told me that, in the forthcoming leadership election, he saw Gaitskell as the Asquith of 1916 to Bevan's Lloyd George, subject to the — as he put it — somewhat important proviso that Asquith (that is, Gaitskell) would beat Bevan (that is, Lloyd George).' As has been written several times since he died, he hardly ever lunched alone. Many of his lunchers have yet to write.

My own last lunch with him was, at my invitation, in Wiltons on election day. 2001. Apart from his being his usual marvellous company, I cannot remember anything about it. That is, other than — my not being on expenses — the bill. This was, after all. Wiltons.

But I remember as if it were yesterday when I first met him. It was as if I had known him for years. Vain though it may sound, it was also as if he had for years known me. Both of us, it seemed, had been students of each other's work. I had an excuse. It was the Crosby by-election of 1981. He was campaigning for the new Social Democratic Party. He had for years been one of the apparently dominant politicians of the age. He had less excuse for knowing my work. That he did so is one of the reasons why I have always thought him a much less serious politician than do others. I doubt whether Margaret Thatcher, the age's truly dominant politician, had read a line of my work. That was why Jenkins was such good company, and she Sc) much more dominant.

I do not think it too much of an exaggeration to say that Jenkins created me. To some, that may not be much of a creation. But it is to me. I like to think that it was to him, too. Before our first meeting, I had been writing about him on and off for nearly ten years. The first signed contribution I ever made to a national broadsheet ended with a passage about him. I included it years later as the first item in a collection of pieces published by Rob son. The book has long since disappeared from my shelves, as it has from the broader national consciousness. So I must rely on memory.

I prefaced the item saying that this was my first parliamentary sketch, and that it showed an early fascination with Mr Roy Jenkins. The sketch dated from the autumn of 1972. I had been working as one of the political reporters on the Sun. For reasons which I have never fully understood, but for which I shall always be grateful, the Daily Telegraph's editor, Maurice Green, had appointed me parliamentary sketchwriter after the period's best known, and best, sketchwriter, Andrew Alexander, had gone to the Mail. It could not have been for my Sun prose, still less my reporting. This was the time when the Sun did not attach much importance to all its political reporters as it does now. Green was much more broadminded than the average editor today.

How to make myself noticed? I thought of a way. Satirising right-wing Tories or Stalinist Labour backbenchers was commonplace. Bernard Levin had done it for a generation. But he revered anyone of Jenkins's opinions. By 1972, Jenkins was the educated class's most admired politician, probably its only admired politician. I, then, would satirise him. In any case, all around us, there were already signs that 'liberal reforms' sometimes created new abuses to replace those they reformed. Capital punishment's suspension. when Labour came to power in 1964, was instantly followed by criminals carrying and using guns. Sociolo gists explained that the one did not lead to the other. The guns had wider causes. I did not believe that. Robbers soon shot dead three policemen in a London street. Such a thing had not happened in London for at least a century. Jenkins was home secretary. He died some three days after black gunmen shot dead two black teenagers in a city he long represented in Parliament. Liberalism encourages certain evils just as Conservatism did. For evil is always with us — something which Roy, the complete liberal, probably did not believe.

would not wish people now to see the early results of what would be called a 'career move'. Otherwise they would rather cruelly satirise me. I did not quite go in for reflections on how someone whose 'r's' came out as 'Vs' pronounced 'rancour,' But it probably was not far off. I was young at the time. Over the years I like to think that the touch became more subtle. Soon, people approached me to say that they read me because of what I wrote about Jenkins. They were nearly always fools or brutes. They were not the sort of readers I wanted at all. Eventually I fled the Telegraph for eventually, the Times. But by then Mr Murdoch had bought it, so the fools and brutes followed me there. Jenkins had created someone who had never intended such a creation. I had only intended to denounce the measures, not the man; and not all the measures at that.

Then I met him. His authorised biographer, Mr Andrew Adonis, who is Downing Street's 'Head of Policy', writing in the Times this week, described the suitably moderate-sounding Pursuit of Progress (1953) as his 'first published tract'. It depends what you mean by published tract. I draw the authorised biographer's attention to the highly un-Jenkinsonian-sounding Fair Shares for the Rich which he wrote in the late 1940s. Even Roy, it seems, had a redistributive phase. At about the same time, Mr Denis Healey wrote a tract, Cards on the Table, denouncing the Soviet Union and thus indicating that he was no longer on the Left.

As one of the journalistic corps at Crosby, I told him I had read it, which I had not. 'Where did you acquire that item of juvenilia?' he asked. I said I could not reveal my sources, but was also reading Mr Healey's work. `Ah, yes.' he replied, 'what was it called? Feet on the Table?' He had made another luncher.

On to his own Hillhead by-election. One morning he told us he was concentrating on the constituency's 'nodal areas'. I told him I did not know what a nodal area was. He said I could always make it into a 'noodle area'.

'That's it,' I said. 'I'll say you're targeting Hillhead's Chinatown.'

He replied with something about it being too long since he had 'wandered in the maze of one of your extended metaphors'. Though he was 82, it is hard to believe that he will never wander there again except in my admiring, but unconvinced, memory.