22 JULY 1995, Page 20


Larrikins, hobbledehoys and the North London Cocktail Circuit


The Bishop of Oxford was a happy man at the annual British Library party. 'Ho, ho!' he boomed at me. 'You media fellows certainly took a pasting in the Major elec- tion thing. And I tell my right reverend brethren in Christ that there's a lesson in it for the dear old C of E — in future we giiould simply ignore what the media tell us to do.' Quite right, Bishop,' I replied, 'though I hope you don't continue to ignore what Almighty God tells you to do.'

The bishop is one of a number of elite figures who appear to believe that John Major's 'victory' was scored over the Tory press as well as over John Redwood. It is the line taken by the broadcasting duopoly and the left-wing press, Guardian, Indepen- dent and so on. The flaw in the argument is that Major actually lost the election, having made sure of only 170 votes by the Tuesday morning. He only now clings to office by virtue of the 'corrupt bargain' he did with his bitterest enemy, Michael Heseltine, later in the day. This is the real stuff of raw politics and has gone unreported by the broadcasters and journalists who don't want to believe what happened.

Among those journalists is the curious figure of Sir Nicholas Lloyd. He was quot- ed by the Observer as boasting, 'It was the Express wot won it for Major', which rather implies that he had personally brokered the Major-Hezza deal. No such thing, of course: Major may welcome the support even of the Daily Express, and periodically invites Lloyd to a condescending drink at Number 10, but he does not share his confi- dences with the man. Lloyd, as I say, is an odd figure who does not quite fit into the Fleet Street rogues' gallery of archetypes. In the days when the Express was a great newspaper, its owner, Lord Beaverbrook, often rang it up late at night and bellowed, 'Who's in charge of the clattering train?' The answer today would be: 'A booby.'

The best thing about Lloyd is his wife, Eve Pollard, who has all the brains, style and guts of the family. She was running the poor old Sunday Express remarkably well when she fell foul of its pseudo-proprietor, Lord Stevens. I say 'pseudo' because Stevens, a sort of minute financial person of Welsh origin, controls the group while owning the merest sliver of its equity. He enormously values his invitations to Num- ber 10, and when Ms Pollard's vigorous presentation of the news put them in jeop- ardy, he squeezed her out. Meanwhile, her husband continues to toe the Major- Stevens line, whatever that may be, and the circulation of the Express continues to fall, faster than that of any other national news- paper on record. As a direct result, this week the Express announced that it would have to sack 15 per cent of its workforce. Some years ago, Lloyd asked me to write a column in his paper, and I agreed to give it a try because I felt sorry for him. But after a month or so I asked to be excused: no one I knew ever read the thing and it was like dropping pebbles into a bottomless well — no splash. It is now many years since I came across an Express reader, though such people apparently exist, albeit in rapidly dwindling numbers. The interest- ing point is that while the anti-Major papers have been consistently putting on readers, the few pro-Major ones, such as the Evening Standard, are losing them in droves.

Lloyd is a former editor of the News of the World, promoted, or perhaps demoted, to edit the Express, and he has a rather edgy attitude to journalists who he consid- ers have had more 'advantages' than he. In this he resembles Andrew Neil, who has a conspiracy theory about what he calls 'the Garrick Club Mafia'. Lloyd does not believe in that particular fantasy. He has one of his own called 'the North London Cocktail Circuit'. He thinks William Rees- Mogg is a member of the Circuit, and Dominic Lawson and Simon Heifer. Not only do I too belong to it but I 'spend [my] time there, high on champagne and zealotry'. I relish this vision of the Circuit, which in some ways sounds even more exciting than the Garrick Mafia.

'Where are you off to, old boy?'

'Well, Mr Dumpty - that certainly explains those nasty migraines.' The Circuit, of course.'

'Lucky you. What's on tonight — cham- pagne or zealotry?'

'Both, old bean.'

'I say.'

Alas, alas, I never set foot in North Lon- don — or drink champagne — any more than I have ever belonged to the Garrick. It is a vague area for me, though I suppose I must have driven through it. I think Lloyd is confusing me, and the others, with the famous Henry Fairlie, who was a notorious seducer of young suburban housewives and who often boasted, 'I can get a hot-cooked supper anywhere in North London.'

The Left's rallying to Major is an inter- esting example of the maxim 'My enemy is my friend.' The operation of this impulse is powerful, as I rediscovered for myself recently when the French locked horns with Greenpeace. Much as I dislike Frog gov- ernments, I loathe Greenpeace even more and found myself raising a feeble 'Wye la France!' when its beastly boat was captured. Hatred of the Tory press operates in the same way. No one, not even Hugo Young of the Guardian, can actually admire Major for his talents or sparkling personality — but as a victim of the Tory press barons he has almost Baldwin-like sanctity.

Of course there are shrewder fellows who back Major for more solid reasons. Stewart Steven, the cunning editor of the Evening Standard, is a Labour supporter and is anxious for Major to remain in power as he is the easiest Tory leader to beat. Tony Blair thinks the same. Indeed, there are even rumours — perhaps origi- nating on the North London Cocktail Cir- cuit — that Major's triumphant Question Time just before the leadership election was made possible because Blair's office fed the Prime Minister in advance with the supplementaries Blair intended to put.

However that may be, we live in a degen- erate age. As the great Queen Elizabeth I put it in her twilight years, 'Now the wit of the fox is everywhere on foot, so hardly a virtuous or faithful man may be found.' But not everyone in John Major's corrupt Britain is a con-man or a twister, a larrilcin or a hobbledehoy. There are still politicians of honour on both sides of the house, and still more outside it, and it may be that their time is at hand. For those of us who want to get back to honesty and rectitude in British politics, the election cannot come a second too soon.