Lunch with... John Sergeant
John Sergeant is a journalist and broadcaster. He was the BBC’s chief political correspondent from 1992-2000. Memorable TV moments include being ‘handbagged’ by Margaret Thatcher in 1990 outside the British embassy in Paris, and dragging dance partner Kristina Rihanoff across the floor in Strictly Come Dancing.
A tiny, family-run restaurant nestled in a corner of suburban Ealing – home to a number of BBC journalists, including Sergeant, due to its proximity to White City. Its award-winning food makes up a sumptuous and diverse menu, and its famous wine list is formidably extensive.
Starter Carpaccio of sea bream; white asparagus and duck egg mayonnaise.
Main Sea trout with piperade, chickpeas and chorizo; Cornish cord with gem lettuce, fennel, pesto and sauce vierge.
Dessert Dark chocolate marquise with honeycomb; White peach sorbet with roast peach compote.
We drank Assyrtiko Cuvee 15 white wine (Greece, 2010)
Party conference mischief There was the enormous unpleasantness between Thatcher and Heath. Heath would usually insist on turning up for a day or two to conference, causing as much trouble as he could without giving the impression that he was.
He would install himself at the River House restaurant in Blackpool, and there’d be political correspondents there, including me. It was all off the record, but someone said to him ‘why do you think Margaret Thatcher’s doing badly as prime minister?’ He would say, ‘I don’t know, I’m not a doctor!’ And no one would report it, but it still gave you an extraordinary flavour of how much of a nuisance Heath still was to Thatcher.
And Thatcher was a nuisance to Major. She would arrive for the day, cause a good deal of mayhem, make everyone feel there were two leaders of the Conservative Party, and once that was established, she could then depart. It was quite extraordinary.
Today’s conference nuisances They’ve got Farage coming to talk at a fringe event at the Tory Conference this year. So there are plenty of ingredients there – how will they handle it? It’s just like having Heath there, or Heseltine. Getting Farage there – I find that really odd. I would have stopped that if I had been Cameron.
Then there’s Boris – he’s manna from heaven. He’s just got fun written on him, and that’s enormously important to the public, who are not interested in politics but they are interested in him.
Survival There are lots of party conference stories. One of them involved a lunch where Ken Baker, who was Tory chairman, amazingly invited the entire BBC staff, all the BBC correspondents, for lunch, at conference. They [the Conservatives] were having a really rough time, and he said ‘now what word do you think could be used to sum up this conference?’
So people were saying things like ‘forward-looking’ and ‘positive’, you know, all that sort of thing. And I just said ‘survival’. There was a gasp. Ken gave no impression at all about what he thought about that. But as he came out, he squeezed me by the arm and said ‘there’s nothing wrong with survival’. And that was really nice. Moments like that you realise the idea that you would suck up to them [politicians] or anything like that – no, no. You have a much better chance [as a journalist] if you can see it the same way as they can.
Alastair Campbell When I first came across Alastair Campbell, it was at the first conference Blair was speaking at. We had an amazing row, because I wanted some pictures of Blair before he arrived on stage; we wanted a departure shot or an arrival shot. Campbell couldn’t understand it, saying how I was ‘devious’, ‘up to no good’, ‘being manipulative’. And I just thought ‘oh God I’m going to have to work hard on this one’.
This was a tabloid journalist; he does not see that it’s not a matter of saying ‘no pictures’, it’s a matter of saying ‘what kind of pictures?’
Spin One thing you’ve always got to be careful of as a political journalist is how much are you prepared to go along with the spinning that’s going on behind the scenes?
A classic example was over Major’s ‘Back to Basics’. What he meant was ‘I just want to talk straight, I don’t want to be too modern’. But somebody at the briefing said ‘you mean in moral terms’ – no one’s going to sleep with anybody, and all that – whereas he didn’t mean that. So it was then turned into ‘right, no more messing around, says John Major’, and of course then, the moment that happened, all sorts of people, like David Mellor, starting having affairs, and even he [Major] was to have an affair.
The journalists and briefers are often working in cahoots, because both of them want a sensation – politicians would rather like the whole thing to be over, and nothing to happen. And some politicians can make a real mess of it, like Portillo did when he was defence secretary and he suddenly started quoting the SAS motto – ‘Who dares wins’. Well, people went mad about that. I was doing the coverage and I met a Tory I knew well and he said ‘isn’t that despicable? Who does he think he is? Imagine if you were a servicemen – I’d say “sod off”’, so we led on that.
Party discipline The party hierarchy slowly realised they were getting skewered by us every autumn [conference]; they were allowing people like me to run all over them. It was open season for us and they were the hunted. These were politicians on the run. And they took a long time to realise how dangerous this was. Mandelson played a big part in that [getting people disciplined]. He was a television producer, he knew about the power of the medium.
Hacks v politicians I can never forget the disdain poured upon reporters [in the past] – the assumption that reporters are stupid and ‘these things don’t matter’. I remember I was recently in Liverpool working for the One Show – and I actually started out in Liverpool as a reporter – and I was talking to someone and they asked, ‘which university did you come from?’ and so I said ‘I was at Oxford’. They said, ‘what did you study?’ and I said, ‘politics, philosophy and economics’. And they said, ‘why were you a reporter?’ They thought I could’ve done something better with my life.
I was reminded of the attitude of lots of people in the past that these reporter chappies were just ignorant. But the intelligence and the skill of the media, certainly compared with your average backbencher, is far more than anything they’ve ever achieved. Apart from anything else, they’re just chosen from such a small group. The idea that somebody with a PPE degree wouldn’t deign to be a reporter is amazing. So the whole balance between reporting skill and the politicians is utterly enormous [in favour of reporters], I think.
You get someone like Stephanie Flanders, or Nick Robinson, Andrew Marr – all of them could be in the cabinet. You wouldn’t be amazed. You wouldn’t say ‘she [Flanders] won’t make chancellor will she?’ You’ve got these formidable people, who are sometimes too clever, sometimes too confident, but they are amazingly impressive people… [So politicians] have got to know what the hell they’re doing. They’ve really got to have a very clear idea, and it’s hugely to do with discipline, party politics, a straight line – it’s like a war.
Cameron’s flaws A lot of what Cameron’s done shows he’s just not very experienced. He doesn’t seem to understand he shouldn’t be running around the world announcing things the whole time. He should spread it out among other members of the cabinet. It really is very old-fashioned governance – don’t be a one-man band. Cameron would do much better to go on holiday and shut up, and leave something to his cabinet – let them run free for a bit.
Because people then see all these characters, Theresa May, Eric Pickles, all these people. It’s taken him a long time to build any of them up. They should be giants. But he’s obviously so fearful of doing that, and then they realise it doesn’t help their careers.
He has no idea how much it reduces his authority… And now he appoints all these Old Etonians, which is terrible, just terrible. As Blair found and John Smith found, you need a Prescott. What about Pickles? It’s quite obvious. Bring him in and say ‘we’re mates’. Politics is all to do with ‘who do we appoint? What impression would that give?’… Cameron is more sort of PR, isn’t he? He should be much more tactical. Because they’re the things that are going to catch you out.
Heart attack with Thatcher I was with Thatcher in the ‘79 election [at a station] and somebody had a heart attack on another platform. She said ‘is there anything that I can do?’ This is what she would do – she would think ‘I’m from a grammar school, I’m head girl, I’ve got to decide what’s the best thing to do’ – it wasn’t to get headlines.
So she was quite ready to rush over to the person having a heart attack. And I don’t know how they [the people helping] did this but they said ‘look, if you’ve had a heart attack and you wake up to see Margaret Thatcher bending over you, it’ll be enough to finish you off.’ So she was gently persuaded not to take part. It wasn’t her being horrible – her instincts were correct.
Brighton bombing The Brighton bombing was a terrible occasion. I had a terrible cold, and the BBC was beginning to worry about all these stories saying how they were spending too much money, so we weren’t staying in the Grand, we were in the Old Ship a few hundred yards down, which of course saved us.
There’s a thing called the conference cold that everybody gets. It’s because you start the conference season often in bright sunlight on the seaside, and it’s an Indian summer, and then it always turns, often quite quickly – and that’s what produces the cold. I had it really badly that year. So I went to bed early.
When I woke up, I had no idea what was happening because nobody woke me. And I had to go on the radio to speak about it. I was probably the only person in Brighton who hadn’t seen Tebbit being pulled out of the wreckage because I hadn’t been watching the television. I can’t work 24 hours and get it all right all the time. I didn’t succeed. I was very embarrassed because I managed to miss that. I covered it but it was all a disaster.
9/11 I was with Tony Blair at the TUC Conference when 9/11 took place. He obviously knew he had to change his speech very quickly – I think it was delayed about 30 minutes. I was waiting for him to come on. He thought ‘right, I’m going to have to say more about this’ and he consulted a number of people, not including the foreign secretary Jack Straw. He contacted the ambassador in Washington who was then Chris Meyer. And he consulted Jonathan Powell. And I think that’s about it really – he certainly didn’t consult the foreign secretary. But he decided on his comment and it was ‘this is an attack on us all’. And that defined his whole premiership. That was a big moment; he was making a big choice.
Schröder and Chirac, his opposite numbers in Europe, sent their condolences but that was it. The response from Britain to 9/11 should never be underestimated. It’s now sneered at because Blair ‘lied to us all’ and is a ‘ghastly figure’ – well, he’s not to my mind.
We all then got on the train to go back to London and we were quite surprised that not only was Blair on the same train, but that various people in the Blair camp were coming down the train and asking, ‘what do you know?’ I only found out recently that the security people decided that Blair on the road was more of a risk; they didn’t know whether it was a coordinated attack on the West. So they thought ‘put him with the journalists, he’ll be safer!’ So Blair’s on the train with us – as if we could help him, which was ridiculous!
We were trying to listen to Radio 4 and things, we were used to that, they [the aides] weren’t, because they’d usually be in fancy cars with communications. Of course nowadays you’d have the internet. That was another conference moment.
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Mon-Fri, 3 courses for £19.95, Sat & Sun, 3 courses for £24.95