And so to Blackpool. But how? Train: disgracefully expensive, probably delayed, full of broadsheet journalists (apart from the Independent), possibility of being jumped in the buffet carriage by a beaming Richard Branson dispensing pork pies. Car: long, boring, held up by roadworks and impoverished Independent journalists in jalopies. Plane: ten minutes from Canary Wharf to City airport, no queues, prompt 40-minute flight. And, most crucially, via Manchester. Now, I won’t labour the football in a rugger bugger’s bible, but the last time I went to Manchester was in May to see Arsenal win the double in Sir Alex Ferguson’s backyard. Better than sex? It was better than hearing that my great friend Cherie Blair had endured a bad trip to the hairdresser and emerged with bright-red dreadlocks hours before Tony’s big speech. ‘United fan?’ I asked the cab driver. ‘Ermmm …yes,’ he replied with that unmistakable new air of hesitant-Mancunian disillusioned despondency. The 40-minute ride to Blackpool flew by after that. ‘Ever thought of using your taxi to get Lauren Blanc up for corners?’ Silence. ‘Diego still Forlorn?’ A tut. ‘Keane had his lobotomy yet?’ Shake of the head. I did give him a big tip, though. ‘Go on holiday next May.’ Oh, how he chuckled.
Party conferences are wonderful things. All those drunken, vile, backbiting, hypocritical, sneering, self-interested, amoral creeps together in one heaving cesspit. And that’s just the journalists. It’s the one time every year when politicians confirm with their own eyes that the fourth estate, which so loves to expose their ghastly peccadillos, is just as ghastly as they are. My first conference was the Tories at Bournemouth in 1994. The News of the World, under my new editorship, had recently exposed Alan Clark’s affair with that judge’s coven, and I arrived to find him haranguing some of my executives in a disturbingly animated way. ‘Alan,’ I said firmly, I’m Piers. You can either punch me or buy me a pint.’ He stared, bemused yet intrigued, for 20 seconds. ‘Right, pint first, punch almost certainly later.’ Eight pints later, he’d decided on his legal settlement. ‘For the distress you’ve caused my wife, £10,000. For the distress you’ve caused me, £10,000. And for the distress you’ve caused my sons, £20,000. I can’t look at them in the face after you said I flashed my knob at gay parties.’ I considered my position. ‘Well, that’s a bit on the pricey side, Alan. I’ve got a better idea. You give me £50,000, and we won’t disclose the other nine women who’ve told us they had affairs with you.’ Long pause. ‘Nine women …God …what were their names?’
The big question at conference is always who’s up and who’s down, who you talk to and who you pointedly blank. And who, after midnight in the Imperial, you embrace like a long-lost brother …or just smack in the face. The behaviour of the more insecure ministers and Labour lickspittles depends entirely on whether they think ‘TB’ currently likes you. The Daily Mirror’s less than on-message approach to TB’s foreign policy has left me about as popular as a brain surgeon at a Tony Banks for Mayor meeting. But I was given a most welcome and unexpected boost by GQ magazine who’ve just declared me 7th Most Powerful Man in Britain. I know, I know, ridiculous, isn’t it? Where’s Prince Charles? Or the chief of defence staff? Even I, the ‘biggest Mirror ego since Robert Maxwell’, according to Monday’s Guardian, was a bit taken aback to be squeezed in-between Blair, Murdoch and Dyke. But, hey, who cares? Next year I’ll probably be sacked or in jail. Today I’m right up there, and what joy to be had flashing seven-finger salutes at Alastair Campbell (no. 56) as he roars past in the Prime Minister’s motorcade.
Major and Currie ranks with Elvis Dead and Man on the Moon, doesn’t it? I’ll certainly never forget the moment my newsdesk rang at 2 a.m. last Saturday with the immortal ‘Are you sitting down?’ Well, yes, I was comatose, actually, having ironically spent the night with James Major. He was oblivious to his father’s impending plight as we debated Major senior’s chances of a dramatic comeback to save the hapless Tories from Iain Duncan-Stupor. I always thought that Major was at it. His suicidal ‘Back to Basics’ speech reminded me of those American evangelists who make millions preaching family virtue, then tearfully deliver the inevitable ‘I have sinned’ apologia to a stadium full of shocked disciples. And, just as they make even more money from falling off their puritanical perches, so Major will see his currency soar as a result of Edwina’s sensational disclosures. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s lined up Martin Bashir already for a ‘There were at least three of us in this marriage, and it’s suddenly got rather clouded’ mea culpa. The blue-rinsers will love him even more, the MPs will all think ‘Good old Johnny – fancy that!’, the hacks will snort with laughably hypocritical derision, and Norma will sit at home wondering why she didn’t tell him to shove his peas up his grey Y-fronts years ago.
Times editor Robert ‘Thommo’ Thomson was suitably smug about his salacious Major scoop, and quite rightly. I don’t care how much he paid for it, or if Edwina’s a bitch who shouldn’t be given space for her treachery, or if it’s just titillating old rubbish designed to sell newspapers. The truth is that it’s one of the best bits of gossip in years. Everyone here is talking about little else, and there are some times when you just have to doff your cap to a fellow gutter journalist and say, ‘Good on yer, cobber.’
The beauty of conferences is that you never know who you’ll bump into next – literally. Walking down the promenade on Monday, I felt this large arm bustling me out of the way. It was Gordon, marching like Maximus Aurelius to the Imperial. To his right, Ed ‘Buster’ Balls, to his left Sue ‘£50 million and rising’ Nye. By his side, the lovely and very smart Sarah Brown. They’re a formidable quartet. Clever, confident, nice to the press and kind to unsung backbencher stalwarts. Tony Blair’s a good guy doing a reasonable job. When we met for tea last week he was the same courteous, pleasant, impeccably mannered man I first met in 1994 – despite all the brickbats the Mirror has chucked at him recently. But his own private army is now consumed with utterly self-defeating hatred for the media, overbearing arrogance that they know best, and total disregard for anyone who’s off-message or who can’t be of immediate help to them. This doesn’t help Blair, it hurts him. But who’s going to tell him?
Piers Morgan is editor of the Daily Mirror.