Robert Thomson

Diary - 2 November 2002

The editor of The Times realises you can tell a lot about a politician from the way he treats bananas

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Editing a newspaper is not a dinner party, as Chairman Mao would have observed had he been running a tabloid, but you sure do get invited to dinners and lunches and breakfasts, most of which are politely turned down because there is a paper to publish and competitors to clobber mercilessly and ceaselessly. But, thanks to the influence of the peerless political-reporting team at the Times, some invitations arrive which can't be summarily rejected even if the reporters have to provide the verbal equivalent of subtitles by translating the lofty concepts or subtle intrigues being articulated by our hosts. So, it was clear on the eve of the Bournemouth conference during a dinner with Iain Duncan Smith that the next few days of speeches would mark a turning point for the Conservative party, even though it was obvious that he would lose his voice long before the delegates retreated from the seaside. With this insider knowledge, it was no surprise that IDS spent much of the conference sucking on lozenges, or that Theresa May, the party chairman, strode on to the stage in those striking leopard-print heels and lambasted her beloved 'nasty party'.

Over the past week, the highfalutin dining and the gathering of intelligence have been done in the company of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Do these invitations come in pairs? And who has the more sophisticated political palate? Food has been over-intellectualised - much as every football fan is now a student of philosophy and every act of gardening is an existential exercise - but there are lessons to be drawn from how people eat, even if the dishes are not prepared by a celebrity vamp or a ladle lad. Last Tuesday, the Prime Minister served a Moroccan stew, with green side salad, at No. 10, while the Chancellor provided a modern interpretation of the truck-stop breakfast at No. 11 on Thursday. The Prime Minister is a delicate eater, picking at small portions in-between comments, while the Chancellor generally exhibited admirable self-restraint, although there was one morsel moment of great significance. Being a reasonably well-travelled hack, I have had the privilege of seeing people eat bananas on several continents, but few have been as aggressive as Mr Brown, who swallowed the fruit almost whole, much as the defence budget consumes hundreds of millions of pounds without trace or as dotcom companies completely disappeared after having been worth billions a month or two earlier.

The Chancellor's remorseless attack on the banana was strangely reminiscent of the food fervour of Lawrence Summers, the former US treasury secretary, who impaled sausages with the Vlad-like passion that he showed in skewering ideological opponents. A mouth full of food was no obstacle to the flow of conversation - intellectual virtuosity was never going to be a victim of prandial protocol. Mr Summers - Larry to his economist friends - was touted as a genius, and so was excused any non-cerebral slovenliness, but Mr Brown does seem to be both a little smarter and somewhat more acquainted with the concept of table hygiene. In other words, the bohemian supply-and-demand charts don't quite work (i.e., the supply of supposed brilliance is in proportion to the demands on your goodwill).

What made the food particularly fascinating is that the conversations were off-the-record and, even though the Times is fond of publishing diaries and memoirs and the like, we don't eat-and-tell. Without betraying confidences, it is fair to say that the Prime Minister and his Chancellor were well-briefed and articulate, although we did see Mr Blair before he was betrayed by his very close friend Jacques Chirac over European farm subsidies. As for the single currency, the Chancellor's talismanic Five Tests will surely be applied, but if I were a habituZ of the local betting shop, I would place a small wager against a euro referendum being held in the coming year. Given the instability of the stability pact and the calcification of the Continental economy (when the words 'EU expansion' are used, few people make the mistake of presuming that you mean economic expansion), even Mr Blair's grand vision is beginning to blur. The celebration of collective idealism in Europe was a worthy cause, particularly when collective defence was a priority, but sacrifices are harder to make when your fellow idealist has become a crass individualist.

If we make too many comparisons between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, the invitations are unlikely to keep coming in pairs, but it is fair to say that Mr Brown has a more elegant dining-room and a better collection of art on the walls. However, even the elegant arches in his breakfast annex are no match for the vista from the Royal Society dining-room (tree tops to Westminster and beyond), while its ante-rooms have a Wedgwoodian dZcor so fine that you are tempted to tiptoe for fear of shattering the exquisite walls. The president of the society, Lord May, better known as Bob, explained over lunch on Thursday that he was planning to give a speech in which he would highlight the difference between fundamentalism and enlightenment. The enlightened, people such as yourself, consider all the arguments, whether it be the benefits of genetic modification or the fallibilities of religion, while the fundamentalists are so full of theological certitude that opponents are, well, definitely wrong and there is no reason to discuss the matter further.

I've decided to label as a 'fundamentalist' anyone with whom I disagree, while those who share my opinions are clearly 'enlightened'. For example, the media commentator in this parish, Mr Stephen Glover, is a stylish writer but utterly unenlightened. The Times is not a 'dumb' newspaper, but, for many years, has been adding layers of intelligent content, while eschewing the elitism that can be so personally satisfying for well-fed editors. The trick is to make difficult subjects accessible without turning trivial, and to provide tier upon tier of reporting, writing and analysis - in essence, there will be tiers before deadline. It is amusing to mock the opposition - the Telegraph for its totty, the Guardian for its self-hating socialism and the Mail for its malice aforethought - but these are serious papers put together by masters of the craft, even if all but a fundamentalist would agree that the Times and its journalists are vastly superior.

Listening to the enlightened Lord May (Sydney Boys' High School) use engagingly foul language, I did wonder if the Australian conspiracy is now complete. Apart from the Times, an Australian runs the World Bank and another is the chief executive of Coca-Cola, and British Airways has an Australian at the helm. Who would believe that this incremental revolution was plotted around a laminated table at a second-rate Italian restaurant in suburban Sydney at the end of the summer of 1979? If my memory hasn't failed me, I had the gnocchi.