Six years ago this week, I went to dinner with four friends. Three were journalists: James Lyons, Sam Coates, Tim Shipman. The fourth does something else; I’m not going to drag him into this tale.
Dinner was in the Blue Boar, a cornerstone of Westminster entertaining and then, as now, the sort of place you bump into all sorts of political people.
Which is exactly what happened that night. A senior person in the orbit of David Cameron passed our table. Spotting us, the person stopped to chat, gossip and trade information. Business as usual for Westminster, though what happened next was a little out of the ordinary.
First, a bit of context. This was May 2013 and Cameron was struggling with backbench Tory discipline. That month, 114 Tory MPs had rebelled to force a debate on an EU referendum, angry that the Queen’s Speech did not commit the Coalition to hold such a vote. There was also a significant Tory rebellion over gay marriage, though happily that reform passed the Commons anyway.
But that was not what the person (I’m going to call them that throughout this piece – get used to it) who stopped at our table wanted to talk about. In the first instance, they wanted to talk about Ed Miliband’s Labour Party and in particular, its financial arrangements. I won’t rehash the conversation, but the essence was that the person encouraged us all to investigate and report on a particular arrangement Labour had made with one of its major financial backers; this was a theme Conservative HQ was keen to promote to the media at the time.
The point is this: the person was trying to feed tips to journalists. This was not a social occasion. It was a political operative doing what political operatives do. The terms of trade were never discussed, there was no conversation about ‘is that on the record?’, like you might see on TV or in a film: that’s not how it works.