A feast of Dover sole, Chablis and a politician lightly grilled

How a quiet briefing in a Blackpool restaurant turned into a political storm
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The Independent Online
The Seafood restaurant in Blackpool yesterday was enjoying the notoriety of becoming the latest in a series of venues where the main course has been a politician, lightly grilled.

The politician concerned, Stephen Byers, followed the classic rules of etiquette for table d'hote with political journalists by eating the words attributed to him.

Mr Byers ruefully said he had learned two lessons from his dinner at the seaside restaurant with four lobby journalists.

"I have learned to be careful who I choose to have dinner with, and certainly not even express views about the developing relationship between the trade union movement and the Labour Party," he said.

The journalists shared the bill of pounds 160.15p for a feast of crustaceans, molluscs and Dover sole, washed down by a couple of bottles of Chablis. For the journalists the bill was worth it because they walked away from the table that night with a story which made the "splash" in three of the papers and a page two lead in the Daily Mirror.

Those present from the press were John Williams, political editor of the Daily Mirror; Roland Watson, chief political correspondent of the Daily Express; Jill Sherman, chief political correspondent of The Times and Jon Hibbs, political correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

The conversation was typical of the anonymous briefings which take place during the conference season between politicians and journalists. It is part of the parliamentary lobby system where kites are flown and hints dropped. Officially the sessions do not take place, the politicians were not there and even if they were, they did not say what they were supposed to have said. Reporters often add a touch of "top spin" to the stories, but it is rare for them to make it up, which is what Mr Byers seems to be saying in this case.

The evening began for two of the reporters in the Empress Hotel, a backstreet pub normally used by industrial correspondents in Blackpool.

In a move which was above and beyond the call of duty, Mr Williams and Mr Watson left the pub early - at half time during the Manchester United-Juventus match to be precise.

They caught a cab to the Seafood restaurant where they were joined by Mr Hibbs, Ms Sherman and Mr Byers.

At a nearby table in the 36-eater restaurant a contingent of BBC employees were blissfully unaware that their rivals were getting one of the biggest stories of the week. Such is journalism.

The Seafood will now have its named added to the long list of restaurants where politicians have been prepared to speak unguarded to journalists, providing it is off the record.

They include Luigi's, an Italian restaurant in Covent Garden, central London, where Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader, sprinkled over the pasta his thoughts about softening policy on abolishing the ceiling on National Insurance Contributions before the 1992 general election.

The disclosure infuriated John Smith, then Shadow Chancellor, and led to a round of traditional recanting. Mr Kinnock was proved right, and the Tories attacked Labour with the "tax bombshell" but by then, it was too late.

Granita in Islington, north London, has also gone into the political history books as the upmarket setting for the dinner between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, when Mr Brown decided to pull out of the Labour leadership contest.

Tory politicians have come unstuck over the hors-d'ouvres. Paul Channon, the former transport minister, was embarrassed when he was found to be the source for speculation of early arrests in the Lockerbie bombing case, after lunch with journalists at the Garrick Club in Soho.

Some ministers have grown so wary of the practice that they refuse to have lunch with journalists in packs. Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, has a tip for Mr Byers. If he dines with journalists, he does it one at a time.