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Business Comment

Anthony Hilton: Discomfort and excitement at Lord Mayor's banquet


Being invited to the Lord Mayor's annual banquet where he hosts the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Governor of the Bank of England has always aroused mixed feelings. On one hand there is the excitement of rubbing shoulders with the great and the good and being present in the Mansion House for one of the great set-piece occasions of the City. On the other is the sheer discomfort of the experience.

Though now black tie, 30 years ago it used to be a white tie affair – a style of clothing which is uncomfortable in itself, and almost unbearably hot when worn under the glare of television lights for hours on end. It helped temperature control that it took place in November rather than June. But only a little.

The experience was occasionally made worse because junior reporters tended to get parked way downtable with a minder from the City Corporation selected for his dislike of journalists.

That in itself could make for a long evening, but it was worse because in those days there were four speeches, from the two guests mentioned above, plus the Lord Mayor of course, but also from the Chairman of Lloyd's of London, the insurance market. Between them they could drone on for easily 90 minutes, a long time to sit cross-legged. These days it is a much more comfortable and civilised affair.

Not always though. The most amusing was in 1997 when Gordon Brown on his first appearance insisted on wearing a "democratic" lounge suit, as did all his team like Ed Balls and Ed Miliband. The splendid exception was Margaret Becket, the-then Secretary of State at the Department of Trade, who showed what she thought of such posturing by wearing a glittering evening gown of such splendour it would not have been out of place had she been wearing a tiara.

And the most disgraceful dinner was four years ago, when to distract attention from the bad economic news in the speeches, Downing Street leaked to the BBC that Sir John Gieve, Deputy Governor of the Bank, had been fingered as the fall guy for the Northern Rock affair and was about to resign. The premature leak meant that a very decent man had humiliatingly to compose a rushed resignation statement between courses on his BlackBerry, watched by the room who had all heard what was happening via theirs.

One final, mischievous point. The speech from the Chairman of Lloyd's got dropped in the 1990s after the insurance market narrowly avoided bankruptcy and suffered a series of scandals which showed some of its senior people had lost their moral compass. Does that mean George Osborne should worry about his invitation for next year, I wonder?