Journalists in a feeding frenzy as tables are turned

Whatever else you might say about the Referendum Party, they keep a good table. And provide absorbing conversation to go with it, writes Paul Routledge.

Lord McAlpine, confidant of Baroness Thatcher, Sir James Goldsmith's most high-profile defector and bon viveur, entertained the press to a sumptuous dinner in the luxury Thistle Hotel on Brighton sea-front.

The wine was a Mouton Grandet, 1995 - "French wine made by Australians" the label declared confusingly. There was a choice of white or red. His lordship stuck to water, but it loosened his tongue all the same. "We are in unknown territory," he confessed. "There is a body of support. How big we don't know. It is a pure gambler's situation."

As he warmed to his theme the courses came and went. For starters,crown of melon with dainty wedges of pink grapefruit. For main course, a ranch- buffet of whole sirloin, spare ribs, poussin and jacket potatoes. "From the sea" came cold salmon, smoked trout and shellfish. More choice came from the Chinatown table: Singapore rice noodles, special fried rice, sweet and sour pork, chicken satay and sliced beef in black bean sauce. If you had any room left there were five different salads. The British press wolfed it down. Two French journalists declared it "awful".

Lord McAlpine toyed with a baked potato, throwing out gems between sips of water. On Sir James: "What you see is what you get. I think the man is quite brilliant. He has an immensely original mind. He looks at things differently."

On himself: "I regard myself as an eccentric. You can decide whether I am mad or not." On the Tory Party chairman: "I wouldn't see Brian Mawhinney if he was the last man living in London."

Lord McAlpine, dressed in a loud blue and red checked wool suit that would have looked well on a clown but was clearly expensive, was bonhomie itself. If his party made a clean sweep in the general election, he said, they would call a referendum on Europe and go home. "But then we'd have to run the country!" he chuckled.

As glasses of Mouton Grandet were drained around him Lord McAlpine grew ever more expansive. He had already admitted on television that the Referendum Party's intervention could hand power to Tony Blair. Would he like that? "No, most certainly not. I would feel very cross with John Major. All he has to do is give a referendum."

Nor does he see an early demise for his party. "We have to go on because we are committed to this aim," he insisted. "We will go on fighting until it is rendered unnecessary."

It was time for black cherry cheesecake or mango and chocolate mousse, washed down with coffee. Traditionally, journalists have to feed the politicians, not the other way round. Whether he gets his referendum or not, Sir James Goldsmith has broken the mould.

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