Chris Moncrieff: So good they put his byline on the bar
He's outlasted seven PMs, been honoured by Guinness and interviewed Enoch Powell without socks. Now he's retiring - again? Say it isn't so, writes Colin Brown
Monday 29 October 2007
He is literally a legend in his own lunchtime: Chris Moncrieff, who has spent nearly 40 years bringing the country the biggest stories from Westminster, has had the press bar of the House of Commons named after him.
Unfortunately, even as lobby hacks at the new Westminster watering hole toasted his health last week, Moncrieff was in hospital for tests after complaining of breathlessness. Now well into his 70s, the man for whom "Lunchtime O'Booze" may have been created has told close friends that he may finally be ready to pack up his pen.
It is hard to believe. Moncrieff, the past political editor of the Press Association national news agency, retired some years ago but refused to fade away, and has kept on reporting Westminster in his own inimitable, orotund style, a cross between Mr Micawber and W C Fields. He may well be the first journalist to be honoured with his own bar; there is a remarkably accurate portrait etched in glass behind the pumps, back-lit in blue.
The irony is that Moncrieff gave up imbibing strong drink more than 20 years ago, and has been teetotal ever since. Today's young, thrusting and dynamic lobby journalists may not even realise that the shuffling figure clutching a pile of papers under his arm was once so famous for his love of Guinness that the brewers presented him with a single share in a frame.
He was once berated by Iain Paisley: "Mr Moncrieff," said Paisley, "is that the devil's buttermilk on your breath?" Stories about Moncrieff's drinking exploits used to be legion, the stuff that lesser souls would use to entertain each other in Annie's Bar, the plush MPs' and journalists' pub in the Commons where Moncrieff was a mainstay.
He went to the Falklands after the war on Lady Thatcher's victory flight – a drink-free RAF Hercules – armed only with his pen, a battered notebook and a double six-pack of Guinness. No raincoat was ever necessary for Moncrieff in his drinking days. He recalled later seeing Lady Thatcher at Goose Green sitting proudly on the saddle of a gun, encircled by squaddies. Never one with much of a sense of humour, she turned to the soldiers and asked: "Will it jerk me off?"
Reporting on John Major's first tour of China, Moncrieff, rushing to keep up with the Prime Minister's entourage, tripped and nearly fell off the Great Wall of China. Major caught him. "I actually couldn't stop myself and I was going to go over the edge and fall hundreds of feet into someone's collective farm," said Moncrieff. "But the Prime Minister, who's a great cricketer, fielded me like he was at long on or somewhere. He saved my life."
"I thought for this act of mercy," Major noted later, "he would say thank you. But I misjudged the great man. He stopped, looked up and said: 'Can I use this story?'"
Moncrieff had a glorious fund of Wildean tales, with which he would regale audiences in the stentorian tones of a chief barker. They often involved his frequent trips to the seaside for the annual party conference. "I was once thrown off a Blackpool tram because I hadn't the right fare for the ride," he once related. "As I alighted, the conductor screamed after me, 'Bloody Tories'." And on another occasion: "I climbed too many stairs to my room late at night. In the morning, I could not find my things. Then I realised I had slept in the wrong room on the wrong floor."
Lamenting the loss of Blackpool to the political conference season, he wrote: "There is a condition in this town known as Blackpool Barmaid's Blindness. Even if you wave wads of £20 notes in their faces as you plead for a drink, they just ignore you and you have to go elsewhere to quench your thirst... The politicians do not like Blackpool for the very reason that I love it – it is not hi-tech enough for them. But it has what no other town has – fresh air and fun."
Once, while waiting to interview Enoch Powell, he popped into a coin-op laundry and put his socks into the washer. They were still whizzing round when the politician returned to his house. Leaving the socks to wash, Moncrieff put his shoes back on and dashed to the great man's front door for the interview. During their fireside conversation, Powell paused: "Mr Moncrieff, where are your socks?"
Never one to mix views with news, he has been cherished by MPs from all sides for his straight reporting and reliable shorthand. Moncrieff was responsible for making household names of otherwise obscure backbenchers, such as Tony Beaumont-Dark, a pipe-smoking Tory MP from Birmingham, by reporting their comments on any subject of current interest.
Some of these backbenchers were regarded as "rent-a-quotes", but Moncrieff was always on hand to give their views a wider audience. He was also the first man they would turn to in a crisis. It was Moncrieff who took the late-night call from Denzil Davies announcing he was going to resign from a shadow ministerial post. The news was often out before MPs could sober up and change their minds.
Moncrieff viewed Margaret Thatcher with something approaching adoration. His PA obit for her is rumoured to begin with the words, "She bestrode the world like a Colossus". The feeling was mutual – Thatcher often praised his tenacity.
Moncrieff has never written his memoirs, but produced a history of PA called Living on a Deadline. He was born in Cherry Tree Hill, Chaddesden, in 1931, the son of a scientist. When he was six, the family moved to Station Road, in Borrowash, Derbsyhire. "To my great shame I went to the Moravian Girls' School. My parents sent me there because they didn't think the council schools were good enough and there were no other suitable ones around. There were other boys there, but it was still very embarrassing."
The family moved to Halifax when he was 12, and despite his parents' wish that he become a lawyer, he decided he wanted be a journalist. He secured his first post on his local paper in Harrogate, covering local fetes – the bread and butter of the grassroots reporter – before moving on to the Coventry Evening Telegraph and the Nottingham Evening Post.
He joined the Press Association in 1962 in London and was soon despatched to Parliament, where he stayed, outlasting a succession of seven prime ministers. He was the chairman of the Press Gallery for its bicentenary dinner, when he introduced Tony Blair as the guest of honour with a host of stories. Blair said that, on becoming an MP, he soon realised that Moncrieff was the "gateway to the nation" and the one journalist that mattered.
"When I was still a new MP I had to ring him from abroad," said Blair. "It was 11pm my time and I didn't realise it was 3am in London. When he answered the phone, I said who it was and he replied, 'Chris Moncrieff here, pen in hand'. No, said Moncrieff, he didn't mind being rung at three in the morning. That was typical of him. Chris is just one of the most remarkable people I have met in any walk of life."
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