When Kimberly met Dominic (and other conspiracy theories)

As the well-connected recipient of the story about Blunkett and that visa, Dominic Lawson found himself part of the Fleet Street rumour mill. He tries to set the record straight with Simon O'Hagan

Everyone in Fleet Street thinks they know how The Sunday Telegraph managed to lead the way last week with its revelations about David Blunkett, Kimberly Quinn, and Quinn's nanny's visa. Quinn publishes The Spectator. The magazine is part of the Telegraph group. The editor of The Sunday Telegraph is Dominic Lawson, once the editor of The Spectator. It's obvious, isn't it. Quinn and Lawson. Old mates. See each other all the time. She feeds him stuff. And there you have it. World exclusive.

Everyone in Fleet Street thinks they know how The Sunday Telegraph managed to lead the way last week with its revelations about David Blunkett, Kimberly Quinn, and Quinn's nanny's visa. Quinn publishes The Spectator. The magazine is part of the Telegraph group. The editor of The Sunday Telegraph is Dominic Lawson, once the editor of The Spectator. It's obvious, isn't it. Quinn and Lawson. Old mates. See each other all the time. She feeds him stuff. And there you have it. World exclusive.

Except, according to Lawson, it wasn't like that at all. "We're not friends," he said one morning last weekat the paper's Canary Wharf headquarters. "Our relationship scarcely exits. I didn't work at The Spectator when Kimberly was there. I have had one lunch with her - years ago." He confirms that a report that Quinn and Lawson lunched together three days before his newspaper broke the nanny's visa story was wrong. It never happened.

"There is no reason why Kimberly's friends should talk to us," Lawson says. "There's nothing sacred about The Sunday Telegraph. It could have been The Daily Telegraph, or another newspaper. Her friends were free to talk to anyone. It is not my story. It's like most stories. You take charge of the operation, but there were several journalists involved."

Lawson will not be drawn on the question of how both his own paper and the News of the World had the story of two Sundays ago of Blunkett's move to establish paternity of Mrs Quinn's son, and of the child she is pregnant with. Amid reports that The Sunday Telegraph fed the story to the NoW, he merely offers that Stephen Glover's interpretation of events in this week's Spectator is inaccurate. What Glover wrote was that "The Sunday Telegraph was at pains to suggest that the NoW had the story first, but this was not the case." The clarity is mud-like.

For Lawson, the story of the nanny's visa was a cracker - but for one thing. It had the potential to land him with a personal embarrassment. As The Sunday Telegraph acknowledged - albeit in a single paragraph more than 2,000 words into the background piece on pages 16 and 17 - Blunkett has always been prepared to use his powers to help friends or acquaintances, and one such case involved Lawson himself.

"Last year," the piece revealed, "when Rosa Monckton, the wife of Dominic Lawson, the editor of The Sunday Telegraph, discovered she had forgotten her passport as she was about to board a ferry to France, the then political editor of the newspaper, Colin Brown, telephoned Mr Blunkett to find out whether she would be able to travel without it. Mr Blunkett's private office tried to assist, although in the event it was unsuccessful."

Naturally Lawson's mind went back to the passport episode when the story of the nanny's visa came his way, and "I was fairly convinced that if we ran this story the next thing I would read in the Daily Mail would be, 'Didn't Blunkett do a favour for Dominic Lawson's wife?'" Lawson will have made life easier for himself by coming clean, but after his own attempt to take advantage of a connection to the Home Office, how could he then point the finger at Blunkett?

"First of all," Lawson says, "a Home Secretary is a man with power. The question is, should that power be exercised for his own personal benefit or not? If it is, then that seems to me to be wrong. The second point is, I am not beholden to the people. I am not paid by them. If you're a cabinet minister, you are."

Lawson, who is about to turn 48, has just entered his tenth year at the helm of The Sunday Telegraph, making him one of Fleet Street's longest-serving editors. The paper is losing circulation - down 3.5 per cent year-on-year - but Lawson can still point to the fact that at 689,000 copies a week it is selling hardly any fewer than when he took over in October 1995. Merely surviving in the job that long counts as an achievement, so how has Lawson done it? He pays tribute to his staff, reeling off a string of senior names who he says would all be eminently capable of doing his job, before expounding his theory of editing.

"I think on the whole that editing is a trade, which means you learn it as you go along. None of us has passed any exams. It's just about experience. And one gets gradually better. I think I'm a better editor now than I was five years ago. Because although the joy of editing is that every week is different, there are patterns. It takes a while to realise this and then you understand more how to deal with certain events which may not be identical to previous events but bear similarities. You learn from your mistakes."

And which of those spring to mind? Lawson cites the time that the paper was sued by Colonel Gaddafi's son after it accused him of being behind a currency sting. Because of who it was, Lawson says, "perhaps my vigilance was weakened". The two sides settled after only one day in court, "but it taught me a lesson".

While the normally irrepressible Lawson is in rueful mode, let's talk about Iraq. His paper was all for the invasion. Now it reports events in a tone of bitter resentment. Shouldn't it be offering up a New York Times-style mea culpa? "It's a fair criticism of our approach to the intelligence," Lawson says. "Our mistake was in believing what we were told. There is a sense in which we were duped. If you feel you have been duped, then you are more cynical."

Come the general election that is expected next spring, Lawson will surely find that he is backing the wrong horse again. He thinks another Labour victory is "very probable", but he compares where the Government is in 2004 to the Tories in the 18 months between the end of Margaret Thatcher and the 1992 election. "It's clear now that even though the Conservatives won the election, they were already in their death throes. A new Labour government will be rudderless. It's riven by conflicting internal ambitions, and that will continue with greater intensity with Blair's as-it-were abdication pre-announced."

After a Tory leader whom The Sunday Telegraph controversially scorned in Iain Duncan Smith, Lawson welcomes Michael Howard, "not a close friend, but a friend". As an editor with the writing urge, Lawson has conducted two long interviews with Howard in the past 13 months. Pity then that Howard has made so little impression. "I don't think he has the sort of personality which a modern electorate will instantly and intuitively warm to," Lawson says. "But he has other strengths. I hope he manages to persuade people that they are real."

What then of Lawson's future? Ambitions to edit The Daily Telegraph are often spoken of, and when ownership of the group passed to the Barclay brothers earlier this year, that seemed to be the moment. Sir David Barclay is on record as having described Lawson as a "very good editor", yet, somewhat surprisingly, Lawson has still to meet either of the brothers. He deals with Aidan Barclay, Sir David's son. "I think that's their style, and I think it's healthy. The one uncertainty is it's not quite clear what sort of resources the group as a whole will have. Since the middle of the year there has been no proper marketing budget for the paper, so it's been important for us to produce scoops. I simply don't know what the next year will bring."

The advantage of this is that Lawson has freedom from proprietorial interest, and in that respect stands wholeheartedly by Conrad Black, the paper's disgraced former owner. "There's a great fallacy called the unity of the vices which holds that if someone is bad in one area they must be uniformly bad. It's simply not true. Human beings are far more complicated than that." Meanwhile, Lawson says, "I can think of a number of things I'd like to do, but I don't particularly want to discuss them. And I am lucky that I have something here that is very special."

It remains to be seen whether Lawson moves across to the daily, but more than is the case with most people he has been made aware of the randomness of fate. He was speaking in the week that a cousin of his wife, the financier John Monckton, was murdered. "I'm not a great one for looking back, or for looking forward," he says. "You never know what's going to happen. My mother died when she was 48. I had a sister who died when she was in her mid-twenties. It's foolish to assume that you've got a great deal of time left."

THE LIFE OF LAWSON

Born: 17 December 1956

Family: son of Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer; brother of writer and broadcaster Nigella Lawson

Educated: Westminster and Oxford

Career: Researcher BBC (1979-81); Financial Times 1987-90; deputy editor of The Spectator, 1987-90, Editor 1990-95; Editor of The Sunday Telegraph, 1995-

Author of two books on chess and a history of Britain in the 1980s

Married: to Rosa Monckton. Has two daughters

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