The high price of a free lunch

Kenneth Clarke is just the latest in a long line of politicians who have ended up in the soup

The lighting was discreet, confit of duck was on the menu, the atmosphere was congenial. Seated on a sofa bordered by elegant honeyed panelling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was chatting amiably to two BBC political correspondents.

Twenty feet away in the pounds 50-a-head Chez Nico at No 90 Park Lane, Labour's environment spokesman was lunching with another BBC man, political editor Robin Oakley.

From where Frank Dobson sat, Kenneth Clarke may have looked like a man who was simply enjoying a good lunch and an expansive chat, but he had just fallen into a trap which had ensnared several of his fellow-politicians in the past.

Mr Clarke was telling Mark Mardell and Jon Sopel that he and a number of middle-ranking ministers would resign if the Government changed its stance on Europe. Within 24 hours, he was to be forced to deny that he had any intention of doing so.

The only exceptional thing about the meal was its three Michelin stars. Politicians enjoy meeting journalists not only to pass on stories but also to hear gossip about their colleagues and - crucially - themselves.

But if Mr Clarke had read his history before he went to lunch on Wednesday, he would not have had to look back far before he came across a cautionary tale.

The most recent example of dinner-table disarray happened a couple of months ago at the TUC conference in Blackpool, when Labour's Stephen Byers told journalists over Dover sole at The Seafood Restaurant that his party wanted to weaken its links with the unions.

"I have learned to be careful who I choose to have dinner with," he said ruefully the next day after being projected on to several front pages.

This culinary tradition goes back much further than that and is a dish frequently eaten with side-orders of obfuscation and denial.

In March 1989, the then transport secretary, Paul Channon, professed himself to be "astonished" by reports that the police were close to identifying the terrorist who planted the Lockerbie bomb. The Lobby journalists who had just met Mr Channon in the Garrick Club were equally bemused by his protestations of innocence.

They could hardly have been surprised, though. Only 10 months earlier, Neil Kinnock had beaten a similar retreat after a lunch with The Independent at L'Amico, near Westminster. The paper had reported that Labour was about to accept the Nato nuclear umbrella. Despite subsequent denials, days later he was telling the BBC that there was "no need now for a something- for-nothing unilateralism".

Mr Clarke may have been forced to eat his words yesterday, but there may not be too many more puddings served at Chez Nico before they are proved to have been true.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk