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.

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