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
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine