We were all there - the big cheese political editors with their pompous voices, the spiky columnists with their sceptical expressions, the young BBC tiros with their "gosh, isn't this fascinating" fidgety body-language, the photographers and camera operators shuffling around the aisles on their knees like modern Toulouse-Lautrecs, the Tory spin-doctors beadily watching us watching them, a triplet of Central Office Samanthas discussing sex and politics, and the Prime Minister - we were all there to
We were there because, in the words of the old First World War song, we were there. My fantasy, that Mr Major had commanded this large and paunchy assembly into existence for the purpose of announcing a snap election, was soon disabused.
This was, they told us, the first of regular series of such press conferences which would be held "before, during and after the next election" so there could be no misunderstanding betwixt PM and press corps on the vital matters of state. This was, of course, complete balls. Mr Major has had the best part of six-and-a-half years to discover this unique American presidential method of addres- sing the nation via its journalistic establishment. That he has done so within weeks of a general election suggests a more brute imperative than a sudden desire to be properly understood. It is because (goes the theory) the more we see of good ol' John and the less of Howard, Bottomley et al, the more likely we are to say, "you know, it isn't so bad after all".
And the great thing about Mr Major is that he is promising nothing. I don't mean that he is not promising anything; I mean that nothing is what he is promising. Take the hereditary peers in the House of Lords, permitted to cast their votes in the second chamber of parliament by virtue of their ancestors having lent their mistresses to Charles II - "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", said Mr Major. The principle of hereditary entitlement was "no more odious than appointment en masse by the Prime Minister". Does this mean that a Tory fifth term will see quango appointments made inheritable, as in czarist Russia? Anyway, said the PM, most people preferred the Lords to the Commons, which he was in favour of reforming - by starting the new term in the spring, rather than in the autumn (even if it is broke - don't fix it).
This was so underwhelming that I began to toy with ideas for fanfares to accompany this presidential exercise. I had got as far as "Hail to the Chef", followed by "The Snot-Spangled Banner", when the subject lurched on to Mr Blair's views on beggars. Aggressive begging was indeed a problem, the PM was declaring, hadn't he said so first?
I looked around: there were red tear posters around the hall, and red tear handouts in the arms of the Samanthas, all carrying one simple message: give us yer vote or the Reds will steal yer dosh, rape yer granny and break up yer country. Yes indeed, Mr Major knows all about aggressive begging. In fact, he's basing an entire election campaign on it.