When political scheming is on the menu

The Chancellor's meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister highlighted the pivotal role of restaurants in recent history. Where better to carve up a rival or cut a deal?
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Indy Politics

A converted cow-shed on the shore of one of Scotland's most fertile sea-lochs may seem an unlikely venue for a meeting said to have shaped Britain's political future.

Gordon Brown and John Prescott: Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, 2004

By Paul Kelbie

A converted cow-shed on the shore of one of Scotland's most fertile sea-lochs may seem an unlikely venue for a meeting said to have shaped Britain's political future.

But the remote location of the Loch Fyne Oyster bar in Argyll must have made it seem perhaps the ideal place for John Prescott and Gordon Brown to discuss a Labour Government without Tony Blair at its helm.

Except that they were spotted (the security guards in dark suits and earpieces probably provided a few clues).

So, while the agreement between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to secure the Labour leadership in 1994 will always be associated with entrées at Granita, the north London eatery, it appears that a restaurant in Cairndow will forever be synonymous with the Prime Minister's demise - whenever that may be.

The meeting between the Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister, who are alleged to have conducted a 90-minute conversation in the back of a ministerial Jaguar in the restaurant's car park last week, has already gone down in political history as the "Loch Fyne Accord" or the "Oyster Summit" (they had to settle for the car park because the restaurant was full).

The pair were in Scotland for a special memorial service on Iona marking 10 years since the death of Labour Party leader John Smith.

Just as the sudden death of the late Labour leader had been instrumental in the Granita deal, the anniversary of his death is believed to have provided an ideal opportunity to discuss Mr Brown's peaceful succession to the top job.

And the venue was simply too romantic - and the parallels too stark - for the Treasury's denials ("silly gossip without foundation and completely untrue") to make any difference.

With sharply polished wooden floors, cosy tables and a light and airy atmosphere, Loch Fyne was somehow a more appropriate place then Granita for Prescott and Brown to meet. In keeping with the socialist traditions of the Labour Party Loch Fyne is owned and operated by its 100 employees who show no fear or favour to anyone.

The most expensive dish on the menu - a seafood platter of crab, langoustines, oysters, mussels, queen scallops, crevettes, cockles and clams - costs just £25 and their most expensive wine is a £39.50 bottle of champagne. Yet the restaurant has a world-famous reputation attracting celebrities such as Robbie Coltrane, Clint Eastwood and Dustin Hoffman.

Situated on the main tourist route between Glasgow and the picturesque town of Inveraray, the luxury seafood restaurant is a popular and convenient stopping point for thousands of visitors from around the world each year.

"Unfortunately we were really busy that day, as we are every Sunday, and couldn't offer them a table," said Virginia Sumison, marketing manager.

"We have a policy of treating everybody the same. We have turned Dustin Hoffman away twice because he hadn't booked."

Unable to find room at the inn the two men were forced to return to their ministerial car, but only after Mr Prescott bought some kippers from the adjoining shop. That's where they were spotted deep in conversation.

"The first we realised anybody important was here was when some security men in dark suits came into the restaurant," Ms Sumison said.

"I don't know how long they actually stayed in the car park, we were too busy to notice. They came in separately but we couldn't offer them a table. Mr Prescott bought some kippers but Mr Brown left without buying anything.

"Obviously it's been great publicity for us but I don 't think anybody's going to come here just because those two met in the car park. However, it has reminded a few of our home delivery service [clients] to renew their orders."

A member of staff from the Oyster Bar, who did not want to be named, confirmed that the two MPs had come into the seafood shop to buy fish, but she understood they had come in separately.

"I was not here, I was actually on my lunch break, but the two girls that were working said they saw them. It was very busy, there were a lot of people in and we certainly didn't see them in a car or anything.

"They did not come into the restaurant and have a meal. They just came, bought their bits and pieces and left."

Tony Blair & Gordon Brown: Granita, 1994

By Ben Russell

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's dinner at Granita has become a legendary piece of New Labour folklore.

The two men met over modern Mediterranean fare at the Islington grill, fashionable at the time, in the week after John Smith's funeral in 1994 to decide the future of the Labour leadership and, as it turned out, the country.

Their meeting was the last in a series of clandestine meetings in restaurants and kitchens around London which led to Mr Brown standing down in Mr Blair's favour in the race to succeed Mr Smith.

Their arrangement was sealed in a pact, the full details of which remain the subject of speculation to this day. The two men dined at a corner table in the austere surroundings of the restaurant in Upper Street as Mr Brown told his friend that he had decided to step aside. Blue wallpaper was on the walls, but no tablecloths adorned the blond wood furniture as they ate two courses with white wine. The food seems to have been lost in the mists of time. Hints that the Islington classic of rabbit and polenta were on the menu were scotched by the restaurant's former owner. Mr Blair was a regular customer at the restaurant near his former home. Mr Brown is thought to have eaten little; he left Granita for a second dinner at the Rodin restaurant in Millbank to meet his close supporters and plan his tactics for retreat after his fateful decision. Granita itself closed last September, but the political drama spawned by its most famous pair of customers goes on.

Kim Jong il and Jiang Zemin: Quanjude, 2004

By Leonard Doyle

When the North Korean leader Kim Jong il made a secret visit to Beijing this year to discuss his nuclear stand-off with the US, the public only learned of his presence when he was snatched on camera emerging from the famous Quanjude Peking duck restaurant near Tiananmen Square.

Jiang Zemin, the Chinese leader, hosted Mr Kim, who has a reputation for appreciating fine food while millions of his people face starvation.

Chinese officials were so concerned about his security that the restaurant's staff were replaced just for this meeting.

After the two-hour meal Mr Kim was seen walking with the Chinese Vice-Premier Huang Ju and Vice-President Zeng Qinghong.

Symbolising the gap that has opened between the two countries since China moved away from doctrinaire Socialism, the Chinese officials wore business suits with fashionable ties while Mr Kim wore an open-collared military-style tunic. Mr Kim, 62, appeared cheerful and energetic.

At this stage China was still refusing to confirm that Mr Kim was even in Beijing, despite various reports and much tangible evidence of his presence. But after he left by train the official Chinese media rushed out reports about the "unofficial visit".

There was little evidence of a breakthrough on the nuclear issue. What is known is that Mr Kim told his hosts that he wanted a peaceful resolution to the crisis prompted by his country's nuclear programme.

Jacques Chirac & Gerhard Schröder: Schadt, 2001

By John Lichfield

In January 2001 Franco-German relations were at their lowest ebb in half a century. President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had quarrelled at the Nice EU summit the previous month about many of the issues still vexing European governments - voting weights in the Council of Ministers; how to run a larger European Union.

M Chirac decided that it was time to try a little gastronomic diplomacy. He invited Herr Schröder to dinner at a celebrated choucroute (sauerkraut) restaurant in the village of Blaesheim, close to Strasbourg airport, in the heart of Alsace run by Philippe Schadt.

The French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, was also at the table at the Schadt restaurant, a celebrated but modestly priced eating place on the "Sauerkraut route".

On that night the three men ordered the house specialities - sauerkraut of course, preceded by foie gras en brioche.

If the eating was heavy going, the meeting was - against expectations - a diplomatic triumph. M Chirac and Herr Schröder agreed that France and Germany had no choice but to agree. They put aside their differences and arranged a series of six similar, monthly meetings.

These encounters, informal chats rather than full-scale summits, have come to be known as the "Blaesheim process". (The "Schadt process" would have had an unfortunate ring in German, as well as in English.) This friendship - real or forced - which began over sauerkraut helped rebuild the Franco-German alliance and laid the basis for the stand taken by Berlin and Paris against the Iraq war.

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair: Le Pont de la Tour, 1997

By Ben Russell

Sir Terence Conran's flagship establishment overlooking Tower Bridge was the scene for one of the headiest moments in New Labour's euphoric first days in power as Tony and Cherie Blair, the new occupants of No 10, entertained Bill and Hillary Clinton to dinner.

The party supped a complementary bottle of Bollinger 1989 as it examined the menu. Mr Clinton ordered seared rare tuna and roast wild salmon while the Prime Minister, just 30 days into the job, had roast stuffed squid followed by roast leg of rabbit.

The men drank beer; Mr Clinton picked a Red Stripe while Mr Blair drank Czech lager, before joining their spouses on wine for the rest of the three-hour early evening meal at the end of a day of talks and political showbiz in the spring sunshine.

The Blairs and the Clintons sealed no dramatic deals at the encounter, but it will remain as an enduring image of "cool Britannia" during New Labour's glossy first days in power. Sir Terence was at the restaurant, in the Butler's Wharf development in Southwark, to greet his powerful guests before they sat down, surprising other diners but giving them a story on which to dine out for years to come. The bill for four came to £300, described as "amazing value" by the food critic Egon Ronay.

The atmosphere, in the optimistic days after Mr Blair swept to office, was said to be "electric". Relations between British and American leaders were less fraught with danger in those days.

Wellington and Blücher: La Belle Alliance, 1815

By Stephen Castle

Few imms have provided the backdrop to such momentous events of European history as La Belle Alliance, which lies outside the village of Waterloo, a suburb of the Belgian capital, Brussels. On the morning of 18 June 1815, the inn became Napoleon Bonaparte's headquarters for the battle that was to mark the end of his military domination of the continent.

Napoleon had amassed 125,000 men and hoped to strike his opponents before the numerically superior British and Prussian forces could combine. Fighting raged all day until eventually the French were routed, and Napoleon left the field to sign his second abdication.

French casualties were about 32,000, the British and Prussian allies lost about 23,000 men.

By the evening La Belle Alliance was the centre of activity again and a meeting there was to shape perceptions of the battle that brought about the demise of Napoleon. Here, the victorious Duke of Wellington met his Prussian ally General Blücher von Wahlstadt at about 9pm. It was the arrival of the 40,000 Prussian troops in the late afternoon of a long, hot, day that ensured success for Wellington in what was a finely balanced conflict.

According to legend, Blücher suggested the battle should be named after the inn that had been at the centre of the fighting. Wellington, however insisted on a different name - the Battle of Waterloo - because his headquarters had been in the village of that name. Thus La Belle Alliance became consigned to the status of an historical curiosity, and is now the rather improbable home to a disco.

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