'Rumpole of the Lobby' collects his final scoop: Colin Brown on the retirement of Chris Moncrieff, a parliamentary institution

JOHN MAJOR, Tony Blair and half the Cabinet united on the terrace of the House of Commons this week in celebrating the departure of one of the great institutions of Parliament.

The retirement of Chris Moncrieff, 62, the political editor of the Press Association, means the Commons will never be quite the same again.

He has seen leaders come and go, Governments collapse, and great careers end in tears, and for three decades, he has stood in the members' lobby taking down quotes from the MPs as they passed.

His greatest 'scoop' came when the Government used him to leak the Solicitor General's letter in the Westland affair, to discredit Michael Heseltine; it resulted in the resignation of Sir Leon Brittan from the Cabinet.

Denzil Davies resigned from Labour's front bench early one morning by telephoning Mr Moncrieff at home. A quote from another MP immortalised Michael Foot's donkey jacket at the Cenotaph.

Many of the MPs became household names as a result of a comment to Mr Moncrieff. There was a Moncrieff cast, the 'rent a quotes', who could be counted on for a comment on anything from the shape of the 50p to the weather. At one of his many retirement parties, he told how one MP had given him a quote as the MP tumbled out of the strangers' bar, late at night. Mr Moncrieff was telephoned in the early hours by the MP, who had been asked to go on BBC radio. He could not remember what he had said, and wanted to know whose side he was on.

Mr Moncrieff's lived-in face, with suit to match, has earned him the reputation of the Rumpole of Lobby. If he had not existed, he would have been invented by Dickens, one of the first lobby correspondents. He has a Dickensian turn of phrase, and enjoyed 'imbibing' until 10 years ago when he became a teetotaller.

He was also fond of clapping senior politicians on the back and shouting: 'How the devil are you?'

Politicians on all sides, from Tony Benn to Theresa Gorman, regard him as a straight, no-nonsense reporter, with copybook shorthand, and no 'angle'. He was born in Derby but brought up a few doors away from Sir Bernard Ingham, the former press secretary to Baroness Thatcher. 'Bernard still thinks I'm a Yorkshireman,' he said.

He arrived at the Commons in January 1962, and has never left it. Even after retirement, he will still be around the place, doing obituaries for PA. His fondest memories are of Lady Thatcher's premiership. His saddest task will be updating her obituary. 'Someone who read it, said to me, 'I didn't know you were in love with Margaret Thatcher',' Mr Moncrieff said.

Watching the photographer taking Mr Moncrieff's portrait, Tom Pendry, the Labour MP, said: 'He'll never retire.' He was probably right.

Mr Major fondly remembered an incident during an official visit to the Great Wall of China.

He said: 'Suddenly I looked back and there was Chris heading down the Great Wall of China, wholly out of control, hair flying, jacket flying, book held out in his hand, running as fast as he could, unable to stop, heading straight for the edge.

'As he went past I put out my hand and stopped him, and I thought for this act of mercy he would say thank you. But I misjudged the great man. He stopped, he looked up, and he said 'Can I use this story?' '

(Photograph omitted)