Lord, what fun we had at those lunches!

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
LORD Northcliffe's dining-room, while not as big as Mussolini's, had quite as many manholes leading straight down into a concealed dungeon. After his lordship's death, two dozen half-remembered journalists and politicians were found down there. Many of them had arrived expecting a hearty repast, only to be dispatched before the serving of coffee and petits fours.

Under my benevolent Chairmanship of the Daily Mail, our weekly luncheon has maintained the doughty tradition of such robust delights. Invitations to break bread with Arnold and his award-winning team of fine writers have long been prized among senior politicians. Harold Wilson was a frequent visitor, reminding us roguishly, after one lengthy luncheon, that he intended to sue us for a six-figure sum the next afternoon. But later that same day, he instead chose to resign the Premiership. Nobody ever knew why, though rumour had it that an award-winning team of top writers had assembled convincing evidence that he was a paid-up transvestite, secretly dressed under direct orders from a high-class Moscow couturier.

Our luncheons at Northcliffe House were legendary for their informality. Indeed, if any politician proved insufficiently easy-going - for instance, in the matter of affably "dishing the dirt" on his close colleagues - he would risk not being invited again. But of course I was always a stickler for table manners, and was determined that no guest should ever pick up his knife and fork before myself or my proprietor. Every now and then a senior politician would forget this golden rule, and we at the Mail would feel obliged to mete out the justice we felt his due; among past offenders, Jeremy Thorpe, John Stonehouse and John Profumo spring to mind.

Despite our strong editorial line, we always maintained good relations with the Labour Party. Over a second brandy, Jim Callaghan, for instance, would roar with good-hearted mirth at our description of him in that day's newspaper as "a liar, a thief and a no-good rotten scoundrel", and was only too delighted, upon arriving back at Number 10, to discover that I had deputed our chief sub-editor to pin the legend "Kick Me" on his derriere.

This amiable tradition of luncheons was, I believe, of mutual benefit to both ourselves and the Labour leaders. From their point of view, they would receive a nutritious free lunch, washed down by some of the finest wines - all way beyond their own meagre pockets, I might add - and from our point of view we could sight the enemy close-up, in preparation for a mortal wound between the eyes come election time.

But when Neil Kinnock became leader of the Labour Party, all this was to change. Early on, I invited him to join us for luncheon at a convenient date. Curtly, he replied that there were no convenient dates. Accompanying a sympathetic response, we enclosed cuttings of our famous editorials over the years, Aneurin Bevan, Arthur Scargill, the Kray Brothers and Joseph Stalin. Perhaps, we suggested with uncommon courtesy, Mr Kinnock would like to reconsider.

I waited six months, and tried again. He lost the election. Again, we sent him an invitation. And again he snubbed us. A few years later - after the Daily Mail had exclusively exposed his plans to set trained rottweillers on every white British woman over the age of 30 - he lost another election and was summarily dismissed by his party. I like to think he now regrets his rudeness, and that, given another chance, he would agree to break bread with his friends at Northcliffe House, but who knows?

When John Smith took over, normal luncheons with Labour resumed, though I found him immoderately defensive towards the gentle proddings of our Political Staff. "OK, fatty four-eyes, so what scandalous atrocities against ordinary decent Britons have you got up your sleeve, then?" asked our Political Editor, pleasantly, but Smith came over all huffy, and departed well before the brandy.

By contrast, Tony Blair radiates good table manners, but he has not yet wholly convinced us that a Labour government would crush the unions, restore much-needed money to the better-off and withdraw welfare hand-outs from everyone up to - but not including - our Royal Family. But give the fellow time. "Might we even urge our readers to vote Labour at the next election?" I mused aloud to our proprietor yesterday. And do you know, I thought his Lordship would never stop laughing.