Conference is 10 minutes late but Alan Watkins is still deep in page 4 of The Sun, where the erotic entanglements of Piers Merchant, MP, and his 17-year-old nightclub hostess are minutely chronicled. " 'I asked whether he liked being handcuffed for sex,' " Watkins reads out, in a pop-eyed, bless-my-soul delivery perfected by Kingsley Amis. " 'He seemed very enthusiastic about the idea.' Hmph. Tories up to their usual standards, I see."
"TORY MP IN STRAIGHT SEX SCANDAL," says Frank Johnson. "Now that would be a story."
"I don't know," says Petronella Wyatt archly. "It sounds like perfectly straight sex to me."
It's 10.40 am in The Spectator editor's first-floor office, although the word "office" hardly describes the large, ramshackle room, somewhere between the waiting-room of a private dentist and the study of a Christchurch literature don. The carpet is ancient, the drop-leaf table covered in magazines is battered, the sofas have seen better days, the chairs come from a variety of Terence Rattigan plays. The editor's desk is a colossal affair, an awesome barricade the size of a small tank. Round the fireplace, books are piled, the topmost one surmounted by a copy of Sir James Goldsmith's campaign video. This is The Spectator, est. 1828, venerable, comfortable, high Tory, the voice of shire and suet pudding, a bastion of sense whichever way the political tide is washing. But it's also The Spectator that told the world about the Queen Mother's teeth, caused a cabinet minister to resign, recently slapped an interview with the Spice Girls on the cover, and enjoys a reputation for skittishness, like a school matron with a taste for Pimm's.
"This girl's been helping him with his research at the Commons as well as being a nightclub hostess," says Johnson admiringly. "Rather a polymath." He is a compact, well-fed-looking man with sharp features and seriously grey hair. His suit is memorial-service black and seems two sizes too big for him. He talks in a hushed, ironic, conspiratorial mutter, as if briefing an escape committee. His left hand moves constantly up and down as if conducting a chamber orchestra.
"Next week I think the [Nicholas] Farrell piece on race violence, blacks versus Asians," he says. "Or a generic cover depicting Tory chaos. Michael, I want you to come up with some conceit, something from Hieronymus Bosch or Weimar Berlin ..." Michael, on the sofa, is Michael Heath, doyen of cartoonists, epateur of modern style excesses and wearer (today, anyway) of a spectacular black frockcoat, like a Trollopian bishop on holiday. He wears a look of fathomless contempt.
"Unless we get something from Oldfield ..." says Petronella Wyatt. "In which case ..."
"Then we make that the cover," says Johnson. Petronella explains they've been half-promised a feature by the fashion designer Bruce Oldfield, about what it's like having the Princess of Wales for a customer.
"Let's assume it's still coming," says Johnson. "I'd like you to concentrate on the chaos cover, Michael." Heath's lip curls upward. Johnson pulls a couple of A4 sheets towards him. "Niall Ferguson's written a piece saying how people tend to vote Tory when things are going badly and Labour when things are going well. It's quite good. He goes back to 1906, when, of course ..." "That's all very well," says Petronella Wyatt, "but last week Niall said the stock market was about to crash." Ms Wyatt curls herself into the upholstery looking pleased with herself. The Forces' Sweetheart of right-wing journalism, she is dazzlingly pretty, if weirdly dark. Her hair is a lustrous raven hue. Long black lashes settle over her huge brown eyes like giant tropical moths. Ms Wyatt has an article in today's Telegraph defending the single working girl against those who would try to marry her off, and her clothes (grey two-piece suit, fishnet tights) sneakily combine the professional and the nubile. The magazine's 28-year-old assistant editor, she looks as if she's en route to an agreeable lunch at Coast or Bank.
Another article: Roy Jenkins on how elections were run in the past, how you once had a whole week to vote, how you would know the results coming in from elsewhere. "It explains the high incidence of landslide victories," growls Bruce Anderson. "It applies all the way from the Second Reform Bill to the Second World War," the editor concurs. There are many such discussions, of this historical event, that precedent or political crux, of what Gaitskell said or did to Nye on Tuesday March 29, 1958. Watkins and Johnson enjoy this game, occasionally joined by Bruce Anderson. The latter, a burly Scot in a pin-striped suit and wildly clashing tie, is a political analyst of famously brutal demeanour, crushing in argument. Where his colleagues will cross-refer dates and parliamentary bills, he will recite a litany of historical names and compare them derisively with the current bunch.
"I think our readers would like to read Roy, but they wouldn't be too keen on campaign minutiae," says Johnson. "Is there a picture in Dickens of the Eatanswill election?" His attention to pictorial detail - in a magazine which (apart from cartoons) has only one picture slot - is touching.
The talk turns to corruption. "There's a great human wish to feel you're being manipulated," says Watkins, who is turning more and more into Dr Johnson.
"The young love reading about it. They like to think the spin doctors are getting at them."
"Not our readers," says Johnson.
"It's Mandelson and those awful young men with mobile phones," grates Anderson. "I believe," opines the editor, "they hang out in the Groucho Club, boasting about how important they are." He waves a decisive hand. "Let's do something next week on these awful Young People."
"Maybe something on their clothes ...?" muses Petronella, missing the point slightly.
"Anything else non-election?" asks Johnson, looking around the room. "There's Victoria Mather doing a Way We Live Now piece," says Petronella, "on English people going to the Bahamas and, you know, patronising the locals ...". Books? The literary editor, Mark Amory, is sitting on the floor in a symphony of clashing blues and a pair of crushed-raspberry socks. A man of infinite geniality and tact, he rattles through the 10 reviews that will fill much of the magazine's back half. Who's doing the Middle East book? (asks Johnson). Amory tells him. "It's quite a boring review," he says sadly, as if discussing an elderly servant gone to seed. There's a silence. "If it's a boring review," asks Johnson, "couldn't we ...?" Marcel Proust would have been hard put to describe the tone of regretful politesse in the room, as the fate of a reviewer hangs in the balance. "He only does about one a year for us," urges nice Mr Amory. "As many as that?" snarls Johnson but he has clearly relented. Alan Clark's name comes up. It's on the cards that the prospective candidate for Kensington & Chelsea may be doing the much sought-after Diary slot next week. "First he was going to, then he stood down last week," says Johnson crossly. "He's spending Easter in this place in Scotland that sounds like a made-up African country ..."
Liz Anderson, arts editor, is interrupted, in the middle of explaining about the Hogarth tercentenary, by an editorial fiat.
"Do you think," asks Johnson, "someone might do a piece saying, That's enough Impressionists? About how they represent the most bourgeois taste of the 1990s, where once they overturned bourgeois taste in their time?"
Petronella Wyatt screws up her pretty nose. "Who are these bourgeois people who're so keen on Impressionism?" She sounds as if she hopes she doesn't know. "Oh, they flock to it," says Johnson airily. "All of 'em. Who's this bloke who did one picture of people walking in the street with umbrellas?"
The meeting looks at each other. Renoir? "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg"?
"Caillebotte," says Johnson firmly. "Only did one picture that was any good. A complete one ..." - he subsides. One-hit wonder? One-trick pony? One Flew Over ... - "one-song singer," concludes Johnson. "We need someone to write about it."
"Maybe one for Paul?" says Bruce mischievously. "Paul" as in Paul Johnson, though his dislike of modern art extends more to Picasso than to Degas and co. Ms Anderson promises to get "one of her people" to do the editor's bidding and trash Gustave Caillebotte, who was accorded a tiny 20-painting retrospective at the Royal Academy exactly a year ago.
"Now," says Johnson, "those who don't have any interest in the election, please go."
There's a general rush for the door. The political rump - Johnson, Anderson, Wyatt and Watkins - is joined by deputy editor Anne McElvoy, a vision in green satin, her face a blaze of freckles and eye-shadow. She is only 29. (The Spectator seems oddly reluctant to employ anyone in their thirties and forties). The discussion hits politics. Johnson, Anderson and co consider the latest poll figures, shake their heads, and draw conclusions as heartlessly as a pollster. They discuss the effect a stock-market crash would have on the Conservatives; and whether the public actually believes a single word of Labour promises about tax. Frank Johnson sums up: "This election will be a vindication of High Toryism and a rebuttal of Marx. It'll show that the whole idea of 'economic man' doesn't exist. The people are showing in the polls that they just don't like Major and Co, even if they are competent. That they believe the Tories are full of sleazebags and want to punish them."
Two minutes later we're in a lengthy conversation about the Socialist threat, but one couched at playground level. "I think Labour are going to fulfil the Socialist agenda of pushing us around," Johnson begins. Alan Watkins tells an anecdote about being asked, by an NHS nurse, when he last had a tetanus jab; this is taken as a monstrous intrusion by the state into his personal life. The meeting declares that they are not keen on being "bossed about". It's more basic than any theory about state intervention. "I do think there are fewer bossy-bootses in the Tory party," says Bruce Anderson. Johnson recounts a tale of fare-dodging on German railway and his brutal treatment by a sociologist who asked if he were penniless or alcoholic. "All the energy they once put into building gas chambers," affirms Bruce Anderson, "now goes into asking stupid questions."
"I think it's the Hezza Twilight," says Petronella Wyatt. "I thought he was making a comeback, but ..."
"Okay let's do the twilight of Heseltine next week," says the editor. "Speaking of which, where's Jimmy?"
It's the signal for a hilarious flood of abuse of Sir James Goldsmith. "I don't think we should give that criminal the oxygen of publicity," says Bruce Anderson.
"We're still waiting for the nomination papers ..." says Johnson.
"Meanwhile all those videos come crashing through the door," says Anne McElvoy with feeling.
"We must look at the Real Presence on the streets of Putney," remarks Johnson dreamily.
"The Corporeal Body ..." murmurs Anderson, pursuing the divine imagery with relish.
"Putney has this huge housing estate," says Wyatt. "I'm not sure if he realises it."
"The transsubstantiation of Jimmy ..." intones Anderson.
"Petronella," says the editor, suddenly businesslike. "I want you to find out when the nomination papers come through and go and see Goldsmith on his first day's campaigning."
"He'll have a fit when he sees me," says the minxy Ms Wyatt with a laugh. "I'd better wear dark glasses" - subtly implying that she's a friend of the family, of Jemima, of Imran, of a whole raft of Tatler-pages personnel.
"And you, Bruce, you're going on the road monstering Blair, aren't you?"
A low rumble comes from Anderson. "I intend to do that," he says with awful dignity, like an executioner interviewed about his resolve.
The meeting is suddenly over. The editor and his deputy are off to a cafe for cappuccino and Fernet Branca. Mark Amory is leafing through William Rees-Mogg's new book. Michael Heath stares at a line drawing with abject hatred. Jennifer Paterson has arrived to cook lunch, looking, in her crash helmet and motherly threads, like a cross-dressing quarterback. The sun streams into the garden. The Spectator family are at peace with the world. Disgusted with Tories but devoted to Toryism, ready to put up with Labour provided they're not too "bossy", they may not find the world as "perfick" as Pop Larkin; but in their sofa-strewn, donnish, Doughty Street capsule, it will never be less than perfectly agreeablen
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies