Feral beast? Badge of honour!
I hadn't even had my first livener of the day in the Press Bar. (But then the poster that greets you when you walk in there these days offering "Sicilian summer rosé" is enough to put you off alcohol. Well, almost.)
It was 11.10am when the Downing Street email dropped in my inbox. "Prime minister's lecture on public life at Reuters," it said.
Lecture? Now I know we didn't come into the lobby to listen to politicians make speeches, but I was curious. I flicked on the TV and there he was. "It's not a whinge about how unfair it all is," he pleaded.
Now why is it that when a politician says he's not whingeing you instinctively know that the next 20 minutes are going to be one long whinge?
Is it because after more than a quarter of a century in the lobby, four prime ministers (nearly) and seven Downing Street press secretaries (Ingham, O'Donnell, Meyer, Haslam, Campbell, Smith and Kelly) some of us are a tad cynical?
Ah yes, cynicism. It wasn't long before he was moaning about that. I counted at least three mentions of the word in the space of a couple of minutes mid-speech.
Then came the priceless gem, which reinforced why our dear, departing prime minister has been one of the great comic talents of his generation. The Blair definition of the modern media: "It's like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits."
You could hear the guffaws of laughter from every office along the Burma Road corridor in the press gallery.
I was on the floor, legs in air, like the Cadbury's Smash men in the TV advert. "Oh prime minister, you are a wag! Stop it, please! It's hurting!"
I was just about back on my chair when he ended his rant by saying: "I know it will be rubbished in certain quarters..." He set me off again. I almost fainted in agony, I was laughing so much.
I just about made it to the bar, breathlessly, before a family-sized heart-starter, followed by another one... and another, helped me regain my composure as I wiped away the tears of mirth.
Feral beasts? We all chortled as Clive topped up the pre-lunch stiffeners. Surely not? Tame pussy cats, more like. And, piped up one clever so-and-so, isn't "feral beasts" a tautology? Probably, we concurred.
Cynical? Us? So it was the media who got Peter Mandelson into bother over his mortgage and passports, was it? We told Jo Moore to write her "good day to bury bad news" memo, did we?
We encouraged David Blunkett to have a fling with that posh totty from the Spectator, did we? We tipped off Cherie that Peter Foster was just the sort of chap to get a good deal on some flats in Bristol? We called in the cops over cash-for-honours, did we?
Call me old fashioned. (All right, you're old fashioned.) But if most lobby correspondents had gone to their editor and said they had a great splash about how this evil dictator in the Middle East had these weapons of mass destruction that he could launch on Britain in 45 minutes we'd have been told to go and have a lie down, cut out the third bottle at lunch and go and find a proper story.
It was only because Mr Blair and the No 10 spin machine did the sexing up on that story that it got into the papers at all.
Down on the terrace - where the Pimm's and champagne from the pavilion bar helps to clear the head after lunch, I find - there has been much banter between Labour MPs and lobby hacks about he PM's speech.
"Feral beasts and proud of it!" we all declared. "Badge of honour!"
"Raw nerve?" countered one gloating Labour MP. "You can dish it out, but you can't take it," said another.
"Rubbish," I retorted. "We've been called la crème de la scum. And, don't forget, we put the 'as' in gravitas."
Labour MPs would never admit it, but their beloved Tony (beloved now he's quitting in under a fortnight) has had a much easier ride from the media than John Major or Neil Kinnock.
Norma Major once complained to a group of us on a foreign trip how beastly we all were to her husband. "Oh, no," we all said, innocently. (All right, perhaps not innocently.) "You should see what we do to Kinnock."
We didn't do a bad job on Major, though. Who can forget the lobby's spectacular turning over of both Major and his press spokesman, Gus O'Donnell, on his notorious Tokyo trip. (Not that his painful experiences as Major's press secretary have done his career any harm.)
We stitched the PM up magnificently over his off-the-record comments about Tory rebels (who can forget the "flapping of white coats" jibe) during a Saturday evening reception at the British embassy, as I recall.
Some of us (so they tell me!) took a full shorthand note of his sad bleating about his troubles when he came back from his first class seat to steerage to talk to us on the plane.
Every word went into the papers the next day. One lobby correspondent's tape recorder played a blinder too ("a few apples short of a picnic") as he lambasted his Tory tormentors once again as he prepared for a TV interview, with the great Michael Brunson, I think it was.
And, as for Kinnock, some of the lobby's finest hours came on his disastrous Washington trips, one to see Ronald Reagan and the second, George Bush Sr.
On one trip we were all filing from the phone booths behind the briefing room in the White House. (Facilities, incidentally, which in those days made the Press Gallery look palatial.)
The White House press corps, a vegetarian bunch of toadies who wouldn't last five minutes on the political staff of a Fleet Street newspaper, gasped open mouthed as they overheard the lobby's finest discussing how to report the Kinnock humiliation. For it was a humiliation, naturally, otherwise we wouldn't have been sent 3,000 miles to cover it.
"Gee, you guys play by different rules," said one naive White House correspondent. "Yeah," snarled one of our group. "There aren't any."
We "feral beasts" now lie in wait for our next prey, Gordon Brown. Blair's "more spinned against than spinning" plea was so ludicrous because he tried to take on the media and ultimately lost.
I hear Gordon and his No 10 press secretary, Mike Ellam, are planning big changes. One that will be welcomed is abandoning the pointless trek to the Foreign Press Association for the 11am lobby briefing.
You need a swift one in the Red Lion on the way back to the Press Bar after that hike. There's also talk of the Friday afternoon briefings for Sunday papers - axed by Alastair Campbell a few years ago - being revived.
Talking of Alastair (well, he does all the time, so why shouldn't the rest of us), I wouldn't mind betting he wrote the Blair speech, though Blair's spokesman, Tom Kelly, denied that. Well, he would, wouldn't he?
Here's the giveaway: "It's a triumph or a disaster. A problem is 'a crisis'. A setback is a policy 'in tatters'. A criticism 'a savage attack'." Now, does that sound like a politician, or a former tabloid political editor?
As one lobby hack put it after Kelly had endured a half-hour grilling on the speech at the afternoon lobby briefing: "Tony Blair was facing a crisis last night after a savage attack on the media left his policy in tatters."
Now that's what I call an intro.
Another large one please, Clive. I still can't stop laughing...
Thursday June 14, 2007