Remembering Chris Moncrieff: The Lobby legend on half a century reporting on Westminster
One of Britain's most respected political journalists, Chris Moncrieff spent half a century reporting on Westminster. In 2016 he sat down with The House Magazine to share his memories.
“The prime minister saved my life,” Chris Moncrieff recalls, pointing up at a photograph that has pride of place on his mantelpiece.
The framed picture shows a huddled mass of reporters, officials and hangers on atop the Great Wall of China, as John Major grasps an unsteady Moncrieff. In rushing to keep up with Major’s entourage on a foreign trip, Moncrieff tripped and “almost fell off the wall”. He says he feared he would tumble “hundreds of feet” until a baffled prime minister caught him.
"I thought for this act of mercy, he would say thank you,” Major himself later noted. “But I misjudged the great man. He stopped, looked up and said: 'Can I use this story?'"
The tale is typical of Moncrieff’s bottomless well of anecdotes. For more than 30 years he shared these tales in a weekly column in The House magazine; first under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes, then under the long running Cobbett’s Corner column, and latterly in the form of his Moncrieff’s Masters, a series of tributes to the most influential figures in British politics.
On the morning we meet, Moncrieff – at 85 years of age and more than two decades after he retired – is hard at work at his desk in his north London home, drawing together material for his next book, Nought as Queer as Political Folk, a collection of stories recounting the more bizarre side of the political class.
He spent nearly 40 years bringing Britain the biggest stories from the Palace of Westminster as a reporter, and latterly political editor, for the Press Association. It’s no exaggeration to call him a legend of the Lobby. In fact, he’s so respected they put his byline on a bar – Moncrieff’s in the press gallery, opened in 2007
At the press gallery’s bicentenary dinner in 2003, prime minister Tony Blair described Moncrieff as “the gateway to the nation”. “Chris is just one of the most remarkable people I have met in any walk of life,” Blair added.
“Looking for a story, Chris?” she asked. “No,” Moncrieff replied. “I’ve got the story. I’m just looking for somebody to say it.”
He was cherished by politicians on all sides for his straight and faithful reporting. Former Tory MP Sir Nicholas Winterton once said of him: “The best journalist in this place is the oldest journalist, Chris Moncrieff. You tell him something; he reports it; he does not dress it up; he actually reports."
And where other journalists dismissed some particularly garrulous MPs as ‘rent-a-quotes’ to be ignored, Moncrieff was always on hand to give their views a wider audience. “Some of them were easy as putty to get stories out of,” he laughs, citing Tory Harry Greenway as someone who “would give you a quote at the drop of a hat”.
FT journalist Sue Cameron once told an anecdote of spying Moncrieff in the lobby. “Looking for a story, Chris?” she asked. “No,” he replied. “I’ve got the story. I’m just looking for somebody to say it.”
But it often meant he was the first journalist a politician would turn to in a crisis. Moncrieff describes taking a late-night call from a furious Denzil Davies, then the shadow defence secretary, in June 1988.
“He telephoned me at 2.30 in the morning, I didn’t have a phone upstairs in those days, so I came tearing down the stairs, tripped over the cat, which went charging up the curtains. My wife, wondering what the commotion was all about, came down stairs. Then I got to the desk and found the grandchildren had taken all my pens.
“I finally picked up the phone and it was Denzil Davies’s soft Welsh voice. He suddenly went into a vicious attack on Kinnock – he said ‘he’s running our defence policy on the hoof, not telling me anything, I don’t know where I am with him, it’s a total disgrace and I’m now resigning – so you can tell him I resign’. He resigned to me, over that phone.
“I filed the story straight away. Then I rang up a chap called David Hill, who was Kinnock’s press officer. I said ‘what do you think about this resignation?’ He said ‘there’s been no bloody resignation, now go back to bed’. I said ‘well you look at Ceefax then’.”
Moncrieff puts his success down to faithful reporting, and his number one rule: never let a politician know your politics.
“My policy was to never argue with them about politics – just nod,” he says. “You don’t want to get into a position where an MP thinks you're on the opposite side of the argument to them. Don't show preference to one side of the other. Just be deadpan.
“I think Labour MPs thought I was one of them and the Tories thought I was one of them.”
His second piece of advice is to always ensure you’re “absolutely trusted”. “If you let an MP down, if you come to an arrangement with an MP and let him down, the news will spread like wildfire through parliament and you could lose a lot of friends and a lot of stories. You've got to have people trust you.”
That’s not to say Moncrieff’s connection with MPs could ever be described as ‘cosy’ – instead, he writes in his memoir Wine, Westminster and Women, the relationship between a journalist and a politician ought always to resemble ‘the relationship between a dog and a lamppost’.
“If an MP is talking to a reporter he must know he’s not interested in his well-being – he’s interested in getting a story,” he says. He describes himself as ultimately disinterested in the political process – he was simply interested in getting stories, and Westminster happened to be the source of more stories than any other place in the country.
He joined the Press Association in 1962 and was soon despatched – against his wishes – to Parliament. "I always wanted to be a newspaper reporter, but I didn’t bother reading the political stories,” he says. “I’m not a political animal, not at all, not to this day really. But they offered me this job in parliament. I thought oh my god – but I wasn’t in a position to turn it down.”
When he arrived, he says, his initial thought on watching MPs “banging on at each other” in the Chamber was: “‘I can’t cope with this.”
“But it grows on you,” he adds with a smile.
*This article was first published in November 2016