Of course, this column is nothing more than a shameless attempt to puff my book, An Unexpected MP, which is available at all good bookshops, Amazon, and, for reasons beyond my tiny mind, is a best seller in Central and South America. In my trade I would simply say, “I put my hands up, guv, you have got me bang to rights.”
What I have tried to do is give an accurate reflection of what life was like as an MP from 1983 to 1997 and then during a five-year spell as a Parliamentary reporter, in the unlikely incarnation as the political editor of PUNCH magazine.
What, for the faint hearted, may probably shock you is the obscene language, the culture of drunkenness and physicality. In other words, there were quite a few brawls. And if you are on the Amish wing of the Conservative wing of the Conservative Party, you will be supping on your steins of bitterness at the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, in which I played a minor part. But let’s get real. The Conservative party has one default: power. It’s hard to believe that, despite her many achievements, Neil Kinnock had a serious double figure lead in the polls in 1989. Weep on your bacon sandwich.
Actually, I have told a porkie. The Tories have another default setting: complacency, panic and self-destruction. And it was the Bennite purity of the lederhosen wing of the straitjacket brigade on the backbenches over the EU that destroyed the public’s faith in a thriving economy and tumbling unemployment. We were done for.
But enough of my unreconstructed Cameroonism. Let me give you a glimpse of what life was really like on the backbenches. For a start, it was hard work and fun. All-night sittings when I would discover that Enoch Powell, with a cheeky grin, had nicked my slumber seat in the library. And being thumped by John Prescott was instructional rather than a joy. I had appeared on the Today Programme and gently took the mickey out of him. But for Prescott humour was no laughing matter. I bumped into him in the lobby that afternoon.
“Hey mate, bit of a laugh this morning!!!”
“You Tory c***,” he thundered. And thumped me in the solar plexus.
“Nice man” grinned his Chief Whip.
I dined out on that for years.
Once I encountered Willie Whitelaw in the Smoking Room. He was white faced and cradled a bucket of whisky in his hand.
“What’s the matter, old boy?”
His rheumy oyster eyes looked up at me in in total despair. “Just spent an hour with Margaret.”
“Come on, you are Deputy Prime Minister, it goes with the rations.”
“Dear boy, we are in the middle of the AIDS campaign. I had to explain to her what anal sex was.”
Oh, to be a fly on that wall.
The trouble with Margaret was that she had no sense of humour. I remember being with her when she was standing for the leadership.
“Yesterday, I played a round of golf with Willie. He had me at the eighteenth hole.”
Howls of laughter, but utter incomprehension.
And then, in 1979, the splendid Michael Brunson, then political editor of ITN, found her in a hardware store. Clutching a Black and Decker drill in her hand, the immortal words were uttered: “This is the largest tool I have ever had in my hand!”
The crew collapsed, but she was bemused.
And then after the first Iraq war she sat astride a field gun. To the assembled crew she politely asked, “Do you think that this will jerk me off?”
But my favourite was when the Lib Dems changed their logo to a bird in flight. The speech-writers delighted in the Monty Python sketch of the dead parrot. They wrote some great lines. She didn’t get it. The Conference cheered. Afterwards the Prime Minister went back stage: “This Monty Python, is he one of us?” Priceless.
And then I was invited to Number 10 for a drink just before the bombing of Tripoli. My gambit was to swarm up to her on the grounds that Geoffrey Howe (then Foreign Secretary) was right not to allow “this great country to be an aircraft carrier for President Reagan”. It didn’t go down well. She was late simply because she had given the order to bomb.
But it got worse. “Prime Minister, don’t you think that you can be insensitive from time to time to time?”
She glared at me, called the butler, and said, “Mr Hayes will have one large last gin and tonic and will be leaving us.”
At that moment, my bowels turned to water.
This is not an anti-Thatcher book. Quite the opposite. We did not always agree. But she changed the face of Britain for the good.
But a brief word about PUNCH magazine. My editor, James Steen, was a legend and a brilliant mimic. He once rang up that awful old drunk and gossip columnist at the Mail, Nigel Dempster. He pretended to be the new Lord Rothermere as his dad had just died. The phone call worked like this.
“Hi Nigel it’s Jonathan here.”
“Jonathan f****** who?”
“You know. Rothermere.”
At that Dempster crawled on his belly.
“Well,” said Steen. “I think you are being too hard on Al Fayed my proprietor. Let’s end the war. And give his wonderful magazine a big puff.”
“Jonathan, you are so right.”
And for weeks we had the most amazing publicity.