Belfast Telegraph

Chris Moncrieff: 'Ian Paisley was easily the finest rabble-rouser I have ever come across in all my years reporting'

Chris Moncrieff shares some of his memories of his many decades as a political journalist in the Palace of Westminster

Rev Ian Paisley
Rev Ian Paisley

By Chris Moncrieff

I remember Margaret Thatcher once gazing at the immaculate rubbish-free streets of Tel Aviv, comparing them with our own litter-strewn thoroughfares. The moment she returned to England the-then PM set about picking up every bit of litter she could find - to the delight of Fleet Street's photographers.

On how the late Labour MP Denzil Davies resigned from his shadow Defence Secretary post - by phoning Chris:

Denzil Davies was no fan of Neil Kinnock and ultimately became utterly frustrated with Kinnock's leadership of the Labour Party.

It culminated with Davies telephoning me at home in the middle of the night announcing - to me rather than to Kinnock - that he was resigning on the spot from the Defence post, accusing Kinnock of running the Defence portfolio on the hoof.

Needless to say Kinnock turned puce with rage when he woke up in the morning to hear the news.

On the wisdom of carpeting a drinking den:

The Westminster bar, which was the rowdiest of the lot, was the old Strangers' Bar, which was nicknamed 'The Kremlin'. It was the spit-and-sawdust of the Palace of Westminster. I have seen punch-ups in there and unseemly shouting matches.

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However, the location of the Strangers' was moved down the corridor and they put a carpet on the floor.

Since then it has been a "model" lounge bar in appearance and environment.

On bumping into Enoch Powell - "possibly the most demonised politician of his generation" - in a lift:

I remember once sneaking in to an MPs-only lift in the House of Commons. It stopped at the next floor and, to my dismay, in stepped Enoch Powell.

He took a long, hard look at the "This lift is for the use of MPs only" sign and then took an equally long, hard look at me and commented: "I must have missed the by-election."

On what it is acceptable for MPs to wear in the Commons chamber:

I recall an incident when the attire of one Labour member, the late William Price, was far from businesslike.

He rushed into the chamber clad in a grossly oversized raincoat, buttoned up from his neck to his feet, which it almost reached.

He was in a desperate hurry so as not to miss his slot to speak. No mention was made of his bizarre attire and he got through his speech without incident.

It transpired that on his way to the chamber he called in at the gents. As he prepared to leave, to his horror his zip broke on his trousers.

But Price was a man of great resourcefulness. On his way in he grabbed the first raincoat he saw from its hook and thus covered his embarrassment.

He was a man to have around in an emergency.

He returned the coat to its hook, where he found its puzzled owner wondering what had happened.

On then-Prime Minister John Major stopping Chris from plunging off the Great Wall of China:

John Major once saved my life. When I was running along the Great Wall of China to catch him up I found myself galloping out of control and possibly about to hurtle to certain death off the wall. But he adroitly fielded me.

When later I phoned the newsdesk, who had by then seen a picture of this incident, the news editor said: "What on Earth are you doing in the fond embrace of the Prime Minister?"

On sharing another happy moment with Major:

I recall that Margaret Thatcher was adept at what she called "back-seat driving" in the Commons after she was replaced as Prime Minister by John Major.

It affected him considerably. I was with Major in Belgium when she announced that she was leaving the Commons for the House of Lords.

The look of relief on Major's face was something I shall never forget.

On causing trouble in the Kremlin:

Once, when I was in Moscow, I temporarily mislaid my "open sesame" Kremlin pass. I managed to get into that stern building, even past gruff Russian guards, on the strength of my London bus pass.

But my trickiest moment in the Kremlin was when I picked up the receiver of a red telephone to try to file a story to London.

I was unaware that this telephone should only be used in the event of a fire. So, when I picked up the receiver it started bells clanging all over the place.

I hastily returned the receiver to its cradle and went on my way, trying to appear the epitome of innocence.

On being on an aircraft with easily the finest rabble-rouser I have come across in all my years reporting, Rev Ian Paisley:

More than once after he had vilified his political enemies in the most extreme way, Rev Ian Paisley would come up to me with a smile and a wink and say: "I socked it to them, didn't I?"

I remember once, when I was flying from London to Belfast, the aircraft suddenly became the victim of some pretty violent turbulence.

Everyone went silent, but then we heard this booming voice from the front of the plane: "Oh Lord, thou knowest I still have works to do."

On eating Russian President Boris Yeltsin's biscuits:

I and a lot of other Fleet Street types were waiting in the Kremlin for President Yeltsin and John Major to meet.

I spotted a plate of biscuits on a table we were standing behind and I thought "How generous" and passed them round to the other hacks, took some myself and soon the plate was empty.

When the large figure of Yeltsin arrived, he took one look at the empty plate and roared - as only he can roar - "Where are my biscuits?"

Some poor functionary was sent away to fetch some more, but as Yeltsin glowered at us all I knew he knew exactly what had happened.

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