Charlie Whelan says . . .

Don't believe it - "Secret meeting unites republican MPs"

The Westminster lobby hacks like nothing more than a secret meeting to report about. "Secret", in lobby parlance, means that no one bothered to send out a press release telling them about it. It was Nicholas Watt - yes, the same man who recently reported as fact the Tory spin - who told us in the Guardian that Labour frontbenchers had met secretly to plot the downfall of the monarchy. It was, you see, a week for royal stories, and the Guardian didn't have one. The Times had revealed that no one was organising street parties for the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Apparently, this had nothing to do with the people not wishing to celebrate a monarch who was so out of touch with the nation's feelings that, when Diana died, she didn't even order the flags to be flown at half-mast over Buck House. No, it was nasty politicians who stopped people from organising street parties. Someone had to be blamed for this treason, and it was left to Her Majesty's loyal lobby (who still toast the Queen at their lunches) to find the culprits. Who better than lefty Labour MPs?

So Watt decided to reveal the secret meeting: "A group of former Labour frontbenchers, led by their ex-leader Roy Hattersley, formed a new cross-party republican group last night to campaign in favour of the abolition of the British monarchy." No they didn't. Hattersley (who, as far as I know, never led the Labour Party) doesn't like the monarchy much, as we learnt from his Guardian column a few days later, but he didn't head this "secret" meeting. Not one MP was quoted in the story, and it's easy to see why. A few phone calls would have exposed it as complete bollocks - and why let the truth get in the way of a great story? It's good to know that Britain's best hacks work in Westminster.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Revealed: how Labour sees women