A bit of Kinnock at Christmas. Photo: Getty
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Christmas dinner comes early this year, with goulash, Kinnock and serious plotting

Everything went a bit hazy after that. It had got a bit hazy before, to be perfectly honest, because I had drunk about six bottles of wine and several shot glasses of slivovitz.

The last thing I remember is having an arm around Neil Kinnock, giving him some tips about how he should help Ed Miliband win the next election. I also, for what it was worth, put in a good word for the nearest thing I have to a Labour MP, Hammersmith’s very own Andy Slaughter, who has, as far as I can see – and I have been keeping an eye on him – been doing a very good job. (He’s the nearest thing I have to an MP because my children live in his constituency. The area I live in has never returned anything other than a Tory candidate, and never will.)

However, as I said, everything went a bit hazy after that. It had got a bit hazy before, to be perfectly honest, because I had drunk about six bottles of wine and several shot glasses of slivovitz. The wine was, though not entirely my fault as I will explain in a minute, rather a matter of personal indulgence, as it so often is; but the slivovitz was in the line of duty, as it was being poured for us in order to toast the hard-working staff of the Gay Hussar. And they deserved these toasts, for the restaurant was completely packed out with members of the Goulash Co-operative (look it up), formed by the likes of Martin Rowson in order to buy out and therefore save the restaurant, which will otherwise be sold and turned into a Starbucks or something equally boring.

For those who do not know the Gay Hussar (although I would imagine that this magazine’s core readership has a pretty good idea), it is a restaurant that has been going for 60-odd years, nestling in the armpit of Soho Square and Greek Street, serving an unchanging menu of Hungarian food to a clientele largely composed of Old Labour politicians. The walls are adorned with caricatures of various luminaries; the downstairs dining room alone has some 60 of these, all drawn by Martin Rowson. I suspect the idea was to pay for his meal in kind; that’s a lot of free dinners. Not that I am censorious. I was, after all, his guest; the people on his table had bowed out and Martin, asking himself the question “Whom do I know who would accept an invitation to a free lunch at almost the last possible minute?” came up with my name, for some reason.

It was, however, a happy choice. I have a fondness for Hungary and Hungarians, ever since I worked on a film in Budapest in the mid-1980s (with, let me boast, the actor Marcello Mastroianni, writing additional dialogue for him in English, a language he did not speak. The greatest gentleman Italy has ever produced, he treated me with a courtesy that few have ever treated me with since). I can count to ten in Hungarian still; I can read sentences aloud with such a good accent that few would realise I can’t understand what I’m reading; and I still have some phrases, along with a few ripe expletives that used to come in handy when the kids were young and I wanted to express frustration at some immediate outrage.

Also, my politics are as red and peppery as the restaurant’s goulash. It is telling that Tony Blair never ate there; its old-world atmosphere and menu would have repelled him and he hatched his conspiracies in more intimate surroundings. The Gay Hussar may have been a place for off-the-record conversations, but there is a kind of honesty in having a rendezvous somewhere open to the public, so that even if you’re going to be in a private room, people will have seen you and your co-plotter entering about the same time.

In short, history has been made there, and it is a sign of the end of a certain kind of politics that the restaurant is thinking of giving up.

I also blame the end of a certain kind of lunch. That is, a phenomenally alcoholic one that you don’t pay for. Publishers and agents used to do them very well; now a combination of austerity and prissiness has produced a nation that sits at its desk, dyspeptically nibbling on a Pret sandwich while worrying about being fired. This was one of the grand lunches: between me, Martin, his agent and the Moose (the other last-minute guest), we got through a lake of wine and a pondful of duck and smoked goose. And I’ll pass on the thought that – what with the bill of fare tending as it does towards the robust, and the national colours of Hungary being red, white and green, and the heavily oaked decor of the interior – the Gay Hussar is the kind of place that feels permanently Yule-ish; but in a good way. Let this not be its last year.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue