On punch-ups, Paisley, and stealing Yeltsin’s biscuits

Rev Ian Paisley in 1991
Rev Ian Paisley in 1991
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It is 25 years next month since Chris Moncrieff retired as political editor of the Press Association. With the top tier of Westminster politics now in flux almost as never before, here he takes a look back at some of his encounters with the personalities of the past:

~ 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.

Chris Moncrieff

Chris Moncrieff

~ 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.

However, the location of the Strangers’ was moved down the corridor and they put a carpet on the floor. After that, it became a “model” lounge bar in appearance and environment.

It is astonishing what the existence of a carpet will do.

~ 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 – possibly the most demonised politician of his generation.

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”.

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

~ Dr Ian Paisley was easily the finest rabble-rouser I have come across.

More than once after he had vilified his political enemies in the most extreme way, (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.”

~ 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 - not being able to read the Russian notice beside it - 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.

~ I and a lot of other Fleet Street types were once 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?”

I was too cowardly to own up, and some poor functionary was sent away to fetch some more. But as I cowered in the background and Yeltsin glowered at us all, I knew he knew exactly what had happened...