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Conference Season: No 'Death Notice' for Boozing and Schmoozing

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It was a sad, much-mourned, death, greeted with glum faces all round in the Westminster Village that day.

A new ministerial code, announced on 15 July, 2011, effectively declared that decades of 'unattributable' boozy lunches and 'off-the-record' slap-up dinners between politicians and the press were to be no more. In the wake of setting up the Leveson Inquiry into press behaviour, a government desperate to seek the moral high ground declared that any such contact in future must be regulated - From here-on-in all will, in fact, be officially recorded and published.

It declared: "The government will be open about its links with the media. All meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, editors and senior executives will be published quarterly regardless of the purpose of the meeting."

Which appeared to have the effect of killing them stone dead - what's the point of having a sherbet or two with a favoured hack to fly a kite about a possible policy, or knife an irritating cabinet colleague, if it could be traced back to you?

However, I'm delighted to report that as the party political conference season gets properly underway this week with Labour in Manchester (no-one actually really cared too much about the LibDems last week in Brighton), that 'death notice' on secret boozing-and-schmoozing has turned out to be premature to say the very least.

In fact, after initial Prohibition-style observation at last year's party conferences, held in the shadow of the Leveson Inquiry hearings beginning the following month, the bars and restaurants of Birmingham and Manchester can breath a sigh of relief because it is business as usual as hacks and politicians do what they like to do best, eat fine food and drink fine wine in very large amounts at the media proprietors' expense.

And a damn good job too. I did it for something like 20 years and I can tell you it is a revelation. There's nothing like the sight of a cabinet minister with a bottle of merlot inside him, with another on the table, letting rip about how useless their colleagues are and pleading to be seen as a special case.

The greatest bon viveur I ever met was Charles Clarke, at various times Neil Kinnock's private assassin, Labour education secretary, and finally Labour Home Secretary. I once had a full breakfast with him at Labour conference, knowing he would leave after an hour to have a second breakfast with another newspaper. Two hours later I returned for coffee only to find him getting stuck into one more breakfast with a THIRD newspaper!

But it didn't surprise me. The first time I met him socially was in a Houses of Parliament bar. Sending me to grab some seats, he said "what do you want, red or white?" When he joined me he was carrying a bottle of each...

Dinners either in Westminster or at party conference continued in the same vein. An inveterate Machiavelli and ferociously dedicated Labour politician, he would regularly down a bottle of red with the main course, say he had to quickly meet "someone from the party" for 20 minutes, disappear, then re-appear as if nothing had happened and down a second bottle over dessert, coffee and briefing.

I remember at the time of the foreign prisoners release fiasco, which helped cause his downfall, him raging over a fine wine "why are they blaming me - it was Blunkett's fault, it happened on his watch. And the civil servants, they're useless."

But at least he was always interesting, honest, and amusing. Others just moaned - endlessly. Either about how lily-livered Tony Blair had let them down again, or later how psychopathic and paranoid Gordon Brown was, about their colleagues, or what they perceived as their press image which they always begged you to correct.

Peter Hain was a particular nightmare to meet at Conference - I've never known a grown man whine more. He either "deserved" greater promotion, or when he got it and Gordon Brown made him work and pensions secretary in 2007 he wailed "Gordon won't let me have any money - he's stabbing me in the back!". He lasted six months.

Geoff Hoon was another whinger. I once branded him Hoon the Loon in a newspaper headline over something he did as defence secretary. He pleaded over a nice glass of wine at lunch "please don't call me that anymore - they used to say it at school."

But many a valuable understanding has been reached by press and politicians privately around a dinner table. 'Sarah's Law', one of the most important press campaigns ever, gained traction by successive Home Secretaries sitting down at conference in private over dinner with journalists and hearing the strength of support it was getting from millions of readers of the News of the World and Sun, and working out compromises that made progress possible while massaging political sensibilities. It works the other way too - many deals have been done in quiet restaurants or bars in Blackpool or Brighton or Manchester where politicians have worked and wheedled at winning newspaper support for a particular policy. I've seen too many ministers metaphorically crawling over broken glass seeking to win the ear of Rupert Murdoch and his papers.

Drink, politicians and the press ARE a heady mix, I'm glad to say - I remember Ed Balls at a reception following Tony Blair's confirmation he was standing down as PM. "Good riddance, now we can get on with running the government properly," he quipped.

He positively glowered when he was asked whether David Miliband would stand against Ed's mentor Gordon Brown to lead Labour and become next PM: "He hasn't the balls, and if he has they'll get ripped off."

He was right, of course. A while later David Miliband's special advisor, a particularly beautiful woman known to enjoy a drink, heard me opine about what a disaster Gordon Brown would be as PM. She said, "everyone knows you're right, you've got to give David some backbone, and tell him to stand", then dragged me over to him to say exactly that. We had what turned out to be an excruciating half-hour when he poured out his obvious intense disdain of Brown the bully, Brown the inflexible, Brown the wrong, Brown the saboteur... but it was immediately obvious he was too scared to put his head over the parapet.

Labour were always more fun in drink than the Tories - a group of us once watched in amusement at a reception as a (married) female government minister who had visited the white wine well too often became blatantly enamoured by a particularly good looking young new political reporter. Initially, he was understandably flattered by the attentions of this powerful lady until he realised he was being manoeuvred backwards alone into a darkened corner. Newly-wed, and somewhat shy anyway, he began to visibly panic until one of our group took pity and went to tell him the editor needed him urgently...

I don't know whether the nice chablis we were drinking was to blame for the single most astonishing thing I ever heard a politician say at conference. In one way it had absolutely nothing to do with politics - in another, everything.

It was in Blackpool, and a group of us from the News of the World were talking to a Tory Party leadership hopeful, a man whose political views chimed in many ways with the paper's own. He was asked how, if he succeeded in his bid and then went on to win the next General Election, his wife would handle the pressure of Number 10. He rocked back in his chair, took an appreciative sip of the chilled wine, and said, "well, when she was younger she was a handsome women, but she knows that time has moved on now so she'll very much stay away in the background at the family home and just avoid the cameras."

He didn't notice the stunned silence around the table, and breezily moved on to discuss the composition of his possible Shadow Cabinet... He lost any chance of the News of the World's support in that sentence. He didn't get elected either, BTW.

But that's what happens at conference. Lord Justice Leveson can think what he likes, but put journalists and politicians, fine wine and food paid for by media expense accounts, all into the same place at the same time and human nature will always take over.

And that's good for the British voter.