It’s 25 years to the day since I heard Tony Blair say “fuck”. I’d never heard a politician swear before, let alone a future prime minister, and it’s stayed with me ever since.
I was a would-be local hack at the time. A student on Darlington College of Technology’s 10-month journalism course, employed by the BBC for one night only.
The Beeb was still smarting from 1987, when its commercial rival, ITN, had flashed up the constituency results more quickly. So, for this election, it drew up a plan.
Each of us students was assigned to an election count, where we’d help out a BBC reporter. Our main task, though, was to ask the returning officer for the results and pick up the landline/hotline to London, minutes before he declared them.
There were two counts at Newton Aycliffe Leisure Centre in County Durham, both for safe Labour seats: Bishop Auckland, where chief whip Derek Foster was MP, and Sedgefield, represented by the young, telegenic shadow home secretary, Blair.
The assumption across the country, for most of the campaign at least, was that their leader, Neil Kinnock, would be prime minister the next day. He may have been a clown and a windbag in many people’s eyes, but his opponent, John Major, was seen as an incompetent wimp. The economy was struggling and the Conservative Party, in power since 1979, was widely despised for its perceived callousness.
Anyway, shortly before the polling stations closed at 10pm, the radio reporter asked me to check the exit polls in the TV room. I was alone in there when Blair walked in with some other guy – his agent, maybe – talking on his new-fangled mobile phone to Labour HQ, which was feeding him the line to take in interviews.
Without so much as a “Do you mind if I change channels?”, he switched from the BBC to ITV, gripping the stand with both hands and practically pressing his face against the screen. The first exit poll appeared. It was, if memory serves, something like: Conservatives 37%, Labour 34%.
“Fuck,” hissed Blair, under his breath. The electorate had opted to stick with the devil it knew.
To be fair, I don’t suppose he was having a good night. He glared at me, I remember, and came across as a cold, ruthless, insincere bastard. Minutes later, I watched him giving an interview to ITN, doing his smiley-smiley, nicey-nicey routine. What a contrast.
Seven years later, when Blair was in power, I took up a job on a posh local paper in London, the Highbury & Islington Express (High&I). Here, I had occasional dealings with the Labour MP for Islington North, one Jeremy Corbyn.
I wouldn’t vote for Corbyn today – I don’t like his policies or the company he keeps – but I will say this for him: he was an outstanding constituency MP. A colleague of mine, who leaned towards the Tories and knew the beardy maverick much better than I did, dubbed him a “super-councillor”. I think all of the reporters admired him, to some extent.
Indeed, on his election to the Labour leadership, my conservative friend wrote on Facebook that he was a “top bloke”. He just didn’t want him running the country.
The moral of my rambling reminiscences? Sooner or later, the whole world sees through a phony. But until that happens, phonies can be very successful indeed.