The day Sergie won Tony Blair an ovation

Andy McSmith

I won’t stop watching Strictly Come Dancing now that John Sergeant has pulled out, because I never watched it in the first place, but in a funny sort of way I shall miss opening the newspapers every day to read yet another angle on the story of how the viewing public loves Sergie. I suppose he is lovable, from a distance.

Before he slips out of the news, here is my most vivid recollection of Sergeant in his days as a political journalist, when he was the only person who ever induced a group of Lobby journalists to give Tony Blair an ovation.

It was on the plane back from a G8 summit in Japan, in the days before the Iraq war, when relations between the Prime Minister and the lobby corps were relatively good. As we hacks were settling in for the long flight back, a Downing Street official, Tanya Joseph, came through from the front of the plane to say that Tony Blair was offering to come back and speak to us.

I should add that these briefings on the plane with the Prime Minister were usually a waste of everyone’s time, because he was too careful to depart from his prepared script – but you could never be sure.

But as it happened, John Sergeant had already switched on the in-flight movie. It was  Erin Brokovich, starring Julia Roberts. Confronted with a choice between ogling Roberts or listening to the Prime Minister, Sergie of course opted for the former. He was that year’s Chairman of the Lobby, and in that capacity ruled that there would be no briefing from the Prime Minister, thank you very much. Tanya did not like his tone, and walked out of the cabin saying, at the top of her voice, “Well, if you don’t want to talk to the Prime Minister, f- you!”

It was this comment which alerted other journalists to what was going on, and some, such as Charlie Reiss from the Standard and Trevor Kavanagh from The Sun, were not pleased. They wanted to listen to Tony Blair, just in case he had something unexpected to say.

As this argument developed on one side of the cabin, I was sitting across the other side next to Robin Oakley. He was then still Political Editor of the BBC, but the announcement that he was to be replaced by Andrew Marr had already been made. Indeed, Oakley’s last BBC assignment was to be an interview with the Prime Minister for the following morning’s Today programme, to be conducted on the plane. He was so engrossed in preparing for that, that he missed the drama being played out on the far side of the cabin.

A few minutes later, to Oakley’s intense disappointment, Tanya Joseph approached to say that the Today interview was off. He protested. She, being still irritated by the Sergeant episode, told him rather sharply: “Oh Robin, don’t you start” – and walked away. Oakley turned to me, wanting to know why she had addressed him in that tone, and I explained what he had missed.

Working relations between Oakley and Sergeant had never been easy. Oakley had been brought in to the BBC from The Times as Political Editor over Sergeant’s head, because he was the better political journalist, in terms of his depth of knowledge of the subject, though Sergeant was the better broadcaster – very much more comfortable in front of cameras, as he has been demonstrating to the nation this month. On hearing that Sergeant had refused a briefing from the Prime Minister on behalf of us all, Oakley’s patience snapped. He marched across the cabin, and interrupted Sergeant’s viewing of Erin Brokovich to remonstrate with him. Sergeant replied very loudly: “No, no, Robin, not true – good story if it was true, but it’s not true, Go away Robin.” What it was that was ‘not true’ we never found out, because having denied whatever he denied,. Sergeant returned to his viewing.

This only caused the rebellion brewing against Sergeant’s ruling to gain ground, until a delegation went forward to the front of the plane say that the Lobby would like to hear from Tony Blair after all, if he would come back to speak to us. He did, and as he entered the hacks’ cabin, there was an outbreak of spontaneous applause. Tony Blair looked delighted. Perhaps he thought that the hacks were applauding the success of his G8 diplomacy. They were not. They were applauding the rebels who overthrew John Sergeant.

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