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My Parliamentary sketches - Nicholas Garland

Features | By Nicholas Garland

Sketches of Boz: Boris Johnson at leader conferences at the Daily Telegraph office, Canary Wharf, 1999. He was a leader-writer from 1988 to 2000

Nicholas Garland drew Telegraph journalists in editorial conferences for 40 years. And then one of them ended up running the country

The daily leader-writers’ conference at the Telegraph was fun and instructive. This was especially true while Bill Deedes (Telegraph editor, 1974-86) and, later, Charles Moore (editor, 1995-2003) were editing.

Leaders – also known as editorials – reflect the editor’s and the paper’s view of the news. Sometimes the editor writes them but, more often than not, a group of leader-writers are given the job of writing the three leaders: usually two serious ones and a light-hearted one. I would sit in on these conferences. All I know about politics is shaped and influenced by what I heard.

I would sketch the editor and the leader-writers. Happy to be drawn, they were vaguely aware I was sketching them in the corner. I sometimes rolled my eyes.

The Telegraph was always home to plenty of eccentrics and oddballs. And the staff amused themselves by gossiping about them in the way schoolchildren enjoy giggling about the behaviour of their teachers.

There was the well-documented time when it was proposed to make T E Utley (1921-88), a blind man, the TV critic, ‘to get a new point of view on television programmes’. And one afternoon, a senior leader-writer missed the conference because his office had been trashed by a furious colleague who was also his lover.

Another day, an excited features-writer rushed in, interrupting the conference, to say he had just learned that scientists had invented a sort of wire that went up into outer space.

(Above: Boris Johnson and Nicholas Garland with Garland’s drawings – at a leader-writers’ reunion dinner, the Garrick Club, November 2, 2021. The Prime Minister praised the ‘heterodox spirit’ of the leader-writers). (Copyright Harry Mount)

It was connected in an amazing way to something that would be ‘an endless source of energy for the whole world’. He said the entire editorial column should be made over to this news and that he would write it.

After he’d hurried out of the room, the conference picked up from where it had left off before he came in, without another word about this breakthrough. The more wild, comical and unlikely the behaviour, the more the Telegraph staff enjoyed telling one another about it, no doubt embellishing the accounts as they went along.

The leader-writers would compete to avoid having to write an editorial.

One might say, ‘I wonder if this leader wouldn’t be better held over until after the vote in the House’ or ‘[So-and-so] has written so wonderfully on this subject before.’ Another would say, ‘I’m meeting a chap from the City at... oh dear, in about five minutes.’

Colin Welch (1924-97), deputy editor, used to salute successful and inventive excuses by mimicking hitting a ball for a six, and the colleagues would smile and nod in approval.

For weeks, one writer turned up each day purple in the face and wearing heavy sea boots. He was just capable of walking to a chair but far too drunk to speak. He sat very still, staring ahead until the meeting was over. God knows what he did then, or where he went.

There was something about Telegraph leader-writers. As soon as one was appointed, he or she became infected by a kind of unruly spirit.

One was obsessed by men peeing in public – ‘everywhere you look’. His plan for a campaign against this antisocial habit were enjoyed by all until Charles would say, ‘That’s enough, X…’

Charles himself was not immune to the bug. He suggested writing a leader in support of the Taliban because they lived by the tenets of their religion – “which we all should, shouldn’t we?”

Charles’s idea was met by a polite silence, broken by the characteristically slurred, slow voice of Bill Deedes: ‘I was once in position to receive fire from the Taliban.’ Pause. ‘I for one will not be writing this leader.’

(Above: Charles Moore, Lady Thatcher’s biographer and Daily Telegraph editor, 1995-2003)

Everybody laughed in relief, delighted by this moment of daftness.

In 2002, when Iain Duncan Smith, supported by the Telegraph, was in the running for leadership of the Conservative Party, he was invited in to meet the leader-writers. He was so dull that when he left, for a long time no one spoke, everyone wondering how on earth they could write in support of the man.

At last, Bill spoke. ‘Well, he’s not going to set the Thames on fire.’

Among the leader-writers for a while was Boris Johnson. I don’t remember anything he said – just his presence, ridiculous hair and all. He and one or two other regular leader-writers have been elevated since then to Number 10 or the House of Lords.

When Boris became PM, one ex-conference regular, Sam Leith, now the Spectator’s literary editor, wrote, ‘We are all doomed.’ We didn’t have Bill around any more to make us laugh about it.

I found one drawing (above) that sums up my feelings. This event really happened. The drawing shows Bill sitting with his feet on his desk, and Peter Utley sitting nearby. They are both smoking.

Peter: ‘Don’t we believe, as a paper, that everything should be real, and truthful?’

Bill: ‘News to me!’


This story was from December 2021 issue. Subscribe Now