What says ‘Theresa May’ more than a comic speech at a boozy dinner for a room full of journalists? That was the question the Prime Minister found herself asking a room of well hydrated hacks at last night’s Westminster Correspondents Dinner.
May took a break from the Irish border to regale journalists with a speech poking fun at her former colleagues, current colleagues, the lobby and … Theresa May. To some surprise, May cracked several – successful jokes. She even found time to praise the Spectator’s James Forsyth. Alas, not everyone was in such a jolly mood – Labour’s Barry Gardiner was overhead muttering warnings to the press about what will happen to them (spoiler: not good) come PM Corbyn.
Here is May’s speech in full:
Thank you very much for that introduction, Matt (Chorley). Matt is one of my biggest cheerleaders on Fleet Street. Every PM needs one.
An influential commentator who can lend a sympathetic ear and give a voice to your cause. Macmillan had Bill Deedes. Thatcher had Woodrow Wyatt. And I have Matt Chorley.
So devoted is he to my interests, he gets up at 5.30 each morning to pen a Theresa May fan sheet he calls ‘Red Box’. Recent glowing reviews of my work have included: The extravagantly complimentary: ‘We must surely assume that Theresa May has a skill.’ The oleaginous: ‘Just when you thought that things couldn’t get any worse for the PM, comes news that her favourite salt and vinegar crisps are rotting her teeth.’ And the truly unctuous: ‘It must have been a brave adviser who suggested to the prime minister that she give a speech about robots, rather than like one.’ Matt is vying with George Osborne for this year’s hotly-contested ‘Theresa May Sycophant of the Year’ award.
If he wins, the trophy will take pride of place alongside another award for which the competition in the lobby and around Parliament is much hotter and that is the award for ‘Most Modest Man in Westminster.’Indeed so self-effacing is Matt, that in this centenary year of female suffrage the year of ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘Me Too’ he has demonstrated just what a stalwart ally he is, by heroically forcing the female Chairman of the Press Gallery just the second in history to sit in silence and listen to him speak. Matt Chorley clings on, obviously.
Now Kate (McCann), as a second female Prime Minister myself, I did wonder if I should boycott making a speech this evening out of sisterly solidarity and get my male predecessor to do it instead. But the weather has been so bad in West Oxfordshire that sadly David couldn’t make it in – he’s snowed into his wheelie-shed. I was able to catch up with David over the phone though and, as ever, he had some excellent advice. ‘Don’t worry about Boris. ‘Don’t worry about your Chancellor. ‘Worry about ambitious, female, Home Secretaries.’ Lovely to see you here tonight, Amber!
But as far as I’m concerned, we need a lot more ambitious women in top jobs and I am delighted that we now have two women at the top of the Press Gallery, in Kate and Emily (Ashton).
And all joking aside, I am, of course, absolutely delighted to be here. Last year, I was looking forward to this event so much that I called a general election to get out of it. But I can’t pull that stunt two years in a row. Or can I? I am, after all, going walking in Wales this Easter… But no, of course not. I wouldn’t miss this for the world. Because after all, what says ‘Theresa May’ more than a comic speech at a boozy dinner for a room full of journalists? I feel right at home.
Of course, it has been quite a year. We’ve had a general election, which I know meant as much hard work for members of your trade as it did to members of mine.
One of the many pleasures of the campaign trail was getting to spend time in a variety of factories and workshops with the travelling press pack. And, of course, getting out and about on the doorsteps. One canvassing trip in particular sticks in the memory. I was at the open door of a caravan and there was clearly some activity within, so I duly knocked. No answer – but the activity persisted. It looked like there was someone lying down. I knocked again, and put my head around the door. There was someone lying down. In fact, two people were lying down. And it wasn’t a good time to ask them if they were going to vote Conservative. They were giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘deep and special partnership’. I’m used to hearing moans on the doorstep, but this was something else.
Indeed, I was reliving the election recently in the pages of Tim Shipman’s latest bestseller – Fall Out. Robbie Gibb lent me a copy, but it’s a little odd – very short, and oddly bound.
*May pulls out a book with just a handful of pages*
And it seems to focus exclusively on how well the election went in Scotland.
But since the election, I have made some changes. I’ve started to engage with children, dogs and other things that people like on Facebook and Twitter.
And I’m not alone. So enthusiastic is he for the UK’s digital future, Matt Hancock has now transcended into a higher state of existence, thrown off the surly bonds of flesh and blood, and actually now is an app. He only talks to me now by way of alarming iPhone notifications, like: ‘Matt Hancock would like to track your location’, ‘Matt Hancock would like to access your photos.’ And most worryingly of all: ‘There is a fault with Matt Hancock.’
And other Ministers are following his lead. The ‘Boris Johnson’ app is great for extending your vocabulary – but it does contain some adult content. The ‘Philip Hammond’ app is like a dryer, less frivolous version of LinkedIn. One minister is even developing a labour-saving app which converts every Cabinet discussion directly into a James Forsyth column, thus cutting out the hassle of briefing him each week. And tonight I can reveal that I’m even working on my own app. It provides GPS directions to your nearest wheat field, real-time tracking of Priti Patel’s air travel and the instant allocation of all household chores into girl jobs and boy jobs.
Last year cinema-goers were wowed by a brilliant film from the makers of The Thick of It and Veep, called The Death of Stalin. It told the story of an ageing Socialist demagogue who maintains his power through a sinister personality cult, re-writing history, and crushing all internal dissent. And I know we’re all very sad that Jeremy Corbyn can’t be with us tonight. We know Jeremy has some concerns about press ownership in Britain. Of course, that didn’t stop him appearing on the Iranian state-owned ‘Press TV’ for years.
He’ll take a fee from a broadcaster under the command of the Ayatollah but Lord Rothermere had just better look out come the revolution. Jeremy declared that he’d be PM by Christmas, and if that day ever does come, there will certainly be a few changes around here. I’d be breaking rocks in John McDonnell’s re-education camp on the Isle of Man along with Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall and other undesirables. And you’d all be adjusting to a new reality too. Catching up with the latest government initiative, trailed exclusively to Sqwawkbox. Doing your best to keep on the right side of Press Commissar Milne. He’d be like a posh Alastair Campbell, but without the warm and cuddly side. But of course, Jeremy Hunt would still be Health Secretary, obviously.
But whoever is in government, yours is an industry which plays an absolutely essential role in our democracy. Holding people like me to account. Challenging and scrutinising government and opposition. And I know that in recent years you have faced some challenging times. Last month I announced that we would launch a review to examine the sustainability of our national and local press, looking at the different business models for high-quality journalism. Because, a free press is one of the foundations on which our democracy is built and it must be preserved.
That matters nationally, but it also matters locally too.
I know many an illustrious member of the lobby began their careers on local papers. So I asked one of my researchers to take a look back into the archives and see where some of the famous names of 2018 first began. In the pages of the Western Morning News, in November 1998 we find a piece entitled: ‘Dairy Crest Cheese Sales Bring Smiles’ under the by-line of a young Jason Groves. In news which would have delighted Liz Truss, we learn from it that ‘mature cheddar volumes are 7% up’. But it wasn’t long before Jason had moved off the coveted dairy beat and onto politics. In October 2002 he was reporting that the conference speech of Conservative Party chairman, a certain Theresa May, had ‘come under fire’ from Tory grandees.
In particular, one David “Mad Max” Davis, who thought it was, quote, ‘too negative’. Which is saying something. And in November 1997 we read one Tom Newton Dunn reporting on how ‘plastic surgery to create the body beautiful is no longer just a female prerogative’. Tom, if I were you I’d ask for my money back! And proving that you can go from poacher to game keeper we find that before embarking on the career which has led to chair the press gallery a young Kate McCann started out as a starry-eyed Parliamentary researcher, writing in a diary column for the Guardian in 2010: ‘For me, casework is the most important part of the job and the satisfaction of helping others is unbeatable.’ Well I agree with that 100%, Kate.
And all joking aside, it has been my pleasure to celebrate the role of a free press and impartial journalism with you all this evening. You do essential work in the service of freedom. You stand in a proud tradition, stretching back centuries. One of your illustrious predecessors was Charles Dickens, who served as a Parliamentary reporter for two years in the 1830s. Drawing on his experiences in the gallery for his novel David Copperfield, he wrote:
‘Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify.’
180 years later and evidently: ‘nothing has changed!’