Retirement is wasted on old people. Which is why in seven days I will trade being Political Editor of the Evening Standard for a gap decade. After 32 years at Westminster, I’m savouring every last moment, especially the return of high-octane gossip after Covid hibernation. There is no better company than politicians and journalists, and I’ve been lucky to spend half a lifetime with both. People ask which MPs and ministers I most admire. The answer is those who answer their phones at 7am.
Saturday morning, the alarm goes off at 3.20am in darkness. Two decades of early starts at the Standard have taught me how to get out of bed no matter what the hour. Rule one: never hit the snooze button. Today I leap up because I’m in the Round the Island Race, a big tickbox on my bucket list. Even better, I’m crewing a Clipper 68 with my hero, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. At 82, Sir Robin is never still. Over eight hours of racing he darts up and down the decks, adjusting sails, nursing every gust. I see the same relentless energy driving the best politicians I know.
My journey to work on Monday starts and finishes with the Thames. First, the well-mannered river at Kingston, with swans and flowers; later, the muscular beast that surges under Westminster Bridge. The view of Parliament from the bridge in a spring dawn is one of London’s finest sights.
One glorious afternoon a pair of dolphins made arcs in the Thames just off the Commons terrace. Margaret Thatcher, then PM, declared them “wonderful”. But London’s river was too toxic and they died. The Thames will only be truly clean when dolphins can visit safely.
Friends tell me on Tuesday that my departure is the “end of an era”. In one respect that is true. I am the last daily political editor who did not go to university, having grabbed a local paper job instead. In those days nearly all the print political editors were non-graduates, including George Jones of the Telegraph, the great Gordon Greig of the Mail and the legendary PA man, Chris Moncrieff. Only the snooty Guardian and the BBC insisted on degrees. How cruel we are to our children when we preach social mobility but make them run up £50,000 of debt for a piece of paper that isn’t needed for my job, nor for most others.
Returning to our Commons office, I realise on Wednesday that the mice have gone. Without our detritus to nibble, they packed their bags during lockdown. Killing the blighters was a grim duty over the years, or they nest in desks and scamper over feet. I once stunned one with a well-thrown Guardian. It took a rolled-up Telegraph to deliver the coup de grace. Sometimes only a broadsheet will do.
On Thursday, I stood in as chair of the daily Downing Street briefing. My final “lobby”. The PM sends a generous message that I’ve been “always as fair and kind as you could be under the circumstances”. In my youth, the morning lobby was in Sir Bernard Ingham’s office at No 10. There was a genteel competition for his sofa which sat only three hacks, the rest having to stand. Lobbies were much shorter as a consequence, and far better for evening paper deadlines. A tip for Zoom meetings: make everyone stand.