A weekday lunchtime in the Goring hotel, central London. Here, captains of industry, newspaper executives and politicians gather to murmur importantly over dressed crab, Dover sole and lashings of steak and kidney pudding.
In this world, where every plate is gilded with the hotel’s name, the atmosphere is hushed, the upholstery plush and the modern Swarovski chandeliers are hideous; like sparkly teenagers’ earrings hammered into the lobes of a dowager duchess.
On the dot of one o’clock, Lord Tebbit appears at the entrance to the dining room; a charcoal-pinstriped blot on the cream carpet horizon. He makes his way through the tables, looking neither left nor right, and slides into the chair opposite with an air of harassed relief. Heads turn but if he does recognise any other lunching Conservatives or party drones, he does not acknowledge them. “I am desperate for a drink,” he says, holding his hands in front and making them tremble, “but I had better not.”
He flips open the menu and scans the list with the interest and concentration of someone properly interested in his food. A preparation of Lincolnshire wild rabbit with mustard sauce attracts his attention.
“Aha. I wonder if their mustard sauce is as good as mine?” he muses. He orders whitebait followed by the rabbit, a true Edwardian luncheon of champions. I have smoked salmon and then cod.
Tebbit, a former cabinet minister who retired as an MP and entered the House of Lords in 1992, is one of the few leading figures from the Thatcher era still active in politics. However, the fact that many members of his party clearly wish that he was not is quite delicious to mischievous political commentators.
Seen as the voice of the socially conservative right within the parliamentary party – and of discontented, old school Tory voters without – he makes no secret of his scant patience with David Cameron and his glossy band of new Tory brothers. With typically blunt expediency, he has accused the party leader of “planting the poisonous tree of Blairism” in the shadow cabinet and also blamed him for losing traditional Tory support by racing to the centre ground.
Before last month’s European elections, he urged voters to boycott the Tories, and other main parties, to show their disapproval of the expenses debacle. Cameron was so furious he threatened to throw the former Conservative party chairman out of the party, saying: “He’s treading a very careful path, and I would warn him if he slips off that path he will find he’s sitting as an independent.” Tebbit was unperturbed. “I will be a Tory until I die, whether I am in the party or not,” he said in response.
For many years, Tebbit’s chilly reputation as Margaret Thatcher’s dark enforcer owed more to how he was portrayed in the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image than to any genuine traits of personal thuggery. The Tebbit puppet was repeatedly coshing recalcitrant members of the cabinet with his rubber truncheon. Tebbit has always claimed that he thought the puppet was funny but, in some ways, it has acted as a social barrier. At times, he has the wan but hopeful air of someone who would like people to find him more amusing than they actually do.
Tebbit became Thatcher’s right hand man and one of her closest political advisers because he was a shrewd tactician and a tough operator, not a bovver boy with a grudge. It is true, however, that his voice can sound menacing, especially in the lower register. Even when he is discussing something as innocent as snacks. “My guilty secret,” he says in an assassin’s whisper, “are those lovely salt and black pepper crisps.”
He remains friends with Lady Thatcher to this day. His background as a working class boy who had bettered himself though education, hard work and application appealed to her own bootstrap ethics, as the daughter of a grocer. “She is quite frail now,” he says. “Some days she is on cracking good form and other days she just isn’t.” They reminisce about old times but prefer to discuss the events of the day. Are they proud of the current state of the party? “One is always proud of one’s party, even if it takes an effort at times. It is like still being proud of your children even when you find them doing something absolutely disgusting,” he sighs.
His mobile phone rings loudly – a surprising shriek of technopop. “Maurice, I will come back to you, I am having rather a difficult day,” he tells one caller. The phone rings again. “Bloody hell, these things never stop, do they?” he cries and jabs at the off button. He looks tired and his parchment skin is tight and papery, like an onion’s.
He also seems a little fractious. “That’s because I am,” he says.
In the past three weeks, the 78-year-old peer has exhausted himself moving house from Sussex to Suffolk, caring for his disabled wife Margaret and putting the finishing touches to his first recipe book, The Game Cook. Cookery? This seems an astonishing distraction for a politician once described as a “semi-house-trained polecat” by former Labour leader Michael Foot but Tebbit is full of surprises. He has been happily killing and cooking his own game since 1974, when Margaret suggested he should take up shooting as a distraction from politics.
Even before that it was his own mother, the daughter of a butcher from north-east London, who taught him how to skin a rabbit. “Growing up during the war, you were acutely aware of food. If you caught a rabbit for tea, it was great,” he says, describing his mother and his wife as his “twin cooking gurus”.
Game holds no terrors for him. “I can shoot it, pluck it or skin it, clean it, cook it and eat it,” he says. He has a fondness for game risottos, which he thinks he might have invented, and his speciality – and a favourite recipe – is pheasant cooked with apples and cream. He also likes venison and rabbits, curried game, and stuffing birds with black pudding or haggis drenched in whisky. You could say that his cooking, much like him, is never bland.
“If someone buys the cookbook who has never heard of me, I think they will guess by the end that I am a politically incorrect Tory,” he says. Indeed, Tebbit reveals that he was shocked to discover, in the course of researching the book, that many mallards are gay. “Hmm, yes. The mallard is a rather outré bird. It is the most homosexual duck in the world. All the chaps are a bit …that way,” he says, cocking his head. How does that make him feel about them?
“They are still very good to eat.”
It’s not that Tebbit doesn’t like mallards, I deduce, just that he doesn’t think any mallard in a same sex relationship should be allowed to adopt a duckling or become home secretary (in a letter to the Daily Telegraph in 1998, Tebbit wrote that homosexuals should be barred from the office of home secretary, at the time responsible for laws on adoption and families).
Despite his hardline reputation, however, as both a reactionary and a hunter, he displays an alarming tendresse towards some species of wildfowl. Has the man often referred to as the Chingford skinhead finally gone soft on us?
“I do confess to a touch of sentimentality,” he says.
“I find it quite hard to shoot woodcock. They are so beautiful.”
“There are not that many of them where I shoot anyway. And, when they do appear, I just can’t quite bring myself to do it.”
Tebbit knows roast woodcock is considered the finest of all game birds; a delicacy that is traditionally served with the head still attached and the skull split through the middle. This is so that the tiny woodcock brain can be scooped out with a teaspoon and eaten. “Well, I am not so sentimental that I wouldn’t eat its brain,” he says. That’s better. That’s the Tebbit the tabloids know and love.
He squeezes a muslin-wrapped lemon over his whitebait and paves a slice of bread with a slab of butter. As the small fry are despatched, he looks vulpine, brooding. In repose he often does, even if feeling mellow and dreaming of crisps. When the manager brings him his splendid, golden rabbit pie, with a brimming sauceboat on the side, Tebbit’s mood brightens. His metaphorical chef’s hat is back in place.
“That looks very interesting. That’s a mustard and cream sauce, is it?” he asks.
“English mustard and cream, Lord,” comes the reply.
“I do my sauce with two mustards and cream.”
“Two mustards and cream, very good, Lord.”
“English and Dijon mustard.”
“Excellent, Lord. Well, I will leave ours for you to try.”
Tebbit nods, pushes away a copper pot of mashed potato, tells me that he would have served spinach, not cabbage, with the pie. “Spinach flattens down nicer,” he explains.
Tebbit’s political leanings are not the only thing that can be discerned from his new book. You don’t have to look too closely to see the deep poignancy that lurks behind the pages. After the 1984 IRA Brighton bomb that injured him and left his wife permanently disabled, cooking and eating together remained one of the few pleasures the Tebbits could still share and enjoy.
“Food and drink are very precious to us. In our marriage, there are two very different parts of our life,” he says, evenly and quietly. “We have been married for 53 years and for 25 of them, Margaret has been disabled. It is a bit of a sod. So we are trying to make what we can of it.”
Lady Tebbit can “just about” hold a glass of champagne or a cup of tea but that is the extent of her free movement. For a quarter of a century she has needed the support of two carers around the clock and the devotion of her husband even more. In this, he has never wavered. He even wakes up twice every night, to turn her over to avoid bed sores. “I take the view that you never know, do you, when you say those words, ‘For better or worse, in sickness or health’. You don’t know what the future holds. But I think sharing things like the kitchen and food is a very good thing.”
Even in his darkest moments, he has never felt, in any way, responsible for what happened. “No, I never had any feelings of guilt,” he says. There is a terse pause. “It is entirely false that I would think like that.”
Neither does he forgive the men who ordered, approved or carried out the attack. “I have never accommodated myself to the idea of them being regarded as human beings anyway. So to that extent I suppose I am unforgiving. In fact, I know I am unforgiving. I could forgive them if they showed any contrition, regret or remorse, but I can’t forgive someone who justifies what he [the bomber, Patrick Magee] did.”
Two years ago, BBC Radio 4 invited Tebbit to take part in a “healing” radio programme with Magee. The peer declined, having no taste for the modern appetite to massage away the atrocities of the past with an oily love-in and apologia. Tebbit sees this kind of appeasement as symptomatic of the weakness, decadence and lack of resolve in modern British society. “Do I want to meet these people? Yes, I would like to bump into them. If I was driving a heavy truck,” he says.
Tebbit has lived many lives. A bright boy, he went to an academically selective state school in north London and, in 1947, straight into journalism, on this very newspaper. “I was just a kid. I started in the prices room calculating the indices. You probably have to be a graduate in statistics to do it now but, in those days, we used to crank them out on a hand-held calculator with a book of logarithms. Amazing, really.” After four years in the postwar RAF, where he flew jets and once had to fight his way out of a burning Mosquito, Tebbit joined the airline BOAC, married and had three children before going into politics. He is a man with experience of the world, unlike so many of today’s career politicians. “That is a big part of the problem,” he sighs.
History may look more kindly on Tebbit than his bare-knuckle reputation once suggested. In a political world thick with sleaze and recrimination, he is increasingly seen as a beacon of personal and professional integrity. Not by everyone of course. Not even by everyone in his party. Yet that is not what concerns him right now.
Deciding that he will “duck the puds” in favour of a cup of coffee, talk turns once more to the merits of the sauce. “I do think mine is much better,” he says. “It is more robust, for a start. It is more mustardy. Mustardier. And more pungent.”
Well, that sounds about right.
Norman Tebbit is signing copies of ‘The Game Book’ (JR Books, £14.99) at the CLA Game Fair at Belvoir Castle on July 24.
Jan Moir has a restaurant review website www.areyoureadytoorder.co.uk and writes for the Daily Mail
Beeston Place, Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1
Luncheon x 2 £70.00
Wild rabbit with English mustard sauce
Salmon with fennel salad
Roast cod with baby leeks and pea sauce
Bottled water £4.25
Coffee x 2 £10.00
Total (including service) £94.78
Jan Moir on how political dining has changed
The rise of New Labour in the 1990s went hand in hand with a political democratisation of restaurants in Britain. Yes, Jeffrey Archer had always gone to Le Caprice but now glamorous new eateries were springing up all over London. The River Café was an early favourite of the fashionable left, even providing the Blair family supper on election night in 1997. Months after Locanda Locatelli first opened its doors in 2002, the restaurant critic AA Gill was absolutely appalled to see the prime minister there in a T-shirt, eating herb crust sea bass.
The Blairs also took Bill and Hillary Clinton to dine at Le Pont de la Tour (pictured) on the Thames at Tower Bridge, a place Ken Livingstone also fancies for the views and the French food. When he was London mayor, Livingstone – who wrote a restaurant review column for the Evening Standard for many years – ran up a bill of more than £1,000 there. That’s a lot of coquilles à la creme.
More recently, Jamie Oliver has proved a hit with Gordon and Sarah Brown, who asked him to cook Welsh lamb and asparagus for the G20 leaders at Downing Street this year.
The Tory leader David Cameron, an enthusiastic home cook, is also a fan of Oliver’s recipes, though he admits that his wife is better in the kitchen. He has good taste in restaurants, too, particularly those local to his home on the fringes of Notting Hill in west London.
He likes the scruffy but atmospheric Galicia tapas bar and restaurant on Portobello Road and has also recently been seen at Le Café Anglais, chef and FT columnist Rowley Leigh’s restaurant. The signature dish there is a cute cup of Parmesan custard served with anchovy toasts. Cameron also dines regularly at Hereford Road, chef Tom Pemberton’s excellent beacon to seasonal British produce.
It’s all a long way from Norman Tebbit’s time in government, when most Tory lunches and dinners were taken in clubs such as White’s, Boodle’s, the Garrick and Brooks’s and it was important to pretend that you weren’t interested in food or actually quite enjoyed eating overcooked, indeterminate meat.
Unless, that is, you were being treated to lunch at Wiltons – still a Tebbit favourite – or the Savoy Grill. The old Savoy Grill, that is, where famed maître’d Angelo Maresca presided over a room that looked like the interior of a grand ship and lamb was carved in long ribbons from a silver trolley. “When I was chairman of the party,” recalls Tebbit, ”my secretary used to refer to it as the works canteen.”
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