Express & Star

Toby Neal: My dressing down by the Lord Protector of MPs

Toby Neal casts his eye on the world of politics.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle

I write this piece on my return from a rather awkward dressing down from The Speaker who summoned me to his office after some, I realise now, unacceptable comments I made about Boris Johnson the other day.

We in journalism should all seek to uphold respect, dignity, and trust in politicians because if you can’t trust a politician, who can you trust?

It was an easy journey on that fast train from Stafford and at Euston they had sent a special tumbril to take me the final couple of miles or so through the crowded streets to Westminster.

Walking down the labyrinthine corridors at Parliament some MPs looked away as I passed, while others glanced at me with contempt, mistaking me for the editor of the Mail on Sunday.

Outside Sir Lindsay Hoyle's office was a small queue of hacks, as there has been daily since he adopted his new role as Lord Protector of Parliament, ensuring nothing appears in the press which hurts the brittle sensibilities of our esteemed elected representatives.

Those there like me, summoned to receive The Speaker's lash, were ashen-faced and wore hangdog expressions, but there was also a rather excited cub reporter who had come to have Sir Lindsay check over one of his stories to make sure it didn't upset any of the MPs.

As we waited there was some gallows humour, and one of my fellow transgressors passed around a hip flask brought along as fortification for the coming ordeal, but I did not partake.

Sir Lindsay was very civil in the circumstances. He even greeted me with a cup of tea, although I took the precaution of waiting until he had drunk from his cup before I chanced a sip of my own.

The wooden panelled walls of his office are lined with portraits of previous Speakers, but some are missing. There was one on the floor, turned to the wall, and I could just about make out a name on the back. I think it was “Bercow” or something like that.

I thought it best to get in my apologies at once.

“Sir Lindsay, I can’t say sorry enough. I’ve had a long and undistinguished career in journalism and have come across a lot of politicians, so I think I must have been corrupted, because now I just can’t see a politician without wanting to kick them in the goolies.”

At that Sir Lindsay gave a start and gripped the table, his eyes hardened, and I sensed I had said the wrong thing, and was not being politically correct, so I tried to make amends.

“Er, I’m not being sexist Sir Lindsay, I want to kick female politicians in the goolies as well.”

Apparently still not right.

“Mr Neal,” he said coldly, “we take the safety of politicians very seriously.”

“I was of course speaking in a flippant journalistic metaphorical sense, only a literalist moron would think…”

I stopped before I dug a deeper hole for myself.

“I’m all for freedom of the press, Mr Neal,” said Sir Lindsay. “But we are not going to attract people from all sections of society into politics if they know they will have to put up with the sort of things journalists like you write.”

At this point he leant forward slowly, and in a rich Yorkshire accent – odd that, as he’s from Lancashire – he added: “So stop it.”

It was a good meeting, I think. I am a re-educated, reconstructed, and reformed journalist, and realise now that when MPs call each other liars, cheats, scum, and suchlike, that is all in the political game, and it is down to us in the press to uphold standards of public debate and show due deference to our politicians.

The exit door was by a bustling MPs’ office marked “Apply For Directorships/Consultancies In Here", and was opposite the room where Sir Keir Starmer, that saintly exemplar of somebody to trust in politics, was caught red handed a little while back trying to flush 17.4 million votes down a toilet.

As I left Parliament some faceless aide emerged from a side room to hand me a textbook model example of how to report Parliament without causing offence, so I am delighted this week to bring you an exclusive statement from Boris Johnson about this and that.

Headed “Press Release from the Prime Minister’s Office” it reads: “Wizard prang! Why the long face? All is tip top as we put our shoulders to the wheel and head for the sunlit uplands. Cheers!”