Working as a lobby journalist, former Labour Party staffer Andy McSmith has had exclusive access to our top politicians for decades. In his new book Strange People I Have Known, Andy shares his personal encounters with the giants of British politics, revealing what they are really like behind the scenes.

Andy gives us a flavour of the book in this short Q&A.


How has political journalism changed since you started?

Back in the day, without satellite television, the internet or mobile phones, political journalists would spend hours standing in the lobby next to the Commons debating chamber, hoping to snatch conversations with MPs as they passed through and make their faces known. These days, journalists have to spend much more time at their desks, keeping watch on rolling news bulletins and on Twitter, or texting, or emailing; if they want to talk to someone face to face, it will usually be in the large communal cafe in Portcullis House.



What advice would you give a budding journalist?

Some journalists build a career by ingratiating the bosses; others, by being good at what they do. Being good at what you do is much more fun.


What are the problems in the journalism industry and how would you remedy them?

The biggest problem is that the internet all but destroyed the newspaper industry’s business model. Local newspapers in particular used to have pages crammed with hundreds of small advertisements; now there are almost none.

This is not a problem for those who comment on the news, who are enjoying more freedom than ever. If a commentator tires of answering to an editor, they can switch to Substack or launch a podcast.

But the expensive business of reporting the news has taken a knock. A one-sentence comment posted on Twitter by somebody famous can be front-page ‘news’, because monitoring Twitter costs nothing. Meanwhile, a committee somewhere is making a decision with momentous implications, or a court is reaching a verdict that will change the course of someone’s life, but the press bench is empty, because paying someone to listen and to report is expensive.


Who is the strangest person you have met who features in the book? 

The oddest person to appear in the book is someone I did not name, out of kindness; they were a millennial Trotskyist who believed in the coming of the worldwide proletarian revolution with the same absolute conviction that a Christian fundamentalist believes in the Second Coming. Pointless to reason or to argue, but worth listening to, once.


Which three people mentioned in the book would you most like to have lunch with and why?

Margaret Thatcher, Edward Heath and Tony Blair. It is a terrible shame that Blair is remembered more than anything else for his disastrous decision to involve the UK in the invasion of Iraq. He could have gone down in history for the part he played in ending thirty years of civil war in Northern Ireland. He succeeded in getting Unionists and Republicans to talk and to cooperate, but could he, with all his charm and sense of mission, persuade Thatcher and Heath to have a civil conversation? I doubt it.


You have met, interviewed and written about many high-profile people. Who do you wish you could have interviewed and why?

Winston Churchill. We all know what his greatest achievement was, but I would ask him which was his worst mistake out of the many things he got wrong. An honest answer would be intriguing – historic, even – but probably I would be told not to be so impertinent.


Strange People I Have Known … And Other Stories is out now.

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