Written by Roger Allen
The cupboard was bare, the UK economy was broke. In the following weeks Britain would crash out of the Exchange Rate Mechanise (ERM) and interest rates would soar to 15%. The mismanaging of this financial disaster was presided over by Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont.
He and John Major sought to cover up the massive hole in the country’s finances by, as all governments do, lying. And with the train about to hit the buffers they all shrugged their shoulders and said: “Oh well let’s go on holiday.”
Mr. Lamont went to one of the most exclusive parts of Italy, leaving his staff grappling with the mad maths of the ERM and the German interest rates.
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When word leaked out that Norman had fled the country the hunt was on to find him. It didn’t take long to run him to ground in Porto Ercole, situated on an island connected by three causeways from the mainland 35 miles south of Florence.
With all the hotels full, my travelling companion and top reporter Geoff Sutton and I took rooms at the Hotel Pellicano, a five-star establishment, where we told the office, Mr Lamont was staying. The fact he never arrived didn’t matter. It was so expensive we had one room to share overlooking the twinkling waters of the Med.
That night we sat in the bar drinking Bellinis waiting for the chancellor to waft in, but he didn’t. But never ones to leave our post, we sat it out . . . until 2am.
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The next morning the sea looked a bit too bright! Mike Moore, photographer from Today, had turned up overnight along with his reporter who had fresh info. Lamont was staying at The Villa Saffi, the home of Woodrow Wyatt, later know as Baron Wyatt of Weeford no less.
The search was on for Villa Saffi, and we found it high in the hills overlooking the port. It was a solid building set in pine woods with a large swimming pool and surrounded by a large hedge.
With a view of the front entrance we sat for most of the day waiting for our prey to arrive. Around lunchtime we adjourned to a small restaurant a mile or so away from Villa Saffi. Rustic sprang to mind with rouge tablecloths and local Tuscan wine in bottles set upon them.
I had mushroom soup that was fantastically thick with fresh mushrooms blended to a perfect constancy, served with a drizzle of olive oil on the top and some bread. The perfect lunch in the shade of swaying pines.
Night came – still no show from the Lamonts. Mike had more intelligence, saying he was coming late that night or very early in the morning.
“The only way to do this, Roger, is to get in the grounds of the villa before dawn,” Mike said.
“Right OK,” I replied with an element of doubt.
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That night we dined in the port, and were well and truly overserved on the wine front. Nevertheless, at 5.30am Mike parked his car out of sight of the villa. After wandering around looking for the best way to get in the grounds we found a section of broken fence. The ground ran steeply down towards the pool which we considered would be the first port of call for the chancellor.
Two shallow hollows among the carpet of pine needles made the perfect spots to lay low and wait. We were about 50 meters apart. I had a 300mm lens and Mike had bazooka like 600mm. We both settled down. I fell asleep after about 10 minutes, Mike a veteran of the Gulf war remained awake. He was horrified when I started snoring loudly.
“Roger, Roger for fuck’s sake wake up,” he hissed.
It was only a barrage of pine cones landing on my face that brought me round.
He was about to explain when a radio in the house bust into life with sounds of Lilliburlero heralding the start of the BBC World Service.
“Christ get ready here they come,” whispered Mike.
We both raised our cameras waiting for the shot of Norman poolside.
From the house strode a man completely naked. Our hopes soared. The man got nearer the pool and in one move he leapt off his feet and made a perfect dive into the pool. But it was not Norman but the Baron, the villa owner, going for his morning dip.
The next thing we both knew was when the gardener was standing over us with a double barrel shotgun cradled in his arms. Without a word we raised our hands and retreated back to the car. Our cover had been blown.
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When we returned to the villa later in the day two police cars stood guard by the front gates. The guests had arrived.
For the next two days we hovered around the port waiting to see if the Lamonts ventured out. As the four of us sat sipping coffee a man approached us.
“Listen you guys why don’t you fuck off and leave Lamont alone. I’m George Pascoe Watson from the Sun and I’m here to do an exclusive interview – you being here is making it not happen,” he said in a posh Scottish accent.
All four of us burst out laughing at the same time, Geoff was first to rise to his feet.
“I suggest you either sit down and have a coffee and be nice or we’ll throw you in the fucking harbour – your choice.”
The future political editor turned and stomped off.
Word in the ears of editors in London from No. 10 was to leave the chancellor to enjoy his holiday and pull out. Today and The Sun did just that but the pugnacious Mirror editor Richard Stott ignored the warning telling us to get Lamont at all costs.
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Left to our own devices Geoff and I set about waiting in earnest in a quayside restaurant with a perfect view of the jetty. What holidaymaker worth his salt would not go on a boat trip, we decided.
Parking in the town was very limited. On day one of our vigil I parked, unbeknownst to me, in a restricted space. Lunch rolled on and fruity red wine flowed and by the time we came back to the car it had gone. A man told us it had been towed away. As we couldn’t drive it anyway we left it in the car pound till the next morning. The fine was a bit steep, in today’s money about 100 euro’s. Stott did say at any cost!
The next day I was more careful with the parking zone – a two hour slot in a side street. No problem. Back at our observation post lunch was getting into full swing. I had a Caprese Salad, followed by Penne alla Matriciana, and dessert was a beautiful hazelnut cake. The wine had flowed again so we decided to leave the car and get a taxi back to the hotel.
“I’ll just check the car’s okay Geoff, get a cab,” I said. We both roared with laughter later when I discovered it had been towed again.
The third day we hit the jackpot! Just before 11am two Carabinieri cars with horns blasting swept onto the quayside and following on behind was a large black Mercedes we had seen parked at the villa.
“It’s them Geoff” I said.
I grabbed my camera and ran along the edge of the dock. The three cars pulled up beside a very nice boat called the Santa Maria. The Mercedes parked close to the gangplank, the back doors swung open and out stepped Norman Lamont quickly followed by his wife Rosemary and two kids. They were up the gangplank in a flash. I raised the camera and fired off a volley of frames.
One of the Carabinieri had spotted me doing my job, and started running straight at me. Geoff, seeing what was happening, stepped in the path of the officer and started asking questions. His actions gave me enough time to rewind the film and replace it with a blank one.
I tried to hide in a phone box but was seen straight away. The Carabinieri parked their car close to the door stopping me from getting out. I held up the roll of film by means of surrender and after 10 minutes they let me out. After a lot of shouting “capire, capire” Geoff and I strolled off back to the bar.
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As we sat down the Lamont’s boat glided past our spot and I fired off a few frames of it sailing away.
The next day the paper used a whole page of pictures with the headline “All at sea.”