On the desk there are three empty, supersized cans of Red Bull, a few McDonald's ketchup sachets, painkillers, scrunched-up napkins, a dog-eared notebook or two, a plastic cup full of change, a Snickers, several bottles of water, two pairs of sunglasses, three monitors and a TV perpetually tuned to Sky News. Behind me, there are boxes with wires spewing out of them, a video camera, ring binders piled on top of one another and two massive cartons of duty-free Marlboro Lights.
It's not the scene you'd expect to find at the HQ of an organisation that strikes fear deep into Westminster's oak-panelled corridors of power. But that's exactly what the Guido Fawkes blog (order-order.com) does.
Major scalps include Damian McBride, the former spin doctor for then-prime minister Gordon Brown, whose political career came to an abrupt end when the website revealed his plans to anonymously publish smears about the private lives of senior Tory MPs; and Peter Hain, once a Labour leadership contender, who had his ambitions scuppered by a series of revelations concerning donations made to his campaign.
Guido Fawkes had a hand in the downfall of former Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne (who was later convicted of perverting the course of justice after asking his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, to accept penalty points for his speeding offence) and the former Labour MP Denis MacShane (who was found guilty of fiddling his expenses). All three went to prison after being relentlessly hounded by the blog.
"With Huhne, people were saying, 'Let it go, you're starting to look obsessed,'" says Paul Staines, the softly spoken 47-year-old who began blogging under the Guido Fawkes pseudonym 10 years ago. "But he went down in the end." Staines, whose blue shirt has come unbuttoned enough to reveal some of his not inconsiderable paunch, motions to the office wall where there are A4 printouts of vanquished foes with cross hairs photoshopped on to their faces – a blogger's equivalent of stags' heads in the hunting lodge. "When the cross hairs go up, you know it's over," he says. "Although, Harry did once put them on Vince Cable."
"To be fair, I was quite pissed," Staines' colleague Harry Cole replies.
Cole became a trusted lieutenant in 2009 after establishing his own successful blog, Tory Bear. Now 28, he is concurrently news editor of the Guido Fawkes website, contributing editor of The Spectator and writes a gossip column for GQ. By reputation, he is also something of a man about town – or at least the Westminster village.
The third full-time member of the team is Alex Wickham, 23, known to everyone as Wiki. Having impressed during a summer "working on some illegal wage," he signed up full-time after graduating from Bath university in 2012. Staines also calls on Simon Carr, a seasoned sketch writer who has worked for The Independent, and a small ads team that sells space for a network of blogs and websites.
The purpose of all of this is to dig for dirt and laughs at the expense of MPs and any of their associates who sully their hands. Guido Fawkes' style is uncompromising, scathing and innuendo-laden. Stories about corruption, incompetence, lying and scandals sit alongside more gossipy stuff and traffic-generating clickbait such as photoshopped pictures, short videos and sound bites. The tone is unapologetically right wing, with free-market economics and Thatcherism serving as two firm ideological pillars.
But after a decade inveigling its way closer and closer to the offices of state, there are those – not least the site's comment-thread writers – who claim that the blog has itself become too cosy with the establishment and that it even risks becoming part of the old cabal that it set out to disrupt.
"In the beginning, people were asking 'Who the fuck is he?'" Staines says. "So, now I think it's ironic that we're being accused of being part of the establishment, although we are now part of the mainstream of Westminster politics. And I think we were a question on a quiz show once, which was a breakthrough moment.
"No one's off-limits," Staines says. There are sympathetic (often Conservative) politicians that the blog has a working relationship with, "but if the right story came in, we'd pull the trigger and they know that. In fact, some of the most productive exchanges we have are with people who have had [rough treatment] before and don't want it to happen again. We like a good vendetta. And if we take against you, we're going to make your life horrible."
Others have decided to take a pre-emptive approach to the horse-trading: Staines says that the son of a prominent Labour figure is among those to feed the blog information in the knowledge that "we won't go out of our way to shit on him".
The day I spend in the Guido Fawkes office in central London coincides with Prime Minister's Questions. The usual form is for the team to sit around the TV shouting obscenities while stoking some kind of row (and generating site traffic) on Twitter. But today's session is flat so instead, after posting a story about an MP breaking up a fight in a Pret A Manger, Wickham plays me a recording left on the website's inbox.
Despite setting up the system in order to enable people to leave messages anonymously, Staines says he's pretty sure he knows who the person is, and has reason to believe that their allegations – of being bullied while working for a female Labour MP – are genuine. However, without giving away the identity of the source, there's no way to independently establish the truth of the allegations, so publishing them in raw form could attract unwanted attention from lawyers. The decision is taken to distort the voice message and bleep out some of the particulars, including the name of the MP. Anyway, Staines says, regular readers will make an educated guess.
On the way to lunch, he explains that while someone "with unlimited funds" could successfully sue the blog, for most mere mortals it would be a difficult task. This is because the website is registered in the Caribbean tax haven of Nevis, while Staines is officially a resident in the Republic of Ireland, usually flying in from his family home to spend Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in London. On top of that, after declaring himself bankrupt (due to an expensive and failed attempt to sue his former boss at a hedge fund), there is little point in going after him personally. All major assets are in the name of his wife, a former City lawyer. "The only problem is, if we do ever get divorced, I'm totally fucked."
When we arrive at the pub around the corner, the barmaid suggests his usual tipple – a bottle of chablis. Over a chorizo burger, he tells me that the blog started off on a small scale. "I did it all wrong, got about 60 hits a month and most of that was probably me pressing refresh to see if there had been any comments." Then, in the build-up to the 2005 general election, Staines spotted a Labour poster campaign that depicted then-Tory leader Michael Howard, who is Jewish, as a Fagin-like figure and a flying pig. Staines thought the posters could be perceived as anti-Semitic, so put a story on his blog. It made the London Evening Standard's front page, generating publicity for Guido and attracting new readers.
"For years, I thought 10,000 readers a day was the limit, but now I give [Cole and Wickham] hell if we don't have 100,000. Tory MPs all read it, and I think the Labour ones do, too, because they want to find out what their colleagues are up to." But Staines reckons that Westminster accounts for no more than 15 per cent of his traffic. The reason politically-minded members of the general public also read the blog is because it has the popular appeal of the Murdoch newspapers he admires. "We do lowbrow and highbrow. We do the big issues and proper stories, but then we'll also have a picture of a researcher with big tits."
In fact, a recent poll by the market research company Ipsos Mori found that the blog is read by 65 per cent of all MPs. That puts it ahead of any newspaper, magazine, or single TV programme. Only Sky News is more popular among politicians. But Staines won't reveal how much money that influence translates to, beyond saying that the blog's annual revenue runs to six figures. In the past, the coffers were boosted by selling one-off exclusives to the highest bidder, but a lucrative contract to write a weekly column in The Sun on Sunday means that, these days, that paper alone has first dibs on any juicy stories.
Staines says it isn't about getting into bed with the old guard, but about reaching a different audience and a basic question of economics. "When we were negotiating, we thought of a number... and added 10 grand to it."
And anyway, Staines says, "part of the reason for setting up the blog was that the journalism [in the national press] was shit". He's been a vocal critic of the parliamentary lobby system, that, as he sees it, means a lot of mainstream political journalism is little more than symbiotic back-scratching between hacks who want to be seen as insiders and politicians who want to get their message heard. But Staines' main motivation seems to be his hatred of the political class and a desire to reveal its hypocrisy. "The lying in politics is on an industrial scale," he says. "It really is that bad. You can trust very few of them."
But there must be one or two honest people in Westminster? "It's hard for them to rise to the top," he says. "That Robert Redford film, The Candidate , is true to life. You start out idealistic, then you make a compromise here, a compromise there, and soon you're doing the same thing that you went into politics to stop. Blair was a CND supporter at first but ended up starting wars."
The Guido Fawkes team. From left: sketch writer Simon Carr; news editor Harry Cole; new recruit Alex Wickham; and blog founder Paul Staines. "We were going for 'obnoxious Ron Burgundy'," Wickham says of the team vibe for this shot
He also mentions a politician who has publicly lied about having an affair ("I know because he told me about it when we had lunch a few months ago"), and says a well-known married MP is secretly gay ("Well, he might not be gay, but his boyfriend certainly is").
Staines isn't overly enamoured with the current crop of party leaders either. Cameron is a "posh smoothie", Miliband a "weird, loser-geek" and Clegg is "sad and depressed". Nigel Farage ("great fun") is the only one who meets with his approval, but Staines does admit that the rest of Ukip is "an absolute freak show."
In the past, he has described his own politics as "Thatcher on drugs" but today says that he's "an economic and civil libertarian. Although I'm a bit unusual because I'm a libertarian that supports hanging." As a low-cost deterrent for the worst crimes? "I've always been a gut hanger. I don't care if it's a deterrent, it just serves them fucking right."
Staines partly puts his website's success down to the work ethic he developed by getting up at 5:30am every morning when he worked as a bond broker, and adds that although the blog came from humble beginnings, the "blogger in his pyjamas in his kitchen" stereotype was never accurate. "I used to work in politics in my twenties and there are people in Downing Street now who I was in student politics with, so I was never a complete outsider, but I was someone who wasn't afraid to do that." He flicks me the bird.
Staines has said he was "kicked out" of the Humberside College of Higher Education "for smoking dope", and his CV includes a spell organising raves in the Nineties, but he admits that he treads a different path these days. "Clearly now," he says, "when you're on first name terms with cabinet ministers, you can't claim to be an outsider." Staines doesn't meet privately with David Cameron, but the PM is known to be a regular reader. "At the Tory party conference, all the political editors were invited to go and speak to him and there were about 20 of us in the room. Cameron has this thing – whenever he sees me or Harry – of bounding up to us. He did it then, said, 'Sorry, Patrick' to Patrick Wintour [The Guardian's political editor] and bounded up to me instead. It might be because he thinks we're a bit more fun, or he might do it to tease the others. I don't know, but it always amuses me because it annoys the political editors."
Staines goes on to reveal he is now trusted enough by the establishment to have received a call earlier this year from the Metropolitan Police. According to Staines, the officer who spoke with him asked questions about Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror, in connection with Operation Golding, the investigation into phone-hacking at Morgan's former employer. Staines referred the Met to the evidence he gave at the Leveson Inquiry and suggested the police speak to certain former colleagues of Morgan at Trinity Mirror. In March this year, four past and present Trinity Mirror editors were arrested in connection with the probe before being bailed.
"But we're not part of the system," protests Staines. "I'm pretty resolute about that. Every so often we do turn over the tables. If we haven't crossed the line every two or three months and gone too far, then we're not doing our job." Already, he says, they are starting to target "the next generation of younger Labour MPs". Good-looking, media-savvy operators such as Luciana Berger and shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna are mentioned by name.
Staines says that even in the age of Twitter, and now that MPs are on their guard in the wake of the expenses scandal, the old-fashioned methods continue to bear fruit. A lot of the blog's stories still come from chatting to politicos over drinks at events and receptions. "Alcohol always helps," he says. "And gossip is useless unless you tell someone. It makes them feel important."
Increasingly, Staines says, it's down to Cole and Wickham to drink with with the inhabitants of the Westminster village to get stories. "In fact, I want Harry's life. He gets to shag all the girls, he's famous in Westminster, he's not badly paid and he half does it all for fun anyway."
With lunch and the chablis finished, we part ways and agree to meet up the following week so that I can tag along to a couple of functions on the political circuit and observe the team in their element. In the meantime, I decide to do a bit of canvassing and find out what other people make of Staines and his blog. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger decline to comment, but Tory MP and sometime Have I Got News For You guest Michael Fabricant is more willing. He describes Guido as "required reading" and says that what appears on the site in the coming months "might well have an effect on the general election" next spring. "The moral of the story is 'be well behaved'," he adds, laughing. Channel 4 political correspondent Michael Crick sounds a note of caution that "he's not always fair and balanced in his stories" and "might not always apply the same journalistic rigour of those in newspapers and broadcasting." But, Crick adds, "Having said that, so many of his stories are true. He's broken endless scoops. And yes, people do fear him, because he's fearless – and followed."
Eventually one MP, Labour's Tom Watson, does break cover. He's been highly critical of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, but has some kind words about Staines. "He's a cheeky scamp, charismatic and good company socially," he says. "And he has focus, bordering on obsession, so he's dogged in pursuit of stories. I admired the way he took on the mainstream media early on, but now he's a columnist on The Sun – it's like he's giving up on the revolution. He's an establishment figure these days and no one will be more bemused by that than Paul himself."
An establishment figure, however, is not the type of description that immediately springs to mind when I meet Staines the following week. He's due to take part in a panel discussion on "new media" at the Guildhall in the City of London, but informs me that he might have had "a few Jägerbombs" with "lunch". He says all of this, though, while leaning on a framed oil painting – Reception of King George V and Queen Mary at the West door of St Paul's Cathedral, Jubilee Day – that is more than 14ft long and 5ft tall. Fortunately, he's asked to take his seat before he can tear the canvas from its moorings and, after delivering a rambling opening remark about selling fax machines in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, gets through without further alarm.
Next, we move on to another event in the sun-dappled gardens of Westminster College. Having met up with Cole and Wickham, he takes a glass of white wine in hand and disappears into the crowd of MPs, policy wonks, lobbyists and press officers. When a veteran tabloid hack hears that I'm writing about Guido Fawkes' blog, he takes me aside to offer a word of advice: "Notice the look in their eyes when they see him; they're all terrified."
Everyone does a good job of at least pretending to be pleased to see all three of them, and when much of the crowd moves on to a historic Westminster boozer, an adviser to the Prime Minister even goes so far as to buy Staines a jug of Pimm's. Staines, Cole and Wickham take the opportunity to toast a hard-fought victory that has been given a fresh coat of gloss by events today.
The front page of Portsmouth's paper The News called for local MP Mike Hancock to resign over revelations that he had an "inappropriate friendship with a female constituent" with mental health problems – a story that Guido first clamped on to way back in 2010.
"That's what we're able to do," says Cole when I ask him about how they broke the story. "An editor at a national newspaper wouldn't let a reporter do a story on the same MP and the same scandal week after week, year after year. But when there's a thread of a story, we can get hold of it and keep on pulling and pulling and pulling until it all unravels. He was a wrong 'un."
After an abortive attempt to move on from the pub to a nearby Chinese restaurant-cum-karaoke bar, the people of Westminster eventually disperse at about midnight, leaving the Guido trio to enter into a slightly slurred debate about whose job it is to post the first story on the blog tomorrow morning. Then, with another target chalked off the list, they'll have to decide who to set their sights on next.
Photography: Dan Burn-Forti