Gordon Brown showed himself to be charming, funny even. Who knew?
To 10 Downing Street for an invite from Gordon Brown to meet the editors of the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME). About two weeks before the day of the reception, a special pass arrived through the post confirming that I needed to bring my passport as ID; when I actually arrived at the large black wrought iron gates, I flashed my security pass/invite and felt a twinge of guilt as I smiled happily at the policeman.
What I didn’t tell him as I walked through – and put my jacket through airport style security x -ray machine – into the heavily scaffolded street was that (and I am embarrassed to admit this now that I am editor of Spear’s) I was partly responsible for Downing Street putting up the security iron gates back in 1992-ish.
What happened was that I was working – aged about 22 – as a junior reporter on The Times as a graduate trainee and had been sent off by the news-desk to ‘investigate’ Whitehall security the day after an IRA bomb had gone off during the Cenotaph parade, only yards away from the Prime Minister and assorted royals, including the Queen (I think).
The IRA had been busy that winter and I just happened to be passing by Victoria station on a bus towards Wapping when the IRA had tried to blow up Victoria Station. Having rushed onto the scene of the bombing, I had spoken to various eye-witnesses and some victims of the bombing and had returned to Wapping with blood marks smeared all over my notebook.
That had led to the new ‘Whitehall” security investigation assignment. The result was that I walked around Whitehall flashing an expired video rental card at the security entrances of most of the most officious looking entrances, including the inner sanctum of the Foreign Office and the House of Commons. The hoopla caused Whitehall to revise their security procedures and a new gated entrance was installed on Downing Street. Remarkably, until 1991, anybody – and this was before the days of al-Qaeda – could casually walk past 10 Downing Street if they wanted to cut through from Whitehall to St James’s Park.
I remember when I was sent to cover the last days of the Thatcher regime, I spent hours standing outside Downing Street and I was there when the final resignation came on 22 November 1990, I was outside, along with dozens of other reporters, pundits and photographers from around the world. Today, this could never happen.
I wonder sometimes how the police today even know who the ministers are, should Gordon Brown want a late night chat or glass of whisky with one of his senior, or junior, team. So many of the ministers today look like tourists who might just be walking along Whitehall to pose next to a member of the Household Cavalry standing to attention outside Horse Guards, or perhaps walking down Parliament Street on way to Trafalgar Square. Do all junior ministers they get special Downing Street passes?; do they have to carry passports or photo ID at all times.
As I was ushered through by the police-man at the gates last Tuesday night, I wondered if any senior ministers – in our age of non-charismatic politicians who so often look like young university lecturers from Imperial College or overweight Councillors from Wolverhampton – have had to use their local video card to prove who they are?
I had never met Gordon Brown before; I had never been inside Downing Street before. The first thing that I liked about the place was that it does feel like a house, albeit a warren of a house. In fact, it felt like walking into a St James’s club like the In and Out, or The Carlton Club.
The real action – walking past the historic line of photographs of past PMs – happens upstairs in a huge dog-legged reception room where all the editors co-mingled drinking red or white wine or elderflower. The food – unlike in the Palace of Westminster where the canapes are rather average – was excellent; all very British or colonial, sausages on sticks, roast beef, Malaysian chicken satay: clearly the editors of such publications ranging from Accountancy Today to BMX Biker, from Vogue to the Guardian Magazine, from Dog’s Today to Ski Monthly, were considered important to have on side.
And the PM didn’t disappoint. He answered questions, worked the room, and came across as eminently charming and personable – very different from his rather stiff public/interview persona. He then made a brief and hilarious speech which I didn’t expect at all, talking about his early experiences with the media, including the time when he spoke down the phone Down Under for ten minutes as a young MP, talking about Australian prime minister Bob Hawke and what qualities he shared with New Labour, only to have his interviewer interject: ‘But Mr Brown you are live on Radio Auckland – talking to New Zealand’.
An interesting guest who walked in through the front door at the same time as a colleague was Alistair Darling who didn’t step into greet the editors but waited downstairs in the Cabinet Room for a meeting with the PM – no doubt to discuss the financial crisis and the US/European bail out plan.
As he left, the PM’s wife Sarah took over as host and couldn’t have been more entertaining and charming as she was grilled by a gang of fashionista editors. I couldn’t but help notice that Sarah Brown was wearing what looked like two thick sweaters – presumably because the Browns are watching the Downing Street heating bill. Glad to know that the credit crunch is hitting Downing Street as much as anywhere else.