TONY BLAIR was waiting for me in Downing Street. Me and some others. And actually he probably wasn’t waiting, he was probably doing stuff. He was Prime Minister after all. But we were due to chat, at his invitation, about the forthcoming Mayoral election in London. Labour’s first choice of candidate, Red Ken Livingstone, had gone unofficial and Labour had pushed Frank Dobson forward to make some semblance of a fight of it. Tony had arranged some face time with journalists as part of the Labour charm offensive and I, as London Metro’s man in the right place at the right time, had been selected to do the interview. It was a bit of an honour: certainly the only world leader I would be talking to that day and it had fallen into my lap.
I had a little chat with myself, jotted down some questions and took instructions on angles the office wanted covered. I was trying to come up something that would set my story apart, some way I might connect with Tony that might be different. As I left my editor Ian MacGregor warned me not to say anything stupid. Mindreading is not a bad superpower to have when you’re in charge of a newspaper.
It was my first visit to Number 10. There was a Tardis effect when I went in: it was bigger on the inside that it seemed on the outside. The Downing Street exterior suggested a modest townhouse but past the famous black front door was a vast entrance hall with corridors running off in all directions.
It was a busy place, full of young people in suits striding urgently from one corridor to another. There were fiercely serious expressions everywhere. At any moment I expected someone to growl at me: “Out of my way, I’m running the country.”
I saw famous people. There was Jeremy Paxman with an impressively large head but a surprisingly short body. The impressively tall Peter Snow arrived pulling bicycle clips off his ankles and and then displayed a surprisingly short temper by ordering the assembled print hacks to quieten down. There was recording going on beyond the door.
There is no reason why famous people should be cool and Big Pete, to his credit, was not in the least bit worried about not being cool. Evidently there is a way you behave when you are hanging around in Number 10 waiting to interview the PM and if we didn’t know it then he was quite happy to demonstrate that he did. To be fair there was a certain amount of excited chatter going on. I was clearly not the only first timer in Downing Street among our number.
Snowy had just got us hushed when with perfect upset-the-applecart timing Cherie Blair wafted into the throng. She had taken a lot of tabloid sniping about her appearance because she has a knack, like me, of ruining pictures by being in them. Her saving grace is that she is also like Butch Cassidy in that she is better when she moves. You either get the reference or you don’t. Watch the film.
Cherie immediately created a buzz, flirting her way through us like a knife through butter. I was surprised by how curvy she looked. My photographer for the job was a young lad who had arrived in a leather biker’s jacket and Cherie homed in on him.
“Ooh, who’s he? He’s nice,” she laughed excitedly like she was on some kind of mini safari through a pack of beasts who were behaving themselves because they had been promised food. One wrong move though…
We were escorted through to the Cabinet Room. On the way we passed Alistair Campbell presiding over a bank of staff at dozens of monitors. He didn’t look up. I wondered what they needed so many monitors for. Nothing in the United Kingdom needs that much monitoring.
Then there was Tony, so pleased to see me he was grinning like The Joker. His handshake achieved the category of firmness that makes you want to say “ooh nice” but I didn’t because Mr Stupid had been gagged and bound for this job.
I was shown to a seat while Tony checked whether there was time for a cup of tea and was duly brought one. It is probably the only time in my life I have been in the company of someone who was drinking tea without being offered one myself.
I’m in England, I was thinking, not just England but the capital, the Prime Minister’s residence, in the company of the Prime Minister and NOT being invited to take part in the most basic English bonding ritual there is. Tony had got so much right: the suit, the youthful business-like demeanour, the voice of reason but if that chummy, blokey, sleeves-up-and-rule persona was real where was the “fancy a cuppa?”
There followed ten minutes of verbal press release about local government politics in London. This was dull but actually a spectacular demonstration of why Blair was so effective. My questions were just prompts bringing forth a cascade of argument and detail, on message and quotable. Not everyone could do that. I know I couldn’t. There wasn’t enough time in Blair’s day for the amount of line-learning and rehearsal I would have needed.
Journalists tend to sneer when someone’s presentation skills are that good. We mention it as though a dark hint that this person is ‘a little too polished’ equates to objectivity on our part. It doesn’t. It’s just quicker and easier than actually finding out if something is being covered up. That kind of feeble laziness is how governments get away with wars that shouldn’t happen.
Labour’s left wing sneered at Blair the same way but his ability to communicate is a skill that does not grow on trees. It’s not that lesser communicators would have somehow made a worse job of churning out Labour’s message, it’s more the fact that they would not have set up the interviews in the first place. The publicity event would never have happened.
So Blair was good but he didn’t fool me of course because of that gaff with the tea. I still don’t know whether that influenced my next decision. I had been considering sharing a sycophantic little anecdote with him. Briefly, it related to a picture of him being interviewed ‘on the stump’ during the election by my other half. It was on our living room wall and my eldest son, as a toddler, had got into the curious habit of kissing mummy in the picture and then Tony Blair goodnight when he was being carried up to bed.
It was something and nothing. I thought it just might have teased some offhand quip about being a dad out of him. It was in my head as I got up to leave the room but it was an unwieldy story and I didn’t particularly want to characterise my son as a Blair-kisser when the man didn’t even offer me a cup of tea. What would he really have to say about parenting during an interview about the Mayoral elections anyway?
On the way back to the office the cab driver had the radio on. There was news breaking.
“Tony Blair is to be a father again at the age of…”
I heard myself saying to the cab driver: “I’ve just been talking to him…” at the same time as I was experiencing a private sinking feeling.
My notebook was bulging with pages of now useless shorthand notes. No-one was going to be interested in what Tony had to say about the mayoral elections when Cherie (SHE LOOKED CURVY GODDAMIT) was freshly pregnant and Tony was going to be a serving prime minister with a baby (WHAT WOULD HE REALLY HAVE TO SAY ABOUT PARENTING??).
The Mirror had got hold of the story in some underhand way apparently and Number 10 decided to release it to the Press Association as a spoiler. Nothing I could have said would have prevented that but who knows how close I came to some exclusive quotes. Instead in the time it took for a black cab to travel from Downing Street to Surrey Quays the great wheel of news had turned and, as far as the next day’s paper was concerned, I had nothing.