Tag Archives: Gordon Brown

The Grid Guru And The Smoking Room

Me with Paul

Last night I was at Walkers, just off Whitehall, at retirement drinks for Paul Brown, who has been the guardian and guru of the government grid for the past 12 years.

I first met Paul in the smoking room at No 10, which was a dingy little room in the basement where the smokers in the building would come and go through the day. It doubled as the cleaners’ changing room. They also made their toast in there, which added to the unique aroma of ash and smoke, scorched bread and furniture polish.

There was a large table in the middle which smokers would sit around, shooting the acrid breeze before returning to their desks. At various times of day you’d see Jon Cruddas, then working in Tony Blair’s political office, drawing on a fag, thumb on cheek, brow furrowed, like he was playing a tricky poker hand. Or Anji Hunter, bustling in for a brisk, businesslike nicotine fix, aiming shrewd questions at members of the smokers’ focus group – ‘Mark, how would you describe the Third Way in one sentence?’. Er. Cigarette three quarters smoked, she’d rearrange whichever floaty scarf she was wearing, delve into her bag for her breath freshener, a quick spray, and off she went.

It was a democratic, gossipy gathering of people doing jobs at all levels. Detectives, Garden Room girls, messengers, IT, press officers, duty clerks, policy advisers.  It was in the smoking room that a chat with the head of IT, when I mentioned that I was looking for a flat, led to me buying his place in Streatham. It’s the flat I still live in, twelve years on.

A not infrequent visitor to the smoking room was the cardiganed figure of Paul Brown. He rolled his own cigarettes in the very precise, meticulous way that characterises everything he does. He was always interesting to chat to, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of, amongst other things, civil war battlefields, a sphinx-like smile and an ability to calmly take everything in his stride. When you’re dealing with the competing and sometimes antithetical policy and media demands of ministers and their departments, that’s a required quality.

Paul is rightly highly regarded as the civil servant par excellence, totally professional, hard-working and completely without the vanity that sometimes infects people who are doing important jobs. Whatever you think about the management of communications, through his management of the grid of events and announcements, Paul has done an enormous amount to make government communications more strategic and effective, serving three prime ministers – Blair, Brown and Cameron.

So I think it was a measure of the respect and affection Paul has earned over the years that the bar at Walkers was a friendly crush of people from Downing Street and Whitehall, past and present. It was nice to catch up with some old colleagues, Labour and civil service, and chat to some of the current bunch of No 10 staffers.

Paul has been one of the back-room heroes, and I wish him well in his retirement from Downing Street, and all the things he does in the future. And it’s good to hear he has successfully given up smoking.

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Why not have a Brown-Cameron debate?

Peter Mandelson is ‘open’ to a broadcast debate between the party leaders at the next general election. He said yesterday: “The public needs to choose and find out what is behind these leaders, who has the most experience, the best ideas and who can really build Britain’s future.”

And why not? It’s a kite that gets flown by broadcasters every time there’s a general election in the offing. There’s an inevitability that it will happen one day. So why not just say yes and get on with it.

As a former Labour press officer I remember tedious exchanges of letters between party and media bigwigs, which generally galloped towards brinkmanship and ended up, at the brink, with a frosty agreement to disagree.

Head-to-head debate is so familiar in our culture, from the marketplace hustings of past centuries to BBC Question Time today, that it seems odd that in Britain we don’t have a debate between party leaders.

It’s an accepted part of national elections in other modern democracies – the US being the best-known example. In the US, the debates are carefully moderated and prepared for at length beforehand.

Over here the argument against has always been that we have a parliamentary democracy and voters are electing their MPs, not the prime minister. Whilst that is true, it’s also the case that voters are electing a government which will be led by a prime minister. So it makes sense to line those candidates up for national inspection, just as at the next election parliamentary candidates will be lined up at hustings in hundreds of community halls for local inspection.

After Lord Mandelson gave his view, it has been said that No 10 suggested Gordon Brown remains against the idea (just as Tony Blair was). Whatever Brown’s view is – let’s not forget there are far bigger national issues on his desk – I have no doubt he (like Blair) could wipe the floor with Messrs Cameron and Clegg on substance and policy, depending on the format.

Ah, it’s always the format that is the problem, with three parties (at least) involved, each wanting to insist on the format that suits their position best. It would be like organising a wedding ceremony where the bride and groom loathe each other and the bridesmaid (who is never the bride) insists on elbowing her way up the aisle between them and snogging the vicar.

The Conservatives have sought to capitalise, with a letter from Cameron to Brown seeking ‘clarification’. Perhaps Brown should respond asking for clarification on a list of Cameron’s policies.

The Lib Dems have said they would be happy with as many debates as possible. Well they would, wouldn’t they?

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