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.