Tag Archives: Tony Blair

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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Europe Fails Yet Again

This was the European Union’s big moment. Finally after years of diplomatic wrangling, backroom deals and “No” votes from its citizens, the EU behemoth achieved what it always does. It pushed through a treaty that nobody really wanted but the leaders and the Eurocrats decided we all needed.

I write this as someone who spent an unhealthy amount of time at European summits, including the longest in history – at Nice. I would love to see the EU come up with treaties where they actually had the confidence to consult its 300 million citizens and listen to their decisions.

Leaving that aside for a moment, the idea of a “president” of Europe and a “foreign minister” was one of the most sensible parts of the Lisbon Treaty.  If the European Union wants to have a voice on the world stage as it always says it deserves then it needs to be taken seriously.

As US secretary of state Henry Kissinger famously said: “Whom do I call when I want to call Europe?

This was supposed to provide the answer.

In an age of personality driven politics and a 24-hour global media that requires a face to represent the organisation at international level and to be there when CNN or the BBC or Al Jazeera wants to hear from Europe there is someone to go to.

Yet tonight the EU failed to live up to this opportunity to choose the best “president” and best “foreign minister” for its people.

The combined egos of Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy have blocked the right choices.

Europe has plenty of talented politicians who have either proved they could do the job or have the potential to live up to the role. Tony Blair may be too much of an international statesman and brilliant communicator for Sarko/Merk and former Latvia president Vaira Vike-Freiberga would have been a formidable force who would have proved that eastern Europe is firmly part of the EU and a force to be reckoned with.

For the foreign policy job, Europe could have picked Chris Patten, former Swedish PM Carl Bildt and former Italian premier Massimo D’Alema.
So who did the Franco-German stitch up appoint to the two top jobs in the EU?

Well they have plenty in common. Neither has ever been elected at a national level. Neither has the experience to do the job. Neither has the charisma or credibility to be taken seriously on the world stage. Neither has any name recognition, barely within their home countries.
Herman van Rompuy, the new EU president was appointed as prime minister of Belgium less than a year ago. He has zero charisma, international experience or credibility.

Baroness Cathy Ashton, who I have dealt with in the past when she was a junior minister, has only been an EU commissioner for about a year, and was even suggested as too inexperienced to replace Peter Mandelson in the EU trade post when she was appointed by the Gordon Brown. In an interview this evening Cathy Ashton claimed her experience of other walks of life, and not foreign affairs, made her qualified for the biggest diplomatic job in the continent of Europe.
When there’s a crisis who is Hu Jintao, Barack Obama or Vladmir Putin going to call? Herman van Rompuy? No. Merkel, Sarkozy and Brown.
Just what they wanted. The status quo.

When there’s a crisis who is Secretary Hillary Clinton or UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon going to call? Cathy Ashton. No. Miliband, Guido Westerwelle and Bernard Kouchner.

Just what they wanted. The status quo.

This time last year America elected an outstanding president promising change.

This year Europe has appointed a low key bureaucrat who will guarantee that nothing changes.

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