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Back to Number 10, familiar faces, familiar arguments

Posted on 21 May 2009 | 10:05am

I had to be in two places at once last night, just about managed it, but missed the speeches at one event because I was making a speech at the other one. Both involved very different, but wonderful, women I have known for a long time.

The event where I missed the speeches, at the Royal Society of Medicine, was to remember Martin Kelly, the surgeon who dropped dead unexpectedly on his doorstep a year ago, and to promote the work of ‘Facing the World’, the charity he co-founded in 2002 to help people marginalised by their communities as a result of facial disfigurement.

I arrived shortly after the speeches and a film had ended, and some were still in tears after hearing two of Martin’s young sons, Theo and Otis, talk about him. ‘He was a boy inside a man.’ What a great thing for a son to say about a father.

Martin’s widow is Natascha McElhone, best known as a successful actress, and someone I have known since her teens, through her Mum Noreen Taylor and step father Roy Greenslade, colleagues from my Mirror days.

Until it happens, and thankfully for most it doesn’t, I’m not sure any of us know how we would cope with the sudden premature loss of a partner. Like our friend Lindsay Nicholson, whose husband John Merritt , my closest friend, died from leukaemia in 1994, Natascha was pregnant at the time of Martin’s death. Now baby Rex has joined Theo and Otis and somehow, life goes on, and Natascha does an amazing job making sure it does.

The event I was speaking at was a farewell party in Number 10, for my departing former PA, Alison Blackshaw, who is moving on to the Department for International Development after 13 years in Downing Street, six of them as an indispensable part of my team.

I told the story of how things between us started badly, on our first meeting, the morning after the ’97 election, when I found her in tears, telling me how much they would all miss John Major. My first mention of her in my diaries records her as ‘a bit dizzy’ and complaining that she never knows where I am. I even made the confession last night that at one point I tried to replace her with someone else but – contrary to the myth that I was charging round Whitehall chopping heads off – it was virtually impossible to get rid of anyone.

So we limped on. I compared it to many marriages, which seem to start happily, slowly deteriorate and then end badly. Our relationship started terribly, slowly improved, and eventually I wondered what on earth I would do without her. If you look at the acknowledgements page for The Blair Years, I singled her out for special thanks, which I was able to repeat last night.

It was great to see so many of the old Number 10 team, and there were also plenty of political journalists, because part of her job was to look after them on overseas visits, and she did it brilliantly. But I used the occasion to make the point that when all we ever hear about politics and government is the bad, public service is full of people like Alison, who did a great job for the last Tory government, and did a great job for this one, first under TB, and now GB.

Among the journalists there were Andy Porter of the Telegraph and Nick Robinson of the BBC. Both have been very busy of late on the expenses scandal. Both said they had read my blog yesterday about how if Parliament reformed, then it was also incumbent upon the media to reform, and move away from a culture that says Parliament only gets covered for the bad, not the good that goes on there. Both said I had a point. Nick Robinson said he had talked about it to senior execs at the BBC and wanted one day to sit down and have a discussion about it. 

He thought there was a broad agreement there had to be change in the way politics was reported. The question was to what, and how? I would be more than happy to take part in that discussion, because I am in no doubt that damage to the nature of our democracy is as much media-driven as MP-driven, and it has been happening for some time.