This article is from the May issue of Total Politics
Tony Blair looked faintly irritated and shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It was a sunny September afternoon in 2000, and the PM was giving a languid briefing to lobby hacks in the garden of a small country house hotel near Hull.
We had just enjoyed his meandering discourse on the looming US presidential election. And then I spoiled the mood by asking about fuel blockades.
At that stage, the Whitehall wisdom was that these fledgling protests were small beer, a bit of bluster by a handful of hotheads. Only the tabloids (I was working for the Daily Mail at the time) seemed interested. Little surprise, then, that Blair offered a pat response – “we’re well-prepared”, “nothing to worry about” – and the questions moved on.
But within a few hours everything changed. The PM arrived in Hull later that afternoon to find long queues of cars snaking towards petrol stations. He was even forced to scrap plans for a Chinese meal with John Prescott that night after angry protesters besieged the restaurant.
By the time the travelling hacks woke the next morning, the PM was already back in London battling to contain the biggest crisis of his premiership to date. The whole Whitehall machine had been completely blind-sided.
Fast-forward 12 years, and another government has seen its poll ratings torpedoed by a fuel crisis. Yet, far from being complacent, Cameron was scuppered by his desperate attempts not to be caught napping. Ministers were told to get on the front foot, to take the battle to the unions. Cue ‘sensible’ advice on filling your tank… and your jerry can.
The predictably catastrophic result was that the country plunged into a frenzy of panic buying without a strike being called or a single blockade erected. As one world-weary minister told me: “What have we learnt? In a fuel crisis you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”
Wow. What. A. Welcome. Barack Obama pulled out all the stops, had a hunt around, found a couple more and pulled them out too for Cameron’s visit to Washington last month. A 19-gun salute, numerous military honour guards, 6,000 guests packed onto the White House’s south lawn and a spin on Air Force One to watch some college basketball. Even seasoned observers said it was pretty special. And what a contrast with Gordon Brown’s humiliation in 2009. After five requests for a meeting were snubbed by Team Obama, all Brown got was a brief ‘walk and talk’ with Barack in the kitchens at the UN in New York.
But it’s not as simple as ‘Barack likes Dave but can’t stand Gordon’. The White House clearly calculated that nice pics of the President with the British PM – a Conservative one, to boot – would do no harm in election year. In 2009, Brown’s star was falling fast, plus the Yanks were still fizzing about the release of the Lockerbie bomber a few weeks earlier.
But Brown was not always the victim. The boot was on the other foot at Camp David in 2007, when Brown gave George Bush a distinctly cool reception. At a gloriously awkward joint press conference, Bush, by then a busted flush, lavished praise on Brown’s values and principles. But Brown, still enjoying his brief Downing Street honeymoon, stubbornly refused to say anything nice about George.
It was a stance that infuriated the White House but delighted British voters back home, who were sick of the Bush-Blair ‘old pals’ act. Then as now, domestic concerns always come first, even on the international stage.
Chickens, butlers, foxes – British politics has a proud tradition of politicians being pursued by journalists dressed in an array of costumes. So it was reassuring to see The Sun dispatching ‘Marie Antoinette’ to the Treasury during Pasty-gate. Resplendent in a towering wig and regal dress, she offered free pasties to Treasury officials – and they went like hot cakes. I just hope there’s been no “off with their heads” retribution taken against the brave souls who dared join the paper’s protest.
As a hack you learn that some people are born to do their jobs. Who better, for instance, to be the Catholic Education Service’s deputy director than Greg Pope? Or Archbishop John Sentamu’s press officer than Kerron Cross? Hats off to the Irish government’s tribute to Chas and Dave – a communications minister called Peter Rabbitte. It’s entirely appropriate that the Fawcett Society’s acting chief executive is A Bird (ok, full name Anna Bird). And the RSPB chose wisely when Mark Avery was appointed director of conservation. As you can imagine, there was some alarm when we arrived in Washington with the PM to discover the White House’s assistant chief of protocol is called Randy Bumgardner. Quite.
Graeme Wilson is deputy political editor of The Sun