“Right, that bedroom window, that side window and that bit of the garden – make sure you’re fully-clothed at all times” I said, a bit exhausted and muddy in the doorway of Gordon and Sarah’s holiday cottage in Dorset.
I’d just tramped round all the neighbouring fields examining potential vantage points for photographers, and had identified all the points of the property where they could be overlooked. Sarah listened carefully; Gordon muttered darkly about the press being bastards – even though at this point none of them had even worked out where he was, let alone sent snappers to catch him in the nip.
This was Day One of GB’s first summer holiday as PM: ahead in the polls, popular with the public and his party, praised by the media, the first twinkling of an Autumn election in his eye. My colleagues had volunteered me to spend the first week of my own holiday in the neighbouring village. I was there to deal with any national and local press that started hanging around, to persuade GB that any political story on the news was silly season crap, and most of all to help GB through his No10 cold turkey so he’d give us all (including himself) a bloody break.
Besides me there were a rota of Special Branch Close Protection Officers, Peter - a junior civil servant from GB’s private office, and two ‘Garden Room Girls’, so-called because of their office adjoining the Downing Street garden, formidable secretarial staff who can get the President on the phone with one hand, type the Queen’s Speech with the other, and fix a fax machine with their feet.
Accompanying the PM on his summer holidays was a prime gig for all No10 staff when that meant flying with Tony Blair to Cliff Richard’s holiday home in Barbados. Accompanying GB to Dorset did not have quite the same appeal. Nevertheless, within an hour, Peter and the Garden Room Girls had transformed the cottage’s conservatory into a fully-working Prime Ministerial office with news tickers, secure phone lines and computers linked to the No10 network.
I was keen to get away and start exploring the local pubs, but GB insisted I stay for dinner and opened a bottle of wine. In a trade full of drinkers and drunks, GB had the greatest dipso-discipline of any politician I ever met. He liked a drink but would only ever touch a drop when he knew there was no more work to do in the day.
We chatted for a while until Peter popped his head round the door. ‘Gordon, I’ve got the office on, they say it’s urgent’. GB slammed his wine down. ‘Is it a bomb? Get the news on. Why isn’t the news on?’ He zipped through to the office and I watched him through the glass listening intently then barking instructions. The Garden Room Girls began firing up the electronics; Peter was scribbling down notes. GB gestured me in, hand over the mouthpiece on the phone: ‘Foot & Mouth. Bloody Foot & Mouth’. ‘Fuck me’, I said helpfully.
Within minutes, GB was on a conference call with all his top civil servants (most already on holiday), the Chief Vet Debby Reynolds, and Hilary Benn at DEFRA. He told them he’d head back to Downing Street in the morning to chair a COBRA meeting. I swear I could hear the collective groan from London. I should also have been gutted that this was my summer holiday up the Swanee, but all I could think was that I was sitting on a mega-story and most of the papers were nearly in bed.
The mobile signal was flat in the cottage so I ran up the steep road to the motorway, and began my set of phone calls, a media operation that would be impossible to replicate now in the age of Twitter. 9 identical calls to the political editors of the national daily papers:
‘Hi mate, massive story for you. Just for the Editor and the desk in case they want to crash it into the first. But I don’t want to see anything on Sky or online. Right? OK. Foot & Mouth outbreak in Surrey, near Guildford. One farm so far. Symptoms reported yesterday. Test came back positive today. Cows. About 50. Yeah, Five Zero. Testing neighbouring farms to see if it’s spread. Gordon’s spoken to the Chief Vet, and he’s coming back to London in the morning to chair COBRA. Yeah, I know! Massive. Debby Reynolds. Like the actress but with a ‘Y’. Spokesman quote: “We are doing everything in our power to identify the source of this outbreak and control its spread. We are determined to protect the British farming industry.” Right, got to go. Talk later.’
Next the BBC, then ITN, then Sky. Then another 9 political editors from the Sundays. This was the story that led to the BBC’s Gary O’Donoghue being bumped from the 10 o’clock news and winning a discrimination compensation payout from the BBC as a result. Good for him, but I’ve always thought he owes me a pint.
I was up on that motorway hard shoulder for about 2 hours shouting over the traffic, and when I went back down the road in pitch darkness, I didn’t even have enough battery left to light the road in front of me. I got away from the cottage about midnight, had 3 hours sleep, and was back there at 5am for the drive back to London. I greeted the Protection Officers in the driveway. ‘Any sign of Gordon?’ One of them gestured up at the window, the bedroom window I’d warned GB about, where sure enough, he was peering out into the morning gloom half-naked.
If the previous evening had been a bit chaotic and uncontrolled, GB’s mood that morning was still hyper-active but totally clear-thinking. I asked whether he’d slept. ‘No, I was reading all this stuff’. He had in his hand the 2002 Iain Anderson report into the Government’s handling of the 2001 outbreak. 187 pages; every one of them read and scribbled on in GB’s trademark black full tip. In his bag was the Royal Society’s report into the science of the 2001 outbreak, also covered in black ink.
The journey back to London was a flurry of phone calls from GB, barking instructions and questions at officials and Ministers, all lifted from his study of the Anderson report. Footpaths. Bridle paths. Horse racing. Exports. Tax breaks for farmers and the tourist industry. Cull zones. Exclusion zones. Buffer zones. At times he had a mobile at each ear so that two officials could receive the same orders. I texted a friend saying it was like being with Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction.
For several hours when we got back to Downing Street, GB stood at the Cabinet table, maps of Surrey spread out in front of him, the brilliant Debby Reynolds describing the likely epidemiology and GB issuing standing instructions on cull zones. Every time he asked how many more livestock would be slaughtered if he stretched the cull zone further, his voice would drop as if the affected cows were listening at the door. I asked him later if it affected him ordering those slaughters, especially when the cattle were probably not infected. He screwed his face up as if to say ‘Don’t be silly’, but then muttered quietly: ‘You feel sorry for the little ones.’
Inbetween these meetings, we did a couple of clips and interviews for TV. As with his TV appearances after the June 2007 Haymarket and Glasgow Airport bomb plots, GB won plaudits for the unvarnished, businesslike nature of his statements.
I can’t say we deliberately played up to that image, but we certainly didn’t try and go the other way. My ‘direction’ was just: ‘Walk up the corridor, speak, take two questions, walk back’. So much simpler than all the ‘professionals’ over the years that filled GB’s head before TV appearances with the ‘need’ to smile, to face one side or the other, to speak in a certain tone, etc.
At the end of those 24 hours, even before we were clear how serious the outbreak was, there was no question – whether you were a government official, a political journalist or a punter watching the TV – that the PM was in control of this crisis and was personally directing every aspect of how it would be dealt with.
Of course, people will say that is micro-management gone mad. But sometimes micro-management has its place, and in that moment in 2007 – just like the banking crisis of 2008 – it worked. There are a few thousand farmers and hoteliers who lost their livelihoods in 2001 who probably wish Tony Blair had been a bit more of a micro-manager back then. If there was a fresh outbreak of Foot & Mouth tomorrow in Surrey, I wonder which kind of PM David Cameron would be?
Talking of the current PM, there’s an interesting post-script to that 24 hours. I recall listening in when GB rang David Cameron to brief him on the latest developments at the Pirbright laboratory, which had by then been identified as the source of the outbreak.
As always, a small group of officials would listen in on these calls, and the tone and content of the call was pretty friendly, with lots of back and forth between them. Towards the end, Cameron asked GB rather plaintively – definitely not joking – when he thought things would stabilise sufficiently so GB would resume his summer holiday and Cameron could resume his. His exact words were: “I can’t go away until you do, and we won’t get a holiday at this rate. But you really have to go away first.”
GB laughed and said he’d let him know, but he couldn’t go away until the outbreak was contained. The call ended, and GB immediately ran into the outer office and barked at me: “That was personal, that was private. You don’t say a word about that to anyone.”
So not only was the call civilised, which might surprise a few people, but I thought GB’s reaction to the holiday remarks indicated his desire to build a decent working relationship for the long-term, not allow the likes of me to jeopardise it for short-term political advantage.
Later the same day, Cameron did a series of TV interviews very critical of GB’s handling of the crisis, using information he’d learned from their phone call. GB was pretty furious and it made him feel that he couldn’t have a relationship with Cameron. It’s a familiar criticism of GB that after he’d made up his mind about people, they were either friends for life or he was finished with them (Robin Cook being the notable exception), but at least he gave Cameron a chance!