It was the scoop I wish I’d never had – the news that my great friend Charlie Whelan was finally to leave his post at Gordon Brown’s right hand after five rumbustious years of spinning, scheming and issuing Whitehall’s most ferocious bollockings since the days of Sir Bernard Ingham.
With a typical flourish, Charlie ensured that I had the first official confirmation of his departure in time for early editions of Monday’s London Evening Standard. It was a system we had used many times in the past, during hours of crackly conversations on mobile phones as he travelled to the Treasury by mini-cab (not paid for by the tax-payer) from his Peckham home.
I first met Charlie in about 1990, when he was a thirty-something press officer for the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union and I was a 27-year-old industrial correspondent for Kelvin MacKenzie’s Sun. Drawn together by a mutual love of football (if such a claim is possible for a Spurs fan such as Charlie), dog-racing and a keen sense of the ridiculous, I quickly realised that our relationship was likely to become personal as well as professional.
In those dark days of the Neil Kinnock era, the scars of Wapping remained and most union officials refused point-blank to speak to the Sun. Charlie was a godsend. Not only was he the energetic supplier of leaked documents from Ford and other companies, but he was also keen on getting the engineers’ approach of single-union, no-strike deals across to the widest possible readership. We were particularly proud of one feature in the Sun‘s much-sought-after page six slot, alongside the leader column. Ostensibly written by the AEEU’s president, Bill Jordan, but actually the work of Whelan and me in the Marquess of Granby pub, it proclaimed one new car-plant agreement under the headline: “It’s a joy-ota to work for Toyota.”
Stunts like these attracted the attention of Peter Mandelson, who made overtures to Charlie to join the then opposition’s top team late in 1993. Charlie went off to work for Gordon Brown, Mandelson switched sides and attached himself to Tony Blair and the bitterest feud of the new Labour years, one that led directly to the departures of both men, had begun.
It is impossible to begin to understand Whelan the spin-doctor without understanding Whelan the man. If he knows you are on his side and can trust you, then he will do anything for you. It is hard to imagine the workaholic Treasury aide having a life outside his job, but in fact he has a strong, enduring relationship with his partner, Philippa Clarke, and a diverse group of friends who have nothing to do with the political arena.
Football, inevitably, is to the fore. One of his rare protest letters to a newspaper came when the Independent called him an Arsenal fan, and I have fond memories of turning up for a drink after what turned out to be a 6-1 drubbing of Spurs by Chelsea and finding a lone figure in a tatty sheepskin coat, cursing his team and braced for my inevitable taunts.
This sense of loyalty was one of the main reasons why Charlie kept getting into trouble with the Downing Street control freaks. His “popularity” among journalists at Westminster has often been stressed, but in reality he was popular among a dwindling band of hacks. Others never seemed to recover from his expletive-studded tongue-lashings (the best technique was always to swear back at him even louder). This meant that, during the long, long campaign by Downing Street to have him sacked, he could count on relatively few media allies.
Many press officers, especially in the ranks of young new Labour wannabes, are careful not to make too many enemies as they have their eyes on a political career. This was not the case with Charlie. He saw his job as being to make, and keep, Gordon Brown popular, not to court popularity for himself. It is forgotten how poor Brown’s image was before Charlie’s recruitment. Showing real political skill, Charlie transformed a dour, soundbite-obsessed workaholic into a relaxed, smiling, avuncular figure, who somehow managed to combine a war on state spending with regular handouts of cash for the “people’s priorities” – schools and hospitals.
The great test for the man whom Charlie made the Teflon Chancellor will be how he survives Whelan’s departure and how this will affect the strained relationships between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and between Brown and at least seven members of the cabinet who feel they have been the victims of Whelan “monsterings”. My guess is that it won’t take long before many members of the government come to realise that, while Charlie might have been the weapon, he was not the real marksman.
Finally, when you know someone really well, it can be amusing to see how the same small mistakes constantly reappear in profile after profile. Charlie’s favourite drink is spritzer, not lager or Guinness. His “Cockney accent” actually reveals the drawling vowel sounds of his middle-class upbringing. At least they all got the football right. And I’m looking forward to the next Chelsea-Spurs game. As always, Chelsea will win. And this time maybe the mobile phone belonging to the man sitting next to me in the sheepskin coat will not ring six times in the first half alone. But don’t bet on it.