Charlie Whelan gets past summit security

G8 - As you'd expect, security at the Americans' own G8 summit was useless

When new Labour was first elected in 1997 no one had thought about the round of summits that lay ahead for the new and inexperienced government. For me, it was Denver for the G8, then Mauritius for the Commonwealth finance ministers, Bangkok for the Asian finance ministers and finally Hong Kong for the IMF bash. We quickly learned what a complete waste of time a summit could be if you did not turn up with a well-laid plan of action.

Denver was a classic junket of virtually no use to anyone except for Bill Clinton, who wanted to get his photo taken with other world leaders. In those days the foreign and finance ministers were invited, too, and it was the Foreign Office that organised the trip. This meant that Robin Cook and not Gordon Brown sat next to the Prime Minister on Concorde while scum like me and Ed Balls were consigned to the back of the plane with the hacks. At one summit I attended, the Treasury team were given a shoebox with no phone for their office, while the Foreign Office chaps had a virtual palace.

My chief memory of Denver is of Robin Cook at an official function dressed in the Stetson hat and cowboy boots that had been a gift from our hosts. The Chancellor had wisely left his in the box they came in. The passes supplied by the Foreign Office barely entitled us to use the toilets, and so Ed and I had to blag our way into the various "events". I remember Cherie Blair and the 10 Downing Street delegation looking on in horror as, posing as interpreters, we sat ourselves right behind Bill and Hillary for the big bash, while they had only back-row seats. As you would expect, the Americans' security was useless.

Security at these events is always fascinating. On the official list of UK representatives there are always a few names no one recognises. They are the spooks. On arrival at our HQ, they have the job of setting up all the electronic devices necessary to stop the Prime Minister and his team from being bugged. I hope they were more successful than our so-called allies were, because we certainly got news of what they were up to from MI6. Still, finding out who some French minister was shagging didn't seem too much use to me. Officially, of course, I wasn't allowed to see this stuff because I hadn't been vetted.

It was at the Denver summit that No 10 began plotting to dump both the finance and foreign ministers from future meetings, and unsurprisingly Gordon Brown did not protest too much. "Never again," must have been his thoughts on the whole affair. What was the value of an event where the world leaders' final declaration had in fact been agreed weeks earlier by the civil servants?

It's no coincidence, given the Chancellor's input this time around, that the Gleneagles summit will have a real focus and a real purpose - and I don't mean as an opportunity for Cherie to make a few bob.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Now is the time to act