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7 July 2015

What’s it like to be a Home Office minister when your city explodes?

Ten years ago today, terrorists attacked the city of London. Former Home Office minister Tony McNulty writes about his memories of that day.

By Tony McNulty

The pause seemed to last forever. I was having yet another post-lunch cigarette in the Commons smoking room, watching the television. Jacques Rogge was about to announce the winning city for the 2012 Olympics and paused very briefly after saying “awarded to the city of…”.

You could feel the whole city hold it breath as his next word – ‘London’. I whooped for joy watching the crowd in Trafalgar Square jump for joy as it watched Rogge’s formal announcement in Singapore. We’d done it. The Olympics were coming back to London for the first time since 1948. I went to bed a very happy and very proud Londoner. Life seemed wonderful.

I was back in that smoking room again, the following morning. I tried to have breakfast in the Commons a couple of times a week, lunch at least once as the easiest thing for ministers to do was to lose touch with colleagues and get sucked into their departments. Ministerialitis, they called it.  I was still feeling really chuffed that the Olympic Games were coming to London. As a Londoner, born and bred, I was so proud of my city. Beyond the Olympics – it was what the decision said about the world’s view of my city that mattered. The Olympics – wow.

I wasn’t really watching the TV, but it was, as usual, on one of the news channels. Hold on, they’re talking about a power surge on the tube? An incident they’re saying? That just doesn’t sound right! Whatever else is going on, the only certainty is that it’s not a power surge.  I tried to make some calls – as I don’t think there was a signal, which was strange, and I had one thought – I had to get back to the Home Office.

Back at base, all was calm. Focussed, business-like and determined, but calm. The strangest thing about any event of this magnitude and horror is that it always appears calm at the centre. Frenetic, but calm – and calmer than it probably is. It was clear that emergency plans were kicking in, that first responders had done their jobs and the wider emergency services were springing into operation. The Home Secretary was chairing Cobra – I didn’t attend as Immigration Minister – but made him aware, as my ministerial colleagues, did – that we were there for him and ready to do all that was needed.

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There was calmness throughout the department but you could feel the tension in the air. The details of this horrendous event were still unfolding – but the public would want answers and assurances and every answer, every assurance had better be bloody accurate. Misinformation of any sort on this day of all days was just not permissible. The Prime Minister was at the G8 in Scotland. The Police confirmed there were explosions. Charles Clarke went on camera outside Downing Street to confirm casualties, as did Tony Blair, a little later, from Gleneagles.

It was time to go to the House of Commons to support Charles as he made a statement to the House. Both David Davis and Ming Campbell made entirely appropriate responses to the Home Secretary – with no side, no edge – just a desire to show unity but ask the questions they needed to –  how the House and the country would be kept up to date. Both of them spoke warmly of the response by the emergency services – as did Frank Dobson, who had a clear constituency interest and spoke well too. The image of the mangled, tangled steel of what was a London bus on the streets of Tavistock Square in Frank’s constituency was a haunting reminder of this murderous attack throughout the day. The work of the other cowards was done under the ground, out of sight, but no less murderous for all that.

The statement over, the unseen work of countless officials, police officers and others in the Home Office continued – unnoticed and unsung – but of enormous value to the Home Secretary and the rest of the ministerial team.  We had to arrange meetings, cancel meetings, take meetings for the Home Secretary, liaise with colleagues in other departments, keep in touch with the emergency services – but all in the immediate context of keeping out of the way but planning the government response as the days unfolded and as more and more information came to light. The focus for us was on the political and governmental – we were not there to second guess the experts – either those on the ground at each site or those responsible for starting the investigations into what happened and who the perpetrators were.

Early afternoon Ken Livingstone spoke directly from the heart and was the voice of the whole of London in that moment. He spoke ofour city where freedom is strong and where people live in harmony with one another.’ and ended saying ‘whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.’ His words were all the more poignant because they were made from Singapore and a vivid reminder of London’s success only the day before.

He was essentially saying that they attacked us for the very reasons why the IOC gave London the Olympics the day before – because of what our wonderful city stood for internationally – a freedom, integrity and diversity that would see us through this day.

I remember thinking both how awful it was that life would go on but also how wonderful it was the life would go on. London’s character was on display that night as armies of the resilient walked through our streets finding a way home. Not in anger, but in solace and fortitude. London’s unity was unspoken that day, unsaid, understated, but very real.

For once, perhaps, politicians of all parties spoke for London. Once again our first responders and emergency services were just a wonderful sight to behold. Once again, London’s people showed why in their depth, strength and humanity they make London the finest City in the world – on any measure.

The next morning we held a hurriedly organised meeting of the leading luminaries of every significant religion in the capital – the Home Secretary was filmed with them all outside the Home Office – and we had a very productive meeting imbued with the notion of solidarity across our communities. It wasn’t for show – it was an important statement of togetherness.

I went on the Tube that afternoon. I didn’t really go anywhere – or at least I can’t remember where – but it seemed the right thing to do. It was our Tube, not theirs.   It is our City, not theirs.

There were lessons for London to learn from that day and much has happened since. We were tested two weeks later on the 21/7 – the first of many plots since 7/7 that happily have failed. We all owe a huge debt to those who work in the shadows to ensure our safety, to those who put their lives in the line as the first responders when events like 7/7 happen and to each other – for looking after one another, for our resilience and for making London a city of dreams for millions worldwide.

I was proud of my London that day – and have been proud of it ever since.  

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