The morning all hell broke loose: when Gordon Brown found out I was going on the radio

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We don’t hear too much about “spin” these days. The word seems to have returned to its natural association with cricket and washing machines. But there was a time when its pejorative use was associated with political parties in general and Labour in particular.

In a way, I suppose it was a compliment. Alastair Campbell built on the work already done by Peter Mandelson to usher Labour into an era in which its motto would no longer be “No Compromise With the Electorate”. Our message and our messengers entered the public consciousness.

After 1 May 1997, a Labour prime minister was at last able to wake up every morning wondering what he would do that day rather than what he would say.

As a junior minister, I soon found out that Tony Blair’s famed definition of the difference between opposition and government was only half true: though we were able to do things rather than just talking about doing them, what we said about what we were doing retained a supreme importance. It all had to be closely managed.

The problem was that so many lobby correspondents were keen to treat us lowly under-secretaries to lunch, and they were so chatty, and there were no civil servants present, and we could just chew the cud, and – “Yes please, I’d love another glass” – relax.

When I became a cabinet minister I got my very own media special adviser.

Chris Norton was the best in the business – calm in a crisis, astute in his analysis. Journos and civil servants alike trusted him completely.

Throughout the Blair years and into the Brown transition, Chris kept our media relations virtually free from criticism by Fleet Command in Downing Street. Until the morning all hell broke loose.

We already wondered if Gordon ever slept. Missives would emanate from him at all hours of the night, and so far had we moved from the relaxed days of sofa government that even the sofa had been symbolically removed.

Anyway, on this morning the prime minister was, as usual, up with the crack of sparrows and half listening to the Today programme when he heard that I would be interviewed in the coveted 8.10am slot.

Chris Norton was immediately summonsed to explain himself.

By now I was health secretary. There were no announcements on health to be made, no emergencies to respond to. What was I playing at, Gordon demanded to know. Was this insubordination? Spontaneity? A leadership bid?

After frantic phone calls between No 10 and Chris and the BBC, the truth emerged.

The 8.10 interview would indeed be with Alan Johnson but the one with the silent T. Alan Johnston was the BBC correspondent who’d been released unharmed after being kidnapped in Gaza and held in captivity for 114 days.

I pointed out to Chris that this was a far worse ordeal than he had suffered at the hands of No 10. He didn’t seem entirely convinced. 

Alan Johnson is a former home secretary and MP for Hull West and Hessle. His books include In My Life: A Music Memoir (Bantam Press)

This article appears in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution

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