A first taste of unelected power

Back to the Palace of Westminster, and I've discovered that everyone wants to know me
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The Independent Culture
AT 1.30AM on 2 May 1997 my life as a politician ended after 18 years and I vowed I would never enter the Palace of Westminster again.

I was 46 years old and had spent most of my career working in Parliament. I had no professional qualifications, couldn't run a whelk stall and was, in the eyes of friends, foes and journalists, unemployable.

Three weeks after the election, my fellow ex-colleague, David Evans, the defeated MP for Hatfield, wrote to me offering me the opportunity to drum up new business for his industrial cleaning company on a commission basis, and I jumped at the chance. So, for the past year, I have been a lavatory cleaner and janitor, to the amusement of Conservative MPs.

Most of them dumped me after the election. During the weekend after polling day I did receive a number of phone calls of commiseration but, in the main, they were from fellow defeated members. The honourable exceptions were David Davis, Edward Leigh and Patrick McLoughlin.

I also received about two dozen generous letters from re-elected Tory MPs. Baroness Thatcher wrote a personal letter, dated 2 May. Ann Widdecombe, typically, sent me one of the kindest letters I have ever received. John Major sent me a cyclo-styled letter in July. I have a list of these letters in my inside pocket, at all times, when I sit in the press gallery of the House of Commons.

One rainy night, six weeks ago, my flat buzzer rang. A young city slicker announced he was my local Tory candidate. Little did he know how much a debt I would subsequently owe to him. This was the first time I had ever been canvassed. For the previous 20 years it had always been me on the other side of the front door ducking the insults. I wrote up the story of this new experience in The Independent. Three weeks later I am now sitting in the Press Gallery writing political sketches for the newspaper.

Since then, the creeping and crawling has got into full swing. To most Tory MPs I had died but have now been resurrected in circumstances to my advantage and their disadvantage. My telephone, which has remained silent for nearly a year, is now overheating as word spreads around the Tory members that I am back to haunt them. The postman, who previously called on me once a week, now visits my address daily. After having no invitations to fill up my mantelpiece, I can now lunch and dine for Britain.

I have already had my first lunch with a new member of the Shadow Cabinet who last spoke to me before the General Election. I bumped into Francis Maude, the Shadow Chancellor, three days ago at a champagne reception. Oh how I delighted in reminding him that I had not seen him for about a year. (Lunch is now fixed at the Reform Club, shortly.)

The sweetness of revenge - truly a dish best eaten when, a year later, it is so cold it's almost frozen - is something I savour every second of the day.

Now even the Labour Party is getting in on the act as they realise the dangers and advantages of making their peace with me.

The sweetest moment was an afternoon when Gordon Brown made a high- profile statement on public expenditure. Little me, who still cannot add up, had the opportunity of being spun by Charlie Wheelan outside the Press Gallery when the Chancellor sat down. What I would give to show this scene to the Tory MPs sitting downstairs in the Chamber.

But it has not all been plain sailing. As a new and inexperienced journalist I am just beginning to bump into the victims of my political sketch. Some of them fight back and have caused me my fair share of embarrassment. I have received my first threat of libel, from a Labour MP. John Whittingdale, junior Treasury spokesman on the Tory side, has upbraided me for being hard on Francis Maude.

My most frightening encounter occurred two nights ago as I was having a drink with Elliot Morley, the Fisheries Minister. Into my view came the slight but menacing figure of the Foreign Secretary who had just read my column giving the thumbs down to his department.

Fortunately, Robin Cook is a professional politician, has a good sense of humour and let me off with a caution. But I did feel shame-faced and had to stop myself from apologising. I wouldn't have been able to look my new colleagues in the eye if they heard this story in the Press Gallery bar.

It's clear I'm still a rookie and the jury is out on whether I can really hack it.

Michael Brown's parliamentary sketch will be in the Independent tomorrow.

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