HOW WE MET; CLARE WHELAN AND EDWINA CURRIE

Clare Whelan, 40, has been Edwina Currie's parliamentary assistant since 1992. She is also Lambeth Council's social services spokesperson and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for West Lewisham. She lives with her husband and two children in Dulwich. Edwina Currie, 49, has been a Conservative MP since 1983. Her second novel, A Woman's Place, was recently published. She has homes in Derbyshire, London and the Loire valley; she and her husband have two children
CLARE WHELAN: I don't think Edwina remembers the first time we met, because she was giving a talk to Dulwich Conservative Ladies' Luncheon. It was in 1988, while she was still a Minister at the Department of Health. I was just one of a crowd, and I shook her hand. It was memorable - it was one of the best ladies' lunches speeches I've been to.

Several months later, in 1989, I heard through a friend - Chris, Edwina's former secretary - that she was looking for somebody to help her with her books and put her manuscripts on disk - so I jumped, because it suited me perfectly. It would be working from home, I had two young children and I was getting interested in politics. Getting prepared for the interview took days of planning: typing up my CV and checking whether it projected the right image, and sending my navy blue suit to the cleaners.

I sat outside the interview room not able to concentrate - and then Edwina breezed in and said: "Right. Round here, it's the secretaries who choose their Members. Do you want to work for me?" Edwina put me at my ease, asking about my family. She was wearing a bright blue coat - a good Tory blue - and a shawl, and I remember thinking that she looked much smaller in real life than she does on the telly.

What I consider to have been the first important meeting, though, was the day that year when the contract for her book about health and politics, Life Lines, was signed at her agent's office. We went along there at about 11am, and had champagne, and it was terribly exciting. After that, Edwina and I went to a pub. I was conscious of the fact that Edwina had spoken publicly and forcefully about eating habits, so I had salad and a couple of slices of ham. She came behind me and said, "I'm starving," and had sausages, beans and chips, which I spent the rest of the meal eyeing enviously. I went away inspired, because I mentioned to her that my husband was thinking of standing for Lambeth council, and she said, "You should stand for the council" - and that's what I did. So that day was one of life's turning points.

When I first started working on the manuscripts, I remember thinking that I was going to be made redundant because Edwina got the hang of using computers so quickly. First I worked on two books: Life Lines, in 1989, which was about health and politics, and a book of essays, What Women Want, which was published a year later. For the next couple of years, I worked on more of Edwina's writings, things like short stories and essays. Then, in 1992, Chris left the job as Edwina's assistant; and I filled it.

Encouraging women in politics is something Edwina and I feel passionately about. We've started up a new dining club called Blue Whips: (Women Hopefuls in Politics). Edwina has phenomenal energy. At the moment, she has this book out and has been doing a lot of publicity, while at the same time she's writing the next novel. She thinks in an organised way.

Like her, I find that if I go to the gym once or twice a week it gives extra energy. Occasionally, I see her there. She's better at it than I - fitter than I am, as well as being a little bit older. One thing I admire about her is the fact that she'll take up causes because she believes in them strongly, whether or not there's any personal gain - for example, the campaign to reduce the age of consent for male homosexuals.

Edwina is asthmatic, and so's my son. She's helped when he's been in hospital, and I sometimes have to dash off at quick notice. We've also all spent lots of holidays at her house in France. Over the years I've got to know her children well; occasionally, if they can't phone their mum, they'll ring me.

The Edwina I see in the office is so different to the one I read about in the newspapers. I suspect I know the real one, and I get quite cross about it. I probably talk to Edwina more than anyone else, and one of the things about being in politics is that you actually don't get a lot of time to have real friendships outside.

I've got more confidence now than I used to have, which of course alters things a bit. Edwina has said to me on occasions, when I've started to pour her a coffee, "No, no, I'll pour the coffee. It's time you started thinking of us as equals." She's my friend and she's also my boss. It's a bit like with one's mother: one never quite grows up.

EDWINA CURRIE: Clare said she first met me when I made a speech, but I confess I can't remember it. It was at a Dulwich Conservatives Ladies' Luncheon, probably about 10 years ago. But the main way in which we met was after I left the Government - in December 1988, after the eggs business. My secretary at the time was called Chris, and the mail kept coming in in great waves. Among the pile of letters was a letter from a literary agent suggesting that I should come and talk to him about writing a book about health and politics, and we got a contract signed to write a book which became Life Lines. It was in the spring of 1989. I'd never handled a computer, so I said to Chris: do you know anybody that could help me with this book and who is computer literate? She said that she knew just the person - that's how Clare turned up.

I was impressed by Clare's Irish looks; her black hair and green eyes, and by her bouncy demeanour. She looked like she had worked all her life on a farm. In fact, she's not like that at all; she comes from Norfolk. She was bright and young; she's nine years younger than I am, and she had two small children.

And so Clare started to work with me, and I would write a few chapters and she'd type them up, or I'd type up a few chapters on my bad word processor and she'd put them on to disk. Gradually, I found that I was relying on her very heavily, and I'd say, "Clare, I've lost a whole paragraph, what happened?" and she'd say, "Did you press SAVE?" and I'd say, "What's that?"

Later, in 1992, Chris, my secretary, went off to work for somebody else, and Clare became my secretary. Fairly quickly, with anybody that starts to work with me, I'll sit them down and start asking them what they want to do in life. Clare's reaction was that she wanted to be an MP. In terms of wanting to become an MP, she had advantages and disadvantages. It's an advantage to have extensive local authority experience, which she's getting now in Lambeth - she's about to become chair of social services. It's an advantage to be a woman, in many ways; but it's a disadvantage trying to do it when you've got young children.

We sometimes have lunch together and we'll natter about politics and kids. Clare's son, Fenton, is an asthmatic and he's under the care of the Professorial unit at Kings. The rule is that if she has to go to Fenton, she switches off the computer, locks the door and goes. If I hear that he's been taken off to hospital and she's still working, I'll be very angry. Kids come first. Her kids are wonderful: intelligent, fun to be with, and very well behaved. I don't like naughty children.

I think of Clare as a younger sister, whose career I'm very interested in and who I care about very much. To me, friendship is based on trust, but it's also got to be a relationship that isn't one-way. My staff have got to be able to say to me: "Edwina, you're doing it wrong," or "This is not going down well" or "You're doing too much."

Clare's a South London politician in her own right. I get a lot of gossip from her. You should see the two of us laughing over cocoa in the tea room; she's usually telling me what some MP's been up to. Because she has a very urban point of view, it's a good counter-balance to mine.

She doesn't comment much on my books. If I want detailed comments, then I'll go to my daughter Debbie, who's reading English at university. Deb will say very sharp, clever things, but Clare will just say, "That was good." Her weakness in terms of her own career is that she's not a graduate. She doesn't have the breadth of knowledge about history and politics; three years reading history at the University of East Anglia would do her the world of good.

She sees the best in everybody. Her stamina extends to her good nature - at the end of a long horrible day she's still cheery. We're like two girlfriends who talk about slimming, and then go off and eat too much. I'm a stone heavier than I was 18 months ago, and I have a feeling that Clare is as well.

She's a super friend, great supporter and brilliant secretary - and she's going to make a wonderful MP. I think the age difference means that I see her avoiding mistakes I made and perhaps having, in some ways, a slightly easier time. When I first arrived there were fewer than 20 women in this House, I think we're up to 62 now. By the time Clare arrives - either at this coming election or at a subsequent one - the world will be very different. !

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