When someone calls and says that the Prime Minister would like you to attend a reception, you don't say no, even if you then spend most of a day wondering, "Why me?" You ring your friends to see who is taking the piss and then you read that, yes, there is a party on Wednesday and it is the Party of the Year. You begin to wonder whether the switchboard just got it wrong. You check it out and yes, it is you, Mr Phillips, and yes we do expect you and Mrs Phillips at 6pm and no, the invitation was from Mr and Mrs Blair, and no, you will not be expected to entertain the guests or hand round canapes. So you go to the dry cleaners, explain to your children that no, they can't come to meet Ross Kemp ("Grant Mitchell? Cool, Dads") and try to avoid mentioning it too smugly to your friends. You then settle back and wait for the Great Moment.
But this is the season of the children's trip away with their mates, in this case to Wales. Here comes the dramatic bit. On the return journey, your rear front tyre blows out at 70mph on the outer lane and you are suddenly careering towards - well, the end of your career. However, your life does not flash before your eyes. Actually your mind does two things. One is to wrestle with the task of stopping the mass of metal in which you are imprisoned rolling over and crushing you. The other is to wonder who will tell your children you are gone. How will they do it, and where? And should they be told together or separately? And where will they sleep the following evening while their various aunts and uncles arrive? It is not the grand design that matters at these moments; it is the detail, the practicalities, the small things that make you curse yourself that you had not prepared for this eventuality.
Somehow you come to rest having bounced off the central reservation for several hundred metres, proving beyond doubt that the people who make Volvos are right in their claims for the side impact protection system. You are alive.
Of course, the whole episode was put in perspective by the lorry driver who stopped on the hard shoulder, and strolled back to inform us in that cheery manner they have that he was sure that we were going to roll the car: "If you had, you would have had it." Really? I never would have thought it. Thank you so much for your concern.
The emergency services and police proved, as ever, incredibly efficient. It took time, but we got home. If only one could say the same about our health service. Just 48 hours after the crash I had to rush a relative, in screaming agony from abdominal pains, to the nearest hospital in north London. In ER, of course, Mark or Susan or Doug or any of the other brilliant doctors would be available to make an instant diagnosis, there would be rushing through the corridors on gurneys and shouting of "100 units of this" and "10 millilitres of that". Here, there was a nurse, a receptionist and a room full of about 50 sad-looking patients. I assumed that the extensive vomiting, groaning and writhing around would attract a little attention. Nope. In the new, "managed," patient-friendly NHS, you get a little ticket with a number, just like in the supermarket deli, and you wait until your number is called, so that you can be registered; registered, mind you, not given medical care. Worst of all, the entire episode took place in full view of the whole room, as no cubicles were available. It was humiliating for my relative and distressing for everyone else.
The episode, when recounted to others, provoked a welter of NHS horror stories. So why do we keep on saying to ourselves that the health service is the best in the world? The nation has an emotional commitment to the NHS which no government dare challenge. But are we now so in love with the myth that we cannot see the reality? Should we ask whether the NHS's problem really is just one of money (ie it's the Chancellor's fault), or whether, as with many other public services, it is that the needs of the producers have buried the need to serve the public?
Wednesday came. We walked down Downing Street. The photographers glanced in our direction and put down their cameras. Inside, we walked up the staircase flanked by pictures of past prime ministers. Noel Gallagher teased Mr Blair that he'd drawn a Hitler moustache on the portrait of Margaret Thatcher; but what interested me far more is the striking resemblance of Lord Melbourne to Mr Bean. Could they be related? I think we should be told.
And that much-discussed guest list. Was the occasion designed to make New Labour glitzy? If so, it could have had more stars. Of the 100-plus people there, fewer than 20 - Lenny Henry, Maureen Lipman, Eddie Izzard, Baldrick (OK, Tony Robinson), Ross Kemp, could genuinely have been called big stars. I think the reason was simpler and more personal. There had already been parties for design, film, business and so forth. This was the last party of the season, and had an end-of-term feel. The room split into two. First, people who were not yet friends of the inner circle but could become so, and who could not be fitted into any of the other parties. Hence Mr Gallagher. Second, people who were already old pals, such as Barry Cox, Blair's first campaign manager. In a sense, this was the miscellaneous party - or, to put it another way, the Happy Misfits.
At heart this was a group with whom the Blair inner circle felt comfortable. Everyone close to The Body, as presidents are known in Washington, turned up: Peter Mandel- son, Alastair Campbell, Sally Morgan. For once none of them carried the air of a Praetorian Guard, constantly on the lookout for enemies. They were among friends. Mrs Blair particularly looked at ease, like someone who had found her real home, and expected to be there for a long time. It seemed that the occupants of No 10 are canny: they even managed to make it look as though politics isn't everything.Reuse content