"After all you have done to aid his success!" is the gist of what they say. "After all the withering sniping you have maintained on the Major government! The selfless way you have rejected a knighthood year after year! The way you have ceaselessly pointed out that Michael Howard doesn't work! The time you were offered a complimentary egg, chips and beans at a wayside Happy Eater by the Prime Minister but nobly turned it down with the words, `No thanks, John - grown-up food for me!' Has none of this meant anything to the new Labour leader?"
Generally I smile, order drinks all round and say nothing. But perhaps the time has come to set the record straight. For over the weekend I was indeed summoned to No 10 Downing Street in order to hear what role I could play in the new administration.
I set out at dawn on Sunday to make the long trip to London, posing my family for photographs on the front doorstep before leaving. What a happy picture we presented, standing there waving our Union Jacks without a touch of irony! What a shame that nobody was there to press the button on the camera, and that one after another of us had to vacate the group in order to take the photograph.
Then it was on to London, through the dear old English countryside where orange Liberal Democrat posters stood up in every hedgerow (what can be the effect of these vivid objects on the mindset of hedgerow birdlife?) until we came to Downing Street and saw for the first time at close quarters the enormous iron gates which were erected to prevent Margaret Thatcher ever storming back into No 10.
Finally in through the door of No 10, where I was ushered into a large sort of annexe, to wait along with many other half-familiar faces. It was like nothing so much as being in the TV hospitality suite before a session of Call My Bluff. One man in a crumpled white suit I recognised from the photographs as none other than Martin Bell.
"Mr Bell!" I cried. "What brings a doughty independent like you here?"
"Have no fear," he said, "that I shall take my duties lightly. You have entrusted the stewardship of Tatton to me, and I shall not pause nor shall my sword sleep in my hand ..."
"Martin!" I cried. "It's all right! You're not among voters now! You're back in the real world!"
He visibly relaxed and glanced round the annexe at all the hopeful faces.
"You wouldn't think there were enough ministries for the Labour faithful," he said, "let alone people like me. What are you here for, incidentally?"
I was about to invite him to search me when his name was called. Ten minutes later he was out.
"He's made me Roving Minister for Purity," he said, smiling.
"Is that good?"
"Sure. It means I have a good chance of getting a desk of my own in Westminster."
Several hours later my own name was called and I faced the famous Blair smile in person for the first time.
"And which one are you?" he said, the smile never fading for a moment, as he referred discreetly to a chart of names and photos on his desk. "Trouble is," he added disarmingly, "there are so many new MPs that never expected to get elected that I haven't got to know them yet. I am constantly being referred to as being young, but there are MPs out there who weren't even born when I had started voting. It makes you think."
"Certainly does," I agreed. "Have to slap them down straight away and slap them down hard."
He looked at me curiously, then back to his chart.
"I don't seem to ..."
I explained briefly who I was.
"Well, if you're not an MP ..." he said doubtfully.
"Ah, but I could be of use to you," I said. "After all, if you can make Peter Mandelson a Minister without Portfolio, whose job it is to keep an eye on everyone else, then surely..."
"You want to keep an eye on Peter Mandelson?"
"Good Lord, no. It's just that for a while you're going to go through a honeymoon period in the press. The reaction, when it comes, will be vicious. I just thought that I could help you by slipping in the odd barb straight away and redressing the balance."
"You've done this sort of thing before, haven't you?" he said, suddenly.
"I did a few little jobs for Major. It mostly involved attacking Michael Howard."
"Excellent!" he said. "What shall we call you?"
"Minister Without Profile?"
"Excellent! An unlisted minister, never mentioned, never accredited, just quietly sniping away."
"Depend on me to keep up the bad work," I promised, and shook his hand. He winced.Reuse content