That's politics, but it hurts

Middle-aged, past their best ... Spare a thought for the Tories at the end of the road, says Tristan Garel-Jones
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Indy Lifestyle Online
That the Conservative Party had lost office and many of my friends their seats finally came home to me on Friday morning at 8.15.

The Prime Minister telephoned from No 10 and we had a brief chat. At the end of the call we agreed to speak over the weekend but then it suddenly occurred to both of us that we weren't quite sure what his home telephone number was! Years of reliance on the Downing Street switchboard will have left many colleagues scratching around for the numbers of their closest friends.

It's the best switchboard in the world. I remember when I was a Foreign Office minister trying to contact a colleague from a phone box in southern Spain where I was on holiday. The call took a minute or so to place. "Hi! where are you?" "You won't believe this but I'm in a public phone box in Murcia, Spain. Where are you?" "I'm on a Royal Navy vessel in the North Sea."

For ex-ministers there are no more red boxes, no cars and no more of those stimulating Civil Service intellects. What I missed most was my driver, Bert Eagle, with whom I spent many happy hours listening to our Buddy Holly tapes in the official Ford Sierra Sapphire (with fuel injection).

Bert Eagle moved on to greater things as a driver for William Hague. He gave me glowing reports - and any man commended by Bert has a lot going for him. By now Bert will have been allocated to a Labour minister but - who knows? - in a few months could be recalled to the Hague colours ... as driver to the Leader of the Opposition.

I was lucky. Three years ago I left government at my own request. For those who are wrenched away by the electorate when they still feel they have more to accomplish it can be a terrible blow. But that's democracy and the public are quite right to take a certain grim satisfaction from the sight of Ken Clarke piling his belongings into a hire van.

On the Continent and in Latin America, where I now spend much of my time, you remain a minister for ever. My ego is occasionally massaged by diplomats who knew me in my former life addressing me respectfully with the honorific. Yet on balance I think it is right that we should be tipped straight back where we came from ... it was comforting to locate Peter and Virginia Bottomley on their mobile phone on Saturday on their way back from doing the shopping at Tesco's. Sic transit.

Mercifully, my decision not to stand in this election saved me from the trauma of losing my Watford seat. You grow fond of your constituency. Not just the party workers with whom you have a personal relationship but with the collective sum. "Wattie" - as my children called it - was for 18 years the umbilical cord that linked me to the real world. The feeling of rejection, humiliation even, must be searing.

So spare a thought for those for whom this is the end of the road. Middle- aged, past their best, accustomed to a demanding but zany way of life. A mortgage, an overdraft, children at school ... If they have the bug, if they believe politics is the only ball game in town, for them it will never be glad confident morning again.

For me politics was not the only thing. When I left the government I was lucky enough to be taken up by the Union Bank of Switzerland and so became something in the City. A good deal of what I do is just as interesting as any Cabinet committee, colleagues are all on your side (which makes a change) and it's better paid. I hope all my former colleagues are as fortunate as I feel I have been. But, again, if you are a political addict nothing else will do. The member for Kensington and Chelsea - New Clark - is eloquent testimony to that.

I felt no resentment as I watched the new Labour ministers emerge from Number 10. Donald Dewar is a good man by any yardstick. Gordon Brown, my former pair, is witty, clever, tough; like most of the British public, I am fond of Clare Short and Mo Mowlam. George Robertson is a star - brave and patriotic; he never gave an inch when Militant were on the rampage. I wish them well.

Prime Minister Blair will travel to hell several times and back again in the coming years. And as John Major, his duty done, sips warm beer at some cricket match he may reflect on Pope's celebrated couplet: "And more true joy Marcellus exiled feels/Than Caesar with the Senate at his heels."

The writer was minister of state at the Foreign Office.

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