Cabinet colleagues join Blockheads at Mowlam memorial

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Indy Politics

The worlds of politics and entertainment came together last night for an evening of music, comedy, poetry and speeches in memory of Mo Mowlam, the former Northern Ireland secretary of state who died in August from a brain tumour.

Tony Blair, who was criticised in the summer for missing the funeral of another popular cabinet minister, Robin Cook, contributed his own tribute by video rather than in person.

This allowed the comedy quartet Four Puffs and a Piano to introduce him with a mischievous rendering of "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To". But the audience at the Drury Lane Theatre in London gaveMr Blairwarm applause for his brief monologue in which he spoke of his regard for Ms Mowlam being "not just real affection and admiration but love".

He said that she was the first woman he ever met who drank pints, and early in their political careers they were close colleagues, with similar views about the future direction of the party.

He was less open about their later disagreements, when Unionists complained to him that she was too close to the Republicans, but he praised her role overall in the peace process. His wife, Cherie Blair, on the same video, describes her as "genuinely feisty and not afraid to say what she thought".

There was an even louder round of applause for Ms Mowlam's former cabinet colleague Chris Smith, the first politician to make an appearance on stage.

He said: "There are some who would try to write Mo's contribution out of the script of the Northern Ireland peace process. No one should ever dare do that."

The speeches were interspersed with some fine stage acts, including a song from three members of the Blockheads, the late Ian Dury's group, with the words altered to introduce unflattering references to cabinet ministers who clashed with Ms Mowlam when she was alive, such as her successor in Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson.

Earlier Ms Mowlam's husband said that her political downfall began on the day when she received an unscheduled standing ovation during a Labour Party conference.

"It was certainly the beginning of adverse stories in the papers after that," Jon Norton told BBC1's Sunday AM programme. "Who precisely was briefing I don't know, but I remember we had [the US Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright visit us just after that and she was warning Mo that that was probably the most dangerous thing that had ever happened in her political career."

The spontaneous applause burst out when Mr Blair mentioned his Northern Ireland Secretary during the leader's speech to the 1998 autumn conference, describing her as "our one and only Mo". He made a joke about the audience's reaction at the time, but afterwards Ms Mowlam was warned privately by several people that being more popular than the Prime Minister put her at risk.

Her position in Northern Ireland became untenable because Ulster Unionists considered her too sympathetic to the republicans and routinely went behind her back to the Prime Minister, through his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell.

It was made worse by press stories suggesting that, because of the brain tumour for which she had an operation in 1997, she was not able to fulfil the job properly. An added problem was that Peter Mandelson was allegedly manoeuvring to succeed her, after he had been forced to resign from the Cabinet in December 1998. He took over from her in 1999. She remained in the Cabinet, as head of the Cabinet Office, until she quit the Commons at the 2001 general election.

Profits from last night's event will go to MoMo, a Mansfield-based charity that Ms Mowlam helped to set up, which assists families or carers of disabled children or adults, and the Pilgrims Hospices, which are devoted to caring for people in east Kent suffering from progressive or incurable illness.