Sue Arnold: Broken drains and non-existent trains

With any luck, you may get a plumber from Poland who knows what he's doing
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The Independent Online

In between jetting round the world conferring with heads of state, having banquets in Brussels and taking holidays in celebrity villas, it might not be a bad idea for Mr Blair to spend a whole day once in a while just being an ordinary person. No one would deny that it is deeply frustrating to have President Chirac refuse to give you your £3bn refund, but at least Mr Blair didn't have to spend 45 minutes at the end of a telephone waiting to be told that he wasn't going to get one. That's how long I've just spent waiting to get through to National Rail Enquiries about mine.

In between jetting round the world conferring with heads of state, having banquets in Brussels and taking holidays in celebrity villas, it might not be a bad idea for Mr Blair to spend a whole day once in a while just being an ordinary person. No one would deny that it is deeply frustrating to have President Chirac refuse to give you your £3bn refund, but at least Mr Blair didn't have to spend 45 minutes at the end of a telephone waiting to be told that he wasn't going to get one. That's how long I've just spent waiting to get through to National Rail Enquiries about mine.

Oh, well done sir - you spotted the deliberate mistake. National Rail Enquiries doesn't give refunds; it gives accurate, up-to-date information about train times. If only. That's precisely why I'm trying to get a refund, but that's another story for another day. My point is simply that if Mr Blair were to spend, say, one day a month being an ordinary person sitting at the end of a telephone or attempting to sit on a non-existent train or waiting for a service engineer to show up or a special delivery package to arrive or standing in a bus queue or begging the snooty girl at the doctor's surgery for an appointment before August, chances are he might be more inclined to do something about indifferent customer service, hopeless public transport and the ongoing inefficiency of the National Health Service that ordinary people like you and me have to put up with all the time.

The hardest thing about being turfed out of No 10 after 11 years, according to John Sergeant's new book about Mrs Thatcher, was having to do humdrum things for herself - like finding a plumber. She and Denis had been lent a flat in Eaton Square by Henry Ford's widow who uses it only one or two days a year and said that it would be a privilege to have Britain's greatest ever prime minister - correction, Britain's greatest ever ex-prime minister - use it.

Incredible as it may seem, even fabulously luxurious millionaire flats in Eaton Square have leaks, and back in November 1990 poor Mrs Thatcher found herself standing there like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke all on her own (Denis was almost certainly playing golf with Bill Deedes at the time) having to deal with it. The logical thing would have been to call the home secretary David Waddington but hang on, wasn't he a wet which, in the circumstances, wouldn't have been much good. In any case, he was probably too busy like everyone else plotting who was to be the new incumbent of No 10. So anyway Mrs Thatcher did the next best thing. She asked Charles Powell a former senior diplomat at the British embassy in Washington and her long-time foreign affairs adviser to help. He suggested looking in the Yellow Pages - that's the sort of quick-fire response that immediately puts a fellow on the fast track for a plum Foreign Office posting.

Afterwards, apparently she told Powell how surprised she had been at how much it had cost. See what I mean. Prime ministers are totally out of touch with reality. What's more, I bet Charles Powell, now Baron Powell of Bayswater by the way, didn't advise her to skip all the Yellow Page entries beginning with A, either, as all of us who use classified directories know from bitter experience. Steer well clear of the ABC, Action and Advanced Plumbers and go straight to the X, Y and Zs. With any luck, you may even get a plumber from Poland who knows what he's doing.

To some extent, Mr Blair is lucky. When he leaves No 10, he will at least have a wife who keeps a sharp eye on expenses. I can't see Cherie easily parting with £600 for unblocking a drain as my husband was recently charged by emergency plumbers. Six hundred quid seemed a bit steep for 30 minutes work, he said mildly. They'd had to use a lot of chemicals, they replied, their body language implying that if he didn't pay up they'd squirt a few chemicals in his face.

The other problem Mrs Thatcher had when she left office was dialling numbers on the telephone. As PM, all she did was pick up the phone and say get me Mark. Just as well the Widow Ford's phone was working. I can't imagine the Iron Lady waiting in for a BT service engineer as patiently as my friend Edward in Derbyshire whose phone has been on the blink for two weeks. The department that makes BT appointments has moved to Delhi and sounds about as efficient as the National Rail Enquiries call centre in Kuala Lumpur that gave me the wrong train time. Forget Oftel and Ofrail. Just get off your power trip occasionally, Mr Blair, and see how the other half lives.

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