THE CLASSIC Motown song, “This Old Heart of Mine” by the Isley Brothers, is the default ringtone on my phone, and at precisely 7.50 pm it started to play as “number withheld” appeared on the display. Having just put my two young sons to bed, I was getting changed out of my suit in the spare bedroom. Still in a state of partial undress, I answered the call.
“This is the Number 10 switchboard. Can you hold for the prime minister?”
Well, there aren’t too many answers to that question, are there? I walked downstairs clutching the phone to my ear and went into the kitchen where my wife, Carolyn, was making a late dinner. “Number 10,” I mouthed silently at her, and she immediately switched off the blaring radio.
The received wisdom about reshuffles is that if you’re going to get sacked, it’s done early on in the day. Having heard nothing so far, I was pretty confident that a call this late in the day would surely mean promotion. I knew I had done a good job at transport. I also knew that Minister of State in that department was now vacant. Or immigration, perhaps? Europe even?
And with such optimistic expectancy did I take the call from the prime minister. The conversation was brief: he was bringing new people into the government, and that meant some people would have to leave. My heart sank, my stomach lurched and I made a “thumbs-down” gesture to Carolyn, who mouthed a word that ladies shouldn’t really utter.
Later on, I would think of clever retorts and witty one-liners, such as “Oh, bloody hell, Gordon!” But at the time I was so shell-shocked, I merely acquiesced in his request that I “step aside” for the greater good of the government. I’m not entirely sure but I may even have said “Thanks for calling…”
That same morning a courier had delivered a ministerial red box, heavy with unsigned letters and policy submissions for my approval. Suddenly, in the space of a single telephone conversation, I had been transformed from a minister of the crown to a back bench MP with no authority even to open the box, let alone read any of its contents.
Carolyn’s sense of irony never deserts her, and that evening she insisted we crack open a bottle of Champagne.
Until then, I had been in government, in one role or another, for five years. Before becoming a minister, I had been parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to Northern Ireland minister John Spellar (2003-2005), then PPS to health secretary Patricia Hewitt (2005-2006). In September 2006, I turned down an invitation from fellow back benchers to sign a letter requesting that Tony Blair resign as prime minister. A minister who did add his name was forced to resign as a result, and the ensuing mini-reshuffle brought me into the government as a minister at the Department for Transport (DfT).
To this day I have never regretted refusing to sign that letter; and being appointed as a minister by Tony Blair remains the proudest moment of my political life.
As a minister, at least while Parliament was sitting, I would leave my Glasgow home at 6.30 am on a Monday in order to catch the 7.10 am train to Euston. The first silver lining of my sacking became apparent on the following Monday when I caught the 3.10 pm train after spending a relaxed morning and afternoon with Carolyn and the boys.
There had been no vote in the Commons that evening, but I wanted to pop in on the Strangers’ bar anyway to see friends and colleagues, some of whom I hadn’t seen since the start of the recess. The sympathy at what had happened was encouraging and touching, as was the invariable expression of indignation at the unfairness of it. I was determined to be philosophical: these things have happened before and they will happen again.
But when it came to going home time, I received another shock to the system: I had no ministerial car to drop me at my flat. It had been two years since I had had to make my own way home; would I know the way by myself? Should I phone my old driver, Bob, and ask him for directions?
But the Harrises are nothing if not resourceful and I managed to get safely home. But the next morning, emerging from the flat after an unaccustomed long lie, I instinctively looked round for the familiar brown Mondeo. My heart sank when I realised it was never going to be there again.
It’s not a particularly long walk into the Commons from where I live in Pimlico, and I found myself enjoying the “fresh” air of central London as I contemplated the day ahead. A normal day at the Department for Transport (DfT) would have started with breakfast at the Commons followed by back-to-back meetings at Great Minster House, the odd set-piece speech somewhere in London or even a ministerial visit outside London. From first meeting to last vote would regularly be about 13 or 14 hours. Today I didn’t even have to look at my diary to see what lay ahead of me now: breakfast, office time, meeting with my researcher, office time, lunch with blogger Iain Dale, coffee with a journalist, office time…
Sometime soon I will get back into a back bench routine, but in the immediate aftermath of being sacked, it’s hard to adjust to a regime where your time isn’t ruthlessly carved up by a small army of efficient civil servants.
I will miss that “small army” immensely. I had four full-time members of my ministerial private office. I could also rely on a much bigger army of DfT officials whose advice and knowledge was impressive and daunting.
My former private secretary, Rachel, phoned me to discuss tying up “loose ends”. I didn’t fancy going back into the department, at least not yet. So she met me in Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament and I reluctantly handed over the keys to my red box and my departmental security pass. I returned to my office in the upper committee corridor divested of the final vestiges of ministerial authority.
The most common theory put forward for my sacking is, inevitably, my blog, And another thing... In some ways, this is comforting: no-one really believes I was bad at my job so there must be another reason, and the blog is a prime suspect, especially after the whole “Why is everyone so bloody miserable?” debacle.
I started it in March this year because I was concerned that right wing blogs like Iain Dale’s and Guido Fawkes’s were dominating the market, and I felt there weren’t enough Labour voices out there.
Few people were even aware I wrote a blog until “Why is everyone so bloody miserable” was published in June. What started off as a fairly thoughtful piece about the difficulty of achieving happiness in a material world was twisted by a Conservative front bencher to try to make it look like I was belittling people’s real difficulties in coping with the current economic climate. I found myself having to defend and explain what I had written to hostile journalists and broadcasters. It was a sharp reminder that, even if the public aren’t reading what ministers blog, journalists and political opponents are.
Even then, I received no criticism from No. 10; my boss at the time, Ruth Kelly, simply asked how I was coping with the media scrum.
And you can go over my posts with a fine tooth comb and you won’t find anything there that’s off-message or critical of government policy.
But I hope the blog wasn’t the reason for my sacking. I wouldn’t like to think that any minister who makes a serious attempt to have a dialogue with voters, who tries to communicate Labour’s agenda to the public and who (God help us) makes jokes at his own expense is immediately regarded as a loose canon. Surely voters prefer their politicians to sound as if they’re at least familiar with the planet Earth? And what’s more off-putting than a minister who sounds as if he’s reciting a Labour Party press release he’s memorised an hour earlier?
I’m not naïve; I know that there are some senior politicians who don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate for a minister to write about what his favourite karaoke performances are (“Home” by Michael Bublé and “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors), or who he thinks will win The X-Factor (Austin), or to write a review of the entire fourth season of Doctor Who (best yet – better to come).
And I’m sure not everyone in the Labour Party thinks I should publish comments from readers of my blog which are critical of me, the government or the party.
But I genuinely believe that blogs can and will be an important part of the political debate in this country in the future. And I happen to think that ministers, as well as ordinary party members, should be saying something interesting and challenging and – yes – human to the increasing numbers who are logging on to read them.
I like to think And another thing… would have continued even if I had remained in government; it will certainly continue now that I’m not. Whether people will want to read it now that it’s written by a back bencher, and not a minister, is another matter.
But if it wasn’t the blog, and it wasn’t incompetence, then what? Politics?
The fact is, I don’t know. No-one is ever told.
And sometimes, when the music stops, there just isn’t a chair for you. It can be as simple as that and you just have to accept it.