‘I’m getting something over the radio about a naked man storming the stage during Charles’ speech!’ The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 15

Charles was about to surprised by a naked man storming the stage

Press conferences may have their ups and downs but public speeches can be even worse.  As I have said before Liberal Democrats and security are not easy bed fellows and the nearest most Lib Dem events get to ‘security’ is a quick look through a handbag by an enthusiastic volunteer.

Sometimes they are elderly members who worked at Bletchley Park, but they are increasingly rare.

One such event during the 2001 General Election was a regional rally at The Floral Hall in Southport.

Members from across the region converged to hear the leader, Charles Kennedy, speak. 

As the regional contact for the national party and the Special Branch a lot of the organisation came through me to arrange where Charles would arrive, who was allowed in and anybody that the Special Branch had identified as ‘a potential threat’!  It is very easy to assume that these sorts of descriptions are a bit police statish but nonetheless it was my responsibility to check that people were who they said they were and that they were allowed access if the police had any concerns about them. 

Once ‘Liberty’ was delivered by car to the back entrance of the meeting, and was safely delivered to the green room, it afforded the staff and police to have a chat and briefly check any photos or names against people to see if there were any known problems attending.

Over the radio of the policeman with me came a troubling message that someone was insisting on seeing Charles and a minor alert ensued to check the credentials of the person to see that they were bona fide and that this was not a problem.  There was no problem and the person, with police minder, was allowed to have a brief chat with Charles about a casework matter. 

As the event began I and a couple of other members of staff and one of the Special Branch officers sat down outside in a lovely spring evening for a cup of coffee and a chat about the next event which they would need to liaise over when Charles was next in the North West.

Through the crackle of the officer’s walkie talky came, ‘Is John there?’ The officer replied that I was. ‘Tell him that a naked man has stormed the stage and he may need to sort it out!’

After a moment of contemplation about this rude interruption I asked if the policeman had a helmet I could borrow. He did not.

A few minutes later several Lib Dem stewards had removed the gentleman from the hall and re-clothed him.  Charles dealt with it brilliantly saying, ‘that reminds me that I should never go naked into the conference chamber.’

I commented to the police officer, ‘what a lot of fuss over a little thing like that!’


‘How Long is a piece of string?’ The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 14 – You’d be amazed what you can have an argument about…

Make sure that the BBC can reach his van before planning a press conference

Press conferences are considered to be an essential part of any election campaign. I am not such a big fan, as many national media people are, mainly because they have the potential to go wrong without any apparent justification.

Sitting behind a table at the regional launch of an election campaign, surely nothing can go wrong.

With Manchester being the TV media hub for the North West one of the conference suites at Manchester airport was selected, by the national party, and with Tony Blair firing the starting gun for the election I was primed to organise the event the following day.

On cue at 7am myself and a number of TV engineers arrived at the main concourse of the airport awaiting the Charles Kennedy’s team, who would arrive by private plane from London and other journalists who would arrive later for the main event.

The conference suite was nice, if a little greige, and I set up the party back drop whilst the engineers plugged their cameras into their satellite vans outside the main concourse.

After about thirty minutes of discussion and heaving of equipment one engineer, from BBC News, who was planning to run a live feed sat down and made a phone call explaining that the kit he had brought would not do the job.

Another van was despatched from BBC Manchester and, having at least another hour before the press conference started, began to set up once again.

Our advanced team arrived, including Daisy Sampson, and ‘asked’ how things were progressing. I explained that we, the Liberal Democrats, were ready but that the BBC seemed to be having a slight issue. Having been given the rather curt response, ‘get it sorted!’ I duly went to the BBC team and asked what I could do to help.

He said, ‘next time you have press conferences please have them somewhere where we can get to.’

Receiving a bemused look he replied, ‘the problem is you have arranged your press conference 110 metres away from the closest point that we can park our satellite van, and as such our cable is approximately 10 metres too short for the job.  In fact we don’t have any cables that long so we are just going to have to record it and use it later. 

It is fair to say that the national team were not impressed with this information and after a show and tell exercise with myself and the BBC engineer, and much shouting from the said national representative I explained that she should get over it and try deal with the people who could cover it, namely those recording and those writing.  This did not go down well.

Nonetheless it is excellent advice from the BBC team.  The answer to the question, ‘how long is a piece of string,’ is ‘if it’s the BBC it’s 100 metres exactly.’

Agent’s Training 6 – The emergency kit to get through a by-election!

Scotch Whisky

The book on how to deal with difficult people was an obvious addition to my top drawer at the by-election, but why was the whisky bottle plastic?!

At the start of the Wigan by-election a lot of fellow Liberal Democrat campaigners were feeling very sorry for me, as I had been appointed as agent.

Polling day was planned for the same day as Charles Kennedy’s maiden speech as leader of the Liberal Democrats, at the party conference, due to Paddy Ashdown’s retirement.

So, our team was small but enthusiastic.

So concerned were we at the lack of volunteers crossing the threshold of our suite of offices at the HQ that we decided to take a lot of the stuffing and stamping work to Harrogate, where the conference was, to get the work done.

Avid readers will have noticed I mentioned that helicopters have a boot in the back and this was, on one occasion, how the target letters made it back to Wigan.

But, as this job needed running in Harrogate Hilary Stephenson took on the role of drumming up, and organising, volunteers in Harrogate whilst I remained, for the most part, in Wigan.

Knowing that my skills at dealing with unruly staff, anxious candidates and quixotic volunteers can at times become strained Hilary bought me an emergency kit for dealing with crises, in her absence.

On the eve of her departure for Harrogate I was presented with three items: 

  • A large container of shower gel
  • A half bottle of scotch whisky (plastic)
  • A book on how to deal with difficult people

The shower gel was primarily for activists who were keen but not necessarily house trained.  The book was obvious in its purpose as was the whisky. ‘But,’ I asked Hilary, ‘why the plastic bottle?’

She replied sagely, ‘well if you feel the need to throw something at people you won’t waste the whisky in the process! It will bounce!’

Wise words.

(The book, but not the whisky, got placed into the box of tricks for the next by-election agent, I wonder what happened to it?!)

‘It’s very nice of you to arrange a fly past, but it really wasn’t necessary!’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 1 – Taking advantage of the situation

RAF Tornado

As Kennedy stepped from the Battlebus two RAF Tornados flew overhead to mark his arrival!

The 2001 General Election was a success for the Liberal Democrats as it made the most significant gains of any of the parties, and it was the first of Charles Kennedy’s outings as leader.

Leaders’ tours are a masterpiece of organisation and planning, and none more so that the event that was to be held in Ambleside, at St. Martin’s College, in Tim Farron’s constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale.

Country lanes are difficult in Cornwall, but, unlike Cornwall, Cumbria’s have dry stone walls, so even the entrance to the college and the parking space needed to be measured to ensure there were no unforeseen problems with Charles’ arrival in Ambleside.

On cue, and surprisingly on time, the Leader’s bright orange Battle Bus arrived to the assembled throng of media, national and local, as well as the college’s Principal and our PPC, Tim Farron.

With all the ceremony of a party leader Charles stepped imperially from the coach, and with almost perfect timing, before he could utter a word, two RAF Tornados screamed overhead on one of their practice runs up the length of Lake Windermere, perfectly framed in the background againt the rolling Cumbrian mountains.

Charles, ever one for the perfect one liner said;

‘It’s very nice of you to arrange a fly past, but it really wasn’t necessary!’

There were knowing looks between our press team and the media, as scribbling began, and with a wink to the local Lib Dem team, Charles started his progress around the College.

The Candidate’s Aide’s Briefing – Lesson 2 – Helicopters


When Paddy Ashdown tells you to 'close all orifices' in a moving vehicle you take notice!

‘Only leaders travel in helicopters,’ is a maxim that makes helicopters and leaders special.

The phrase, coined by Jim Hancock, former political editor of BBC North West, sums up three tales of when I joined the leader in his campaign helicopter.

Charles Kennedy is not a big fan of helicopters, which is a shame, because personally I think they are the biggest boys toys that have been invented.

I did fly with Charles from Harrogate to Westmorland but with the exception of the stomach churning flight over the ups and downs of the Cumbrian fells the trip to see Tim Farron, now the local MP, was relatively uneventful.

Paddy Ashdown and helicopters is a different matter.

European Elections 1999 – sharing the burden

When Paddy announced his retirement this was to be his last national election campaign for the party and as such his journey to the North West became something of a grand tour, stopping in Chester, (with the Eddibsury by-election in the offing), Southport, Kendal, Oldham and Stockport.

The tour landed in Chester, and having done a walkabout of one of Britain’s most beautiful cities, we returned to the helipad: a field I rural Cheshire.

A large crowd of well-wishers, and members, had appeared to give Paddy a big send off. Hilary Stephenson was the agent for the election and was on site to make sure all went to plan. Several people were questioning why I, and not Paddy, was sitting in the front seat.

An elderly member leant across saying, ‘weight distribution.’ We ascended, just!

Wigan By-Election, September 1999 – ‘close all orifices’

On the eve of Paddy’s retirement in 1999, and the last day of the party conference in Harrogate, Paddy agreed to come and support our candidate in the Wigan by-election.

On this occasion Paddy was in the front, I had learnt my lesson.

Flying across the Pennines, from Harrogate to a high school in Wigan, with a former Royal Marine and SBS operative was an education, the conversation, over the intercom, went something like this:

Ashdown: ‘Pilot, what’s that at 10 o’clock?’

Pilot: ‘That’s Bury Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘And what’s that at 2 o’clock’

Pilot: ‘That’s Bolton Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘Marvellous! Of course, I’ve always loved helicopters, by far the best form of transport. When I was a marine we had to do parachute jumps. The worst thing I have ever had to do.’

Pilot: ‘I see Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘In fact before every jump I used to tell my men, “close all orifices”.’

Me: ‘Chapter 3 of the Ashdown Memoirs – ‘Close all Orifices’

Ashdown: ‘Can you hear us in the back?’

(And for those that don’t know much about helicopters – they have a boot, which you can transport target letters back from conference in.)