‘There’s been a missile attack at Heathrow you’ll have to do the Today Programme!’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 11 – Be Prepared for anything!

With the IRA attacking Heathrow Paddy's plane was delayed and so I had to do the Today Programme...

Leader’s visits are the highlight of any election campaign. The 1997 General Election was no exception.  Paddy Ashdown was due to fly into Plymouth airport, twenty minutes from his first visit of the day at Saltash Community School in South East Cornwall, where I was the agent.

Colin Breed was to meet the leader at the airport and arrive, by battle bus at the school, to be followed by a 45 minute walkabout of the classes talking to staff and students.

It was an excellent visit designed to engage with the party’s top policy of the time to raise income tax by 1p in the pound to pay for education.

With an early morning press conference in London the leader’s entourage would board a plane from London to Plymouth, arriving at the school in time for the first lesson of the day.

The arrival time was anticipated between 8.30am and 9am.  As such a gaggle of local and national journalists began to assemble outside the school in anticipation.

A gentleman in a nice suit, from Special Branch, took a call and after a few moments of concerned conversation he sidled across to me to tell me some bad news. ‘There’s been a rocket attack by the IRA at Heathrow airport and all flights have been grounded until further notice, he’s going to be late, very late!’

Although this was manageable with the school a number of the journalists, especially those who were hoping for a live comment from Paddy at the gate were about to be disappointed.

One of them, from Radio 4’s Today Programme, had only turned up to make sure he had something for the programme before 9am, when it ended, and with 9am fast approaching guess who was press-ganged into action.

Thankfully I was not expected to comment on the party’s policies nor the reason for Paddy’s visit to the school, he just wanted the much better story of why Paddy was late and whether this was something we normally have to deal with. I told him it was not!

Paddy arrived about three hours later.

‘Speaking from his Atlanta Hotel Mr Breed said…’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 10 – Make sure the boss isn’t in bed!

When giving out telephone numbers it is important to check the time difference...

One of the problems with politics is ‘events dear boy.’ They happen to everybody and need to be dealt with successfully.

Political life winds down in August, whilst MPs, staff and constituents find the time to spend two weeks away and have a rest from busy lives.

In South East Cornwall Colin Breed and the local Lib Dems had been campaigning hard for an upgrade to the old Liskeard primary school and as such when the news came through, whilst Colin was on holiday, it was important that we reacted to the story quickly. 

As such I immediately drafted a press release and sent it out. Colin is a very relaxed employer and is happy for press releases to be published from people he trusts and so I sent it out.

At the time, 1996, Colin was away at the Atlanta Olympics, as he, and his family are keen followers of Olympic sport and have been to many of the summer games.

As such a number of calls came through for Colin including the local radio stations.  Because I wanted to people to know that he wasn’t around I had in fact used the phrase ‘speaking from his Atlanta hotel, Colin Breed said….’ as part of the press release.  However, because of the importance of the story they were very keen to get an interview over the phone, from Atlanta. 

So, after some shuffling of papers I gave out the number to the relevant journalists.

About thirty minutes later Colin called to thank me for the interviews that he had done, but subtly pointed out that in future, whilst in America, could we restrict interviews to waking hours as he had been woken at 4am to conduct the interviews and wasn’t too sure they were any good because he simply couldn’t remember a word he had said!

I agreed.

‘Local Liberal Democrats are on a war-footing!’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 7 – Know when to get up early!

Standing in front of the portrait of Gladstone I commented on the news that the local Tory MP had announced his retirement

It was a cold morning when a knock on my door woke me. It was strange to be woken by the couple I lodged with at the time, and even stranger to hear the strains of ‘Happy Birthday’ at the same time, especially as it wasn’t.

Shaken out of my reverie I asked what on earth was going on, I was met with the sort of news that really you don’t mind being woken up to.

Radio Cornwall was reporting that the popular local Tory MP had announced his intention not to stand at the next General Election. With all these sorts of stories you find yourself not too sure whether to believe the news until you actually hear it for yourself.

True enough the 6.30am news announced that Sir Robert Hicks had decided to throw in the electoral towel, making the seat that more winnable for the Lib Dems.

I called as many people as I could to get them to the office as quickly as possible, the candidate, Colin Breed, was unfortunately away working.

Nonetheless the Liberal Democrat press release was with local editors before the 8am news.

The phones began to ring in the local office and both BBC TV News and Westcountry wanted to do interviews so that they could progress the news before the lunchtime programme.

As Colin was away I was expected to act as the spokesman for the party. Standing in front of a very large portrait of Gladstone in the local Liberal Club, the message on the regional news was the perfect one to steal the Tory MP’s valedictory address.

‘And in South East Cornwall the Liberal Democrats are on a war-footing following the local MP’s announcement that he plans to retire…’

My quote would have any Lib Dem agent proud, ‘as everybody knows it’s a straight fight between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in South East Cornwall, Labour cannot win – it’s a Two Horse Race!’

Now that’s what I call an on-message agent!

Edward Woodward – Cornish memories of a star who signed my nomination papers…

Edward Woodward

Edward Woodward was kind enough to sign my nomination papers and join the Liberal Democrats at the same time...

Edward Woodward, actor, star and gentleman has died aged 79. Most people, of my generation, know him from ‘The Equalizer’, but I remember the day he nominated me to stand for the Calstock Division of Cornwall County Council in 1997.

Arriving at his beautiful house, near Calstock in Cornwall, he had one of those beautiful drives that my little car looked slightly out of place on, but nonetheless a beaming Edward came to the door, and myself and Yuan Potts were beckoned into his house for the best cup of coffee I have ever had in the most elegant kitchen I had seen.

The meeting was mainly about his coming out as a Liberal Democrat, in the press, that morning to support Colin Breed in the general election campaign of 1997.

In 1997, the County Council elections were on the same day, so I wisely took my nomination papers for Edward, and his wife, Michele Dotrice, to sign, as we both lived in the same ward.  They were more than glad to. 

On time, Paul Tyler, MP for North Cornwall, Robin Teverson MEP and Colin arrived for the photo call for the local press and media, and as this was very recent to his starring in ‘The Equalizer’ the Western Morning News ran with the story – Woodward Equalizes Campaign for the Lib Dems.

As well as walking away with my nominations and his membership subscription to the Liberal Democrats he also agreed to chair the party rally, to be held in Liskeard, on the eve of the general election, to be addressed by Shirley Williams and David Steel.

It was a great event and Edward chaired it with panache and style, in a way that only real stars can.

I met him just a few times, but he was genuine and decent man who made you feel welcome and special.  A real star who kept his feet on the ground and was a genuine encouragement to a young agent!

I achieved a 46% swing in the election but still came second – work that one out!

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Tales from Wales: Myself and a Lib Dem MP attended a Plaid Cymru Parliamentary Party Meeting by mistake

Plaid Cymru

Myself and Colin Breed stumbled into a lift which was acting as the meeting room for a Plaid Cymru Parliamentary Party meeting

Having worked in Wales for a few years for the Liberal Democrats, as the party’s national campaign manager, I seem to have a number of stories that might be of interest.

But, the first one is concerning a time before I worked there.  Those old enough to remember will know of the old jokes of the Liberal Party, or for that matter the SDP, about them being able to hold Parliamentary Party meetings in the back of a taxi or for that matter a phone box.

Having elected Colin Breed in the 1997 election I went up to London for a for a few weeks to set up his office there, and whilst wandering the corridors of Westminster we jumped into a lift with three MPs – Cynog Dafis, Dafydd Wigley and Elfyn Llwyd.

From a conversation in Welsh there suddenly became silence. After a few moments of uneasy silence, mainly I suspect because they had no idea who we were, or from which party, we jumped out of the lift before them.

Colin said, ‘that’s my first parliamentary meeting, pity it was with the wrong one!’