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Jack Straw memoirs - part 3: 'We needed shedloads of security!'
In addition to a warning about officials inadvertently working to undermine me, Kenneth Baker had given me one other piece of excellent advice in the closing months of the Major government.
He told me that we would be put under immense pressure to move into the Home Secretary’s secure house (in Belgravia). As we had a family, we should resist it at all costs. The security people would advance all kinds of reasons why we had to move; but if we dug in they’d make our own homes secure instead.
He was right. Shortly before the election, eight men, police officers and security experts, came to our home in Kennington and tried to ‘persuade’ Alice that we would have to move. As a senior civil servant, Alice was used to operating in a man’s world but even she found this meeting intimidating. In the end, they gave up, and began to lay the plans.
Our three houses were almost taken to bits, as bulletproof windows, fire and intruder alarms, and panic buttons for every room were installed.
In Blackburn, the police decided that they would occupy the ground floor (which we’d previously let out as a small office), and partition off our living quarters on the two upper floors.
At our Oxfordshire house, our neighbours were entertained on the weekend after the election as a huge crane lowered an armoured hut, with a kitchen and loo behind, into the garden. A photograph of this manoeuvre, graphically symbolizing the change of power, appeared in newspapers.
In London, there was, thankfully, neither space inside for a police room, nor room outside for an armoured hut.
Instead, two armed uniformed officers were stationed in our little square. For the next thirteen years, in place of the two cups of tea I’d been programmed to make first thing, I made four. All over London I still bump into police officers who remember my tea.
It’s hard being a teenager in almost any circumstances. My children were inner-London kids, at an inner-London comprehensive. They didn’t want to be different. Suddenly, however hard we tried, they were.
There were police officers either outside the front door, in the garden, or in the house itself. Not only that, but plain-clothed armed close protection officers from the Special Branch were with their dad whenever he stepped outside the house – in the car, on a train, just walking down the street. These Special Branch officers were professional, discreet, and sensitive to the family’s needs. It was nothing like as hard as the intrusion into our private lives from the press, as we were to discover with a vengeance seven months later.
But it was still tough, especially on Alice and the children. For my first post-election weekend in Blackburn, Will and Charlotte came too, to watch the last game of the season against Leicester City. They decided that now my salary had doubled, it was time for me to get rid of all the embarrassing ‘naff ’ clothes I wore, and restock my wardrobe. So it was off to Next, a store that I had never frequented before. Charlotte was giving me ‘advice’ about what trousers to buy when she suddenly turned to me and said, ‘Where’s he gone, Dad?
‘Who are you talking about? Who’s gone?’ ‘Him, you know, that detective. He was here seconds ago. Now he’s gone.’ This detective had spent years on surveillance for Special Branch. He was brilliant about being present, but not being noticed. ‘I’ve found him, Dad!’ Charlotte announced after a search. ‘He’s lurking behind the jackets.’ I realized that though she found the police an intrusion, she was also anxious about my safety.
I was touched, but it’s not the sort of burden a fourteen-year-old should have to bear.
In the grip of the Chief Whip
ABOVE: Chief Whip Walter Harrison
AS a rising star in Labour’s Treasury team during the 1980s Jack Straw finds out painfully about the role of Whips in the Commons.
“I was getting a bit cocky, until Labour’s deputy Chief Whip, Walter Harrison, took me in hand.
Walter had been a foreman electrician before becoming MP for Wakefield. He was one of the unsung heroes of the 1974–9 Labour government, helping it to survive with no majorityand win vote after vote, until the last fateful division.
Stocky, as broad as he was tall, Walter was not a man to pick an argument with.
Unwisely, I did.
Walter stopped me in the corridor outside the Opposition Whips’ Office, and told me that the tactics I was using in my part of the finance bill had to be changed. I thought he was wrong, and explained, in earnest detail, why.
He repeated his instruction; I repeated my contrary case, jabbering on.
He fixed both eyes upon and as he did so, I felt a pain between my legs I’d not experienced since the school rugby field.
His grip tightened. I rose on tiptoes as he pushed up as well. My mouth came open; only a little screech came out.
‘Now, lad. Have you got the point, or do you want some more?’ ‘Yes,’ I whimpered in reply. Walter released his grip. I did as I’d been told.”
- © Jack Straw 2012 – Extracted from Last Man Standing, published by Macmillan. Lancashire Telegraph readers can order copies of Last Man Standing by Jack Straw from The Silverdell bookshop, 61 Poulton Street, Kirkham, Preston PR4 2AJ (phone 01772 68344 or email email@example.com) and get £4 off the rrp of £20 and free postage.