Have you ever gone back to a house you used to live in, and felt somehow disoriented as you went round? How could they have painted the living room that colour? How did they get planning permission for that extension? What was wrong with the old fireplace? Why have they patio’d the garden?
I had a similar feeling of being a trespasser when I went back to No 10 Downing St last week. Not that I ever used to live there, but I was a regular weekly visitor for two years, clutching my red folder on a Thursday morning and joining my colleagues for a coffee while the Prime Minister ushered some visiting Head of State out of the building. If anyone was late, it was I as Transport Secretary who was inevitably blamed. I tended to walk to Downing Street to minimise the chance of an obvious own goal.
Since the change of tenant there, I have understandably been back less often. The security is tighter – long gone are the days when school children who hoped to be Prime Minister could pose outside the steps of No 10.
I went back last week to see two constituents who were Bevin Boys during the Second World War get a well-deserved medal from the Prime Minister. As I walked up the stairs to the reception rooms, there was an extra photograph of Tony Blair after that of John Major.
We were all well looked after, but it was, well, different.
Not all my memories of visits to No 10 are happy ones. In 1986, I was summoned by Margaret Thatcher in the middle of a Government reshuffle. I was not sure if I was going to be promoted or sacked as opinion in the press that morning had been evenly divided. Any doubts were removed when the Prime Minister opened the conversation by remarking “George, this is all very sad” (She relented a few years later, and brought me back into the fold shortly before she fell)
I had gone to No 10 that morning in 1986 on two wheels, and had chained my bicycle to the railings in Whitehall – if I did that today, it would be removed. As I bicycled back to the Department after the meeting to tell my staff the news of my dismissal– they had actually known before I left – I was spotted by a journalist.
“That’s a bit tough on you, George” he said “ They take away your Ministerial limo the moment you’re sacked.”