Priti spectacular own goal for Home Secretary on visit to Cambridgeshire
- Credit: © Terry Harris
A moment of nostalgia. It is July, 1977. I am at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire.
Maggie Thatcher is yet to become Prime Minister (she had to wait a further two years).
But the Conservative Party is out in all its splendour and glorious thunder. Mrs T is to deliver a rousing speech.
I checked back on it – and it was all of that.
In one part she spoke of preservation of the British way of life “just as the builders of long ago fashioned this monument of Blenheim, so our ancestors also built for us the institutions and customs and provisions which constitute the British way of life, and that is the British monument to the world.
“And it must be conserved as Blenheim must be conserved.
“And just as rot or pests can attack buildings, pests can undermine foundations on which our constitutional pillars rest. And what are those pillars, the pillars of our heritage?
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“They are first those principles of right and wrong which are far deeper than politics and upon which are founded our moral commitment to one another.”
And then it was time for the sideshow. Literally. To raise funds there were tombola stalls, a tea tent, darts and bowls.
As the young editor of the Oxford Journal newspaper, I had been marginally involved in the occasion – writing and editing a 16-page supplement ahead of the day.
My ‘reward’ was to be invited to meet her and so I did, accompanying her as she visited the various sideshows with my then deputy editor Bob Sproat. A local freelance journalist Colin Fenton (a wonderful, kind, generous but ruthlessly competitive friend) joined the entourage
A solitary policeman stood watch as we walked with Mrs T.
And observed her steely determination as she ‘bowled for a pig’ (I think the prize for best performance of the day was actually a bottle of champagne).
Ahead of the day I had interviewed local MPs, including, of course, Airey Neave, the then member for Abingdon.
A kind and courteous man he had a background that included being a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, a barrister, author and had held his Oxfordshire seat since the early 1950s.
He had insisted on being interviewed over lunch in the House of Commons – I suspected he knew I had never been and indeed I hadn’t; Dover sole has never tasted so good.
We spoke irregularly by phone thereafter but I was never to meet him in person again. He was assassinated two years later.
The political world changed. Ministers and MPs became more security aware (rightly so) and a cloak began to be drawn, understandably, around them.
What has also changed over the decades since is the relationships between ministers and the regional press.
That is not for reasons of security but their perceived notion of relevance.
I experienced it when Nick Clegg, then the deputy prime minister, visited Cambridge in 2010 and the local press, myself included, protested angrily to his aides when they tried to renege on promises for one-to-one interviews.
Prime minister Davd Cameron’s PR team made similar promises a few years later on a visit to a Cambridge business park.
With other regional journalists we were herded into a bleak office, kept waiting an age, allowed just two or three questions between us, and suddenly the PM was off.
An indication of where we have gone from there can be gleaned from the events of this week and the visit of Home Secretary Priti Patel to Cambridgeshire.
“I am writing with a heads up that a very senior cabinet minister will be visiting Peterborough tomorrow (Thursday 29th April),” was the email that landed not only in my inbox but in other local journalists too.
The time was 10.07am.
“They will be meeting Darryl Preston - the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner - to discuss cutting crime, safer streets.
“The minister will be available in Cathedral Square, Peterborough for questions at 9.30am.
“For obvious reasons, I am unable to provide more specific details, but I do urge you to definitely send someone to cover it.
“Could you please confirm who you will be sending and I will let the team on the ground know?”
We duly responded in the affirmative.
A colleague’s invitation was more personal.
“Hi Harry, I know this is a bit off your patch, but it is still relevant for Ely Times,” was how his invitation arrived; we overlooked the fact that Harry works for the Ely Standard and that the local press officer for Mr Preston ought probably to have known that.
The following morning, and the day of the visit, the following email arrived at 7.51am.
“Following my email from yesterday, we have been advised that the visit will no longer be taking place this morning,” it explained.
“We apologise for any inconvenience caused and will revert with further information in due course”.
Ironically that was the very time Ms Patel was already on her way to Peterborough by train.
A flurry of angry tweets from journalists must have put them on back foot.
At 12.25pm Mr Preston got his PR aide to send the following.
“We sent an email early this morning saying that the minister's visit was cancelled. This was an error,” it said.
“The minister's plans had changed and she was no longer available for interviews in Cathedral Square.
“We apologise for this and any confusion it may have caused.”
We would have liked to quizzed the Home Secretary about sentencing (the day before a man received just 20 months for a brutal attack on a Cambridgeshire police officer).
We might also have asked her thoughts on PCSOs (numbers in Cambridgeshire have been slashed).
And maybe, time permitting, a word about police enquiry offices in the county closing.
Perhaps I’ll send an email.