Meeting the great and good — and making sure they remember the encounter
With every visit of a Prime Minister to a media office, comes an air of electricity and intrigue, even for journalists who have seen most things.
Here, following the recent tour from Boris Johnson, The Yorkshire Post Editorial Director James Mitchinson recalls and reflects on the numerous VIP visits from the leaders of our country during his stint as a reporter and Editor:
Every Prime Minister is different. In my capacity as an editor I have met three of them and as a journalist, four. They are electric occasions. The security. The cavalcade. The entourage of advisers and minders.
Tony Blair; David Cameron; Theresa May, and, now: Boris Johnson. My mother has photographs of me with each of them proudly atop the living room mantelpiece. Except for Mr Blair. As it happens, she cherishes more dearly one of me with his wife, Cherie Blair, CBE QC. Make of that what you will.
My memory of my meeting with Mrs Blair is a powerful one for me personally. I met her as a young reporter on the Worksop Guardian in 2003. She was visiting a former mining village just like the one I am from — and, as the son of a coal miner, am fiercely proud of — called Langold.
It, like so many communities decimated by the closure of the pits, had fallen on hard times. As part of its regeneration strategy, a Sure Start centre had opened. At the time — as a 23-year-old almost fresh out of university — I was somewhat blasé about what appeared to my naive eyes to be nought but another kids’ nursery.
With hindsight, those centres offered — and offer — hope to the hopeless. A chance. Not in all cases, of course. I count myself and my family among the beneficiaries of these invaluable community hubs but my family chose to be a part of that; for some people, they are their only choice. They are indisputably one of the late, great Tessa Jowell’s greatest achievements. Anyway, I digress.
The memory I have of Mrs Blair stuck with me because, as we posed awkwardly for a photograph together — for my mum, of course — I said thank you to her for taking the time to visit a coal mining village and added that I lived in a village where the mine was still operating, adding that I was from a long line of mining men. I’m not sure why but I told her that I sometimes felt like I’d let my dad and granddad down by breaking the family tradition.
She said to me: “You know, you have done the right thing. Going to university. You can be whatever you want to be, now. I did it. So can you.”
I hope I get the chance to meet her again. To say thank you to her for those words that have been a place to turn to for me when the heat and isolation of the editor’s chair become, shall we say, testing. But also, to tell her — not that she needs telling by me — that if I was inspired by having met her, certainly the children of the deprived boroughs she was so determined to visit would have been.
Mr Cameron. I didn’t call him Dave. In fact, I have addressed them all in the same way. Prime Minister. There is something very special about receiving a Prime Ministerial visit and my approach to them has always been to park my own view of the individual in front of me during the course of business and remember that I am addressing the incumbent in office of one of the world’s leading nations. Respect the office, and be courteous to the occupant.
So, Mr Cameron. He flew into our offices like a whirlwind having asked us to assemble a room full of The Yorkshire Post’s friends, partners and readers for a Q&A on the campaign trail of the EU Referendum. His style was compelling. Mesmerising, even. Jacket off; sleeves rolled up; collar open. He was comfortable in his own skin and more so in power, greeting everyone warmly and with that posh gusto that tends to irk a northerner like me.
I won’t bore you with the machinations of the Q&A at which, of course, he extolled the virtues of remaining in the EU, but I will offer you, again, my most vivid of recollections from the meeting coming when we retired to an office for part on-the-record interview, part informal chat.
I said to Mr Cameron: “Are you not worried that by coming out and stating your support for Remain you are energising those who don’t like you to vote Leave? Should you have remained neutral?”
His retort: “Oh, the British people are not so stupid as to prioritise their opinion of me ahead of all of the benefits that come with being part of the European Union.”
Respect the office, James. The office.
Of the Prime Ministers I have met, Theresa May has been the most nervous and yet the most Prime Ministerial.
I won’t give away all of my memoirs for nothing but she, like Mrs Blair, instinctively knew how to offer encouragement and inspire people. On one of the two occasions she visited The Yorkshire Post’s Leeds headquarters she asked to meet our newest recruit.
As happened we had three apprentices learning their craft with us. Natasha Meek — now of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus — was the one she spent most time with. I am absolutely sure Natasha will never forget the words Mrs May had for her as she started out her career.
Onto Mr Johnson. Moments after his ‘die in a ditch’ publicity stunt, flanked — with echoes of something out of North Korea — by a phalanx of West Yorkshire police officers, he took the time to visit The Yorkshire Post.
As is now my ritual, in the lift I said thank you, Prime Minister, for taking the time to hear our questions and share with us your ambitions for Yorkshire. Before I got past ‘thank you, Prime Minister’ he interjected. “No! It’s a bloody honour,” he said whilst looking me directly in the eye.
If there’s one thing Mr Johnson is good at, it is making you feel comfortable in the presence of a Prime Minister. He was frank with us. He gave us far more time than he needed to — and far more than those responsible for keeping him to time would have liked him to — but he made a number of commitments on the record — for example, he told us he was ‘mad keen’ on Yorkshire achieving devolved status and insisted he would instruct Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry to double down on it.
He went into detail about how he plans to ‘demolish’ the North/South divide that so drives inequality in Britain.
And he didn’t get an easy ride, here. Perhaps that is of his own making. His chummy bonhomie almost gives interrogators permission to go where — perhaps — one wouldn’t with someone like Theresa May. We, as others had earlier, probed him on his brother’s resignation. We probed him on Brexit. We talked about trust. I personally insisted he apologise to the police officer that collapsed during his PR stunt and send on a bunch of flowers. He took my suggestion seriously. I don’t know if the flowers have arrived, yet.
One thing I am determined to hold him to, on behalf of anyone unfortunate enough to have to do business on the trains up and down the East Coast Main Line, is my request that he sees tor 4 and 5G connectivity being available to busy commuters along every single mile of track. “Done!” He barked back.
I hope we’re not, Prime Minister.