Pivotal moment in Gurkha campaign
IT WAS May 7, and I set out in the morning for work in Maidstone as normal. Just a few hours later, however, Lynne took a call from the Folkestone Herald asking what had "kicked off"? I was with Joanna in London, they said – they had seen me on the TV. So much for a normal day.
I had popped out from work to have my hair cut when my mobile rang. It was Kieran, my Lucozade-drinking, fantastically, manically eccentric lawyer friend. Kieran was so angry he could hardly get his words out. The Government had written to one of the Gurkhas cited in the successful High Court challenge of September, rejecting his application to live in Britain. This was the very day after Joanna had met the Prime Minister. At best it was an internal foul up – at worst the Government was intent on toughing this out.
My mind raced. A demonstration? Not enough time. A press conference? We'd had so many in recent days. Would the press respond? Were the public tiring of the issue?
A press conference it would have to be. But where? Then I had an idea. What about trying to hire a room in Millbank Studios?
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What happened that afternoon was to become one of the defining moments of live televised political drama.
To hold any sort of press conference in London, I had to leave Kent straight away. Final venue negotiations were completed over the phone on the M20.
I called media contacts to say it would be held at 4pm. But Kieran and I had agreed to keep the reason under wraps for as long as possible. It was imperative the Government didn't quickly withdraw the letter of rejection and nullify our attempt to advance the cause. All I would say was: "Joanna Lumley will be in Millbank at 4pm and she is angry."
I called Joanna. First, she was shocked and then furious. We heard other Gurkhas were receiving rejection letters. Journalists called constantly but then I received a particular call. This was the moment I knew we were going to win.
I answered the call, which had come up as 'Unknown Number'.
A calm, cool voice said: "Hello, this is Downing Street."
I've taken a lot of calls in my life, but this was only the second ever from Downing Street. This must surely mean that our long campaign was at last getting through to where it mattered.
"Hello," I said.
"Is that Peter Carroll?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Hello, Mr Carroll, this is Simon King calling. I am the Prime Minister's secretary. I understand that Miss Lumley is about to hold a press conference as she is concerned that some Gurkha applications have been rejected…"
There then followed a conversation that would have been totally at home in the script of Yes Minister. Mr King explained to me that the letters of rejection were not actually letters of rejection. I challenged him, pointing out that they started: "With regret, we write to inform you that your application has been rejected…"
Mr King made a pleasant, gentle but fairly desperate attempt to see if we might abort the now imminent press conference. I made a judgement call. No. We would go ahead.
By now I had arrived directly outside the Palace of Westminster. As I strode out, I found Joanna and we made our way to Millbank. The world's press had assembled as agreed in the atrium below us, but the drama of the day was about to take an unexpected turn right there on that staircase.
Kieran and the other lawyers had also arrived.
David Enright had brought with him some A4-size photographs of the rejected Gurkhas, some showing the terrible injuries that they had suffered serving as part of the British Army.
One of the BBC journalists called me over to say, "Did you know that the Immigration Minister (Phil Woolas) is in the building?"
How things turn on such small remarks.
Within minutes, Mr Woolas appeared. He saw us and, with what appeared a dismissive gesture, said something along the lines of "I'm sure the campaigners will be happy with what I have to say" as he swept past.
Joanna and I exchanged looks. I recall suggesting she should follow him.
Though I am sure that he didn't mean to, it looked to me that the minister started to hurry towards the BBC studios and the refuge they would offer. Joanna was now in hot pursuit. She called after him, politely as ever, but in a way that suggested he should stop and talk. He didn't.
By now, I think he had accelerated to the quickest pace one could go without actually running.
The studio doors closed behind the minister and his aides. Refuge at last. But at this point one of my favourite characters in this epic campaign played an absolute blinder.
The minister and aides had claimed sanctuary in the studios. Joanna was heading for the doors.
And, bless him, (BBC journalist) Paul Lambert said, "I can get you in…" – which he duly did. In strode Joanna, the lawyers and me, and a whole gaggle of journalists.
It was pandemonium. Suddenly, the main BBC political studios that were so used to reporting on political stories had become the story.
At this point I had one of those 'Oh my God, what have we started here?' moments. The film crews from the non-BBC stations refused to leave, saying it would be unfair if only BBC journalists were allowed to cover what was rapidly becoming a major news story. When I went outside to explain to the journalists who hadn't quite managed to tailgate through into the studios what was happening, I suddenly found I was live on TV as well. Then, the final signal that this was serious, Nick Robinson arrived with a devilish grin that got wider and wider as he began to take in what was happening.
Meanwhile, Joanna was hovering outside the small kiosk in which Phil Woolas was being interviewed.
Seeing that she was anxious to hear what he was saying, the BBC supplied headphones for Joanna.
Joanna lifted up one earphone and we literally "put our heads together' to prepare. When he finally emerged, Mr Woolas agreed to meet Joanna and the lawyers in a private room.
Eventually, the meeting broke up and Joanna emerged with a slightly cowed minister.
I stopped them before they emerged from the main studio and explained to the minister that we would now be going ahead with our press conference. For some reason, I asked if he would like to join us.
To my astonishment, he said: "Yes – that would be fine." Fine? I thought to myself – surely you don't mean that. And so Joanna and the minister proceeded down the steps to the waiting TV cameras and microphones.
As we gathered at the foot of the staircase, Joanna wasn't sure exactly where the diminutive Phil Woolas was standing and she realised it might be more valuable for the assembled media if he was visible. In a clipped tone, Joanna asked where he was and when she located him, she ordered him: "Here." Mr Woolas duly made his way to the spot. Over the next 20 minutes, Joanna employed a whole series of glares and frosty stares whilst taking Mr Woolas through their previous discussions in the studio.
Throughout Joanna's speech, Mr Woolas stood with his head bowed slightly, nodding occasionally. Joanna spoke softly and slowly, each phrase chosen with supreme skill. Word by word, she manoeuvred Mr Woolas into publicly restating the substance of their earlier meeting in this most public of forums.
Our team had gathered in a semi-circle behind the central duo. The press were arrayed before us in a great arc, lights and lenses everywhere. It had the feeling of a crucible. So much of modern politics is carefully stage-managed. Most politicians only ever engage with the media when briefed to the eyeballs and even then they are usually guarded by spin doctors. This was live theatre compared to recorded television. It was raw, unpredictable and dangerous to reputations. For the assembled media it was thrilling.
This press conference was the most memorable and high profile of the entire campaign. It was undoubtedly uncomfortable for Mr Woolas. For many, it will be a defining or perhaps the defining moment of his political career. Such was the rawness and intensity of the moment that some of my Lib Dem colleagues felt it was a press conference too far. But I think it played a positive, indeed pivotal, part in the campaign. I felt a twinge of pain for Mr Woolas as he, quite bravely, took the heat, but then I thought of the real victims in this issue. The Gurkhas were brave and they were loyal, and my conscience was clear.
GURKHA: The True Story of a Campaign for Justice is published by WWW.bitebackpublishing.com priced £18.99 and available on Amazon
Adapted by Eleanor Jones and Simon Finlay