Sunday 30 March 2014

Visiting No. 10

10 Downing Street: the world's most famous front door
Last Tuesday morning, I was due to meet two of the Prime Minister's policy advisors, for a meeting about regulatory policy in relation to tourism. 

So far, so unremarkable. But that meant going through the world's most famous front door - at 10 Downing Street.

Seeing inside No. 10 was a fascinating experience - and after my meeting, I was lucky enough to have a brief "tour". 

The only other building I have been inside that gave me such a palpable sense of history was the Pantheon in Rome (which everyone must visit once in their lifetime). Downing Street is much newer and nothing special architecturally - a cluster of Georgian town houses knocked together - but it has been the epicentre of politics in Britain and our Empire for 275 years (and now a workplace for some 200 people).

It was humbling to walk up that famous staircase, lined with the portrait of every former Prime Minister from Robert Walpole to Gordon Brown - and to see a worn and modest brown leather tub chair that didn't look anything, until you heard it was the "smoking chair" used by Winston Churchill.

And I discovered a "secret" that I can reveal exclusively here: have you ever seen that door opening (inwards, uniquely for a front door) as someone approaches it, and wondered how? I asked the security man inside the door how he knows when to open it - and he showed me. To the left of the door on the inside, is a piece of mahogany furniture - but it has a glass top with a TV screen inside, showing four views of the street outside. Walk up to the door, and it opens for you - if you have got through the security on the gates...

The door, by the way, is now (since the 1991 IRA attack on No. 10) a bomb-proof metal one; the original oak door can be seen in the nearby Churchill Museum at the old Cabinet War Rooms. 

On walking through that door as the new Prime Minister on 7th May 1940, the day Germany invaded Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, Churchill said "I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour, and this trial".

What an experience to follow in the footsteps of history.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

When will Police heads roll?

"Plebgate" - the name seems to relegate the story to those amusing, "and finally..." anecdotes at the end of the news.

The Metropolitan Police and the Police Federation are certainly hoping the story will go away.

And yet, this is perhaps one of the most shocking stories about the Police in recent years - and after a run of appalling scandals showing Police corruption, criminality, lying and/or cover-ups at many levels, that is saying something.

This seems to have been a conspiracy by Police officers to topple a Cabinet Minister, followed by lying, lying and lying again to cover it up.

The Police's own enquiries have veered between stitch-up and farce, and the CPS seems frozen in indecision. Both cite the "complexity" of the case as a reason for the year (and counting) of time they have taken so far. Yet Michael Crick of Channel 4 News seems to have solved it many months ago.

So let's not mince words: Inspector Ken Mackaill of the Police Federation lied to the cameras  after his meeting with Andrew Mitchell a year ago. He lied to oust a Cabinet Minister from his job. He lied because he could - he knew he would be believed, because he is a Police Inspector.

Yet now we know - because the meeting was taped - that Inspector Mackaill was lying when he spoke about the "facts" recorded by the Police log, and we know - because the original event was recorded on CCTV - that the Police log itself contained untruths. And we know that emails were sent to the authorities, purporting to come from witnesses, that were in fact written by a Police officer who was not even present at the time. The same fateful words were inserted into that lying testimony as were in the discredited Police log.

When will the CPS decide? When will the whole truth come out officially?

When will Police heads roll?

Saturday 22 October 2011


Can anyone explain to me what the tented protesters outside St Paul's are against? Or what they are for? The press tend to describe them as "anti-capitalist", but what does that mean exactly? Are they against money, or property? I am confused.
They once had a likely spokesman, who wrote to The Times saying "Sir, I wish to protest most strongly about everything. Yours, Spike Milligan".

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Fastjet will never fly

So much excitement in the press - both the travel trade and the newspapers - about "Sir Stelios" and his "plans to launch a new airline". He has so far bought a domain name - but if you read some of today's papers, you could be forgiven for thinking that the red-liveried airline "Fastjet" will soon be open for bookings.

At the risk of sticking my neck out, here's a prediction: Fastjet will never fly. I may be cynical, but I think it won't get off the ground because it is a red herring - this is just a chess move in Sir Stelios's somewhat bizarre games at the expense of easyJet.

He is a bored millionaire, and relishes a fight - and the limelight. Anyone with any sense would be happy to trouser his recent £57m dividend and leave the management with the headaches of actually running an airline. But that would be too "easy". Fastjet - what am I bet that it never sees the light, let alone the skies?

Thursday 24 February 2011

The launch of "Hospitality Today" magazine - from hospital!

The last few weeks of my life seem to have passed in a blur. My company, Special Publishing, has launched a digital magazine for the hospitality industry - "Hospitality Today" - and that has taken a lot of my time. We have a foreword from the Minister of Tourism, a wine column from Jancis Robinson and much else beside - and we are reaching over 30,000 business owners (hoteliers, restaurateurs, and owners of inns, pubs and B&Bs).
The most exciting thing, though, is the innovative technology that underpins our "virtual magazine" - it can be read by anyone, anywhere on any PC, Mac, laptop, iPhone, iPad or smartphone. You can "turn the pages", but unlike printed magazines we can have video as well as still pictures on the page.

Enough of the sales pitch - my reason for this post is to say that just three days before our launch date, I saw my GP with 'stomach pains' and was rushed into hospital straight away, and went under the knife that evening for an appendectomy.

Thank god for the Blackberry - luckily I was able to OK a last minute ad from Moet & Chandon from my trolley before being put under - and that closed the magazine ready for launch. We did make the planned launch date after all.

In my couple of days of enforced inaction in hospital, however, I did refelect on the fact that NHS hospitals have some of the same faults as some hospitality businesses - mainly a lack of communication to the patient/customer. People will put up with an awful lot, if they are told what is going on quickly, clearly and honestly by someone who introduces him or herself and explains his or her role.

Whether it is a matre d' welcoming you to your table and describing today's specials, or a nurse telling you when you are due to go into the theatre, the same principles apply. On that basis, the NHS have a lot of room for improvement in my experience - though it has to be said that the operation was a complete success - luckily for me (and 'Hospitality Today'!).

Friday 24 September 2010

The Bronx, Bad Behaviour and Bottles

Three news items on successive days: (1) recalling how the pre-80s Bronx was a derelict no-go area, virtually a "war zone" where houses could not even be given away (they are now changing hands for millions); (2) yesterday's report from the Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Denis O'Connor saying the Police "did not regard anti-social behaviour as real crime", and (3) today's report that Dr Alasdair Forsyth, from the Glasgow Centre for the Study of Violence, is calling for city pubs to stop serving drinks in glasses and use plastic instead.

I can't be the only person to see a link here. The O'Connor report shows how important it is that the Police act on anti-social behaviour, which they "[do] not regard... as real crime and [are] slow to act [on]". The public don't agree: 45% (3.5m) of calls to the Police relate to it.

The New York story shows the ultimate consequence of ignoring anti-social behaviour: you end up with a war zone where citizens (and even Police) can't venture. How was it reclaimed? By cracking down first on "low-level" crime and anti-social behaviour.

Today's call to ban glasses illustrates another, more insidious consequence of failing to Police properly - the suggestions that we all suffer in order to reduce the availability of 'weapons' to the tiny minority.

The O'Connor report says the Police need to 'reclaim the streets'. It is about time they did - and the Government need to back them to do so. The (many) laws against anti-social behaviour, public drunkenness etc. need to be enforced. It is a slippery slope towards the (pre-80s) Bronx - and deciding to ban beer glasses rather than crack down on drunkenness and brawling may be a step down that slope.

Spivs and Gamblers...?

Vince Cable got some easy cheers by railing against City "spivs and gamblers" - how comforting to be able to blame our ills on those nasty fat cats.

The banking bailout, on current figures, looks as if it will break even or even make the taxpayer a profit. Meanwhile banks and finance contribute a huge proportion of UK taxes - and now salaries and bonuses will be taxed at 50%.

What would you call those who run an organisation for years, borrowing £1 for every £4 they spend of shareholders' money, leaving others to pick up the tab in the future? The man in charge of the purse strings of this organisation for a decade was fond of using the word "prudence" in every speech. Some might say that they were nearer the "spivs and gamblers" end of the spectrum.