To Downing Street, to see people. Such as Gordon Brown (out of a window)

Courtesy of Tom Watson, Cabinet Office minister, I was invited on Thursday night to 11 Downing St (I’d been in No.10 before, when Alastair Campbell stalked the earth). The occasion: a reception for “digital entrepreneurs”, though also – it turned out – to give a namecheck to the Free Our Data campaign as an inspiration to said minister, who says he wakes up and thinks “How can I free another dataset?”

Was I impressed? You betcha.

But while we stood listening to the speeches, I noticed (with someone else) that below us, on a patio, there were two people sitting in some chairs, with two bottles of wine and two half-poured glasses on the table in front of them. One of the men was wearing a open-necked light pink shirt, looked vaguely like Simon Cowell (slightly younger) from that distance. The other was.. blimey, it’s Gordon Brown, dressed in dark suit, dark shoes. Is there a prime ministerial uniform, then?

We couldn’t hear a word that was being said – too far away, through a window – but the hand and body language was fascinating. The younger man was a shoveller: hands together on one side, then both move across and push, or come together and push forward.

Brown listened intently. Once or twice he took a note, dragging a piece of paper from a jacket pocket. Once the other guy pulled out a single piece of A4, folded twice, blank on the back, and gestured at it as though it were a short list of things that weren’t quite right. Neither drank from the wine glasses while I was there. Brown sometimes leant forward, sometimes sat back. His body language was listening; then he began talking, and his hand movements were also shovelling, but they seemed like defensive shovelling: the palms turned outwards, as if trying to get something away from him. And then he too did the move-and-shovel routine. Take it from here, put it over there. Shovel, shovel, push and push.

There was something about the tableau that felt fragile. I could have taken a picture with my mobile, but it would have felt intrusive, rude -especially since we’d been asked not to take any pictures inside No.11. (Describing it here is different from a picture, which is just wrestled out of its context; here you have to imagine the scene yourself rather than have it presented.). It was a beautiful summer’s evening, the sun forcing through the trees wet with the heavy showers that had fallen earlier on. And two men discussed.. something, surely important.

It was fascinating to watch; we couldn’t figure out what they might be talking about. Policy? Spin? How to reach voters on some topic? What the effect of oil prices would be? Whether the NHS should impose choice? Who knew? But it was interesting as much as anything because it provided a picture of someone prepared to have a long, detailed talk, listening as well as talking, clearly accepting that he didn’t know everything about the topic. You don’t often see politicians in that unguarded state; only when you get inside the compound, beyond the razor wire, and see them at their ease do you get that insight.

Then they got up and went inside, still not having (in the time I’d watched) touched a drop. Perhaps Gordo prefers a whisky..


  1. Really enjoyed reading this. (warning: buzzword coming) – In an ‘infobese’ age, it’s really nice to have to think about an image rather then be presented with one – which 99.9% of the time we are.

  2. Sorry I missed you on Thursday, Charles… I didn’t get close to ticking off all the ‘people I must talk to tonight’.

    It’s just as well you didn’t take the photo: visitors are normally required to leave their mobiles at the front door. Having said that, I’ve yet to have my laptop taken off me: and it’s got Skype, wifi, built-in webcam, etc etc… :)

    Tom Watson’s a great guy to have in post at the Cabinet Office. Probably the first ‘e-government Minister’ to really understand the territory, certainly the first to appreciate the whole ‘2.0’ thing. We need to make the most of him while he’s still there.