He was wearing a tweed jacket and crisp beige chinos. I was wearing a faded blue polo shirt, baggy jeans and fraying Adidas trainers. We eyed each other up silently.
Oh God, I thought. An actual Tory.
Oh God, I assumed he thought back. A bloody Lib Dem.
Welcome to Coalition, comrade.
His name was Nick, and he, like me, was a pasty 20-something HQ staffer summoned to Downing Street in the early summer of 2010, just weeks after the formation of the coalition. It was a Friday during summer recess, which explained the casual clothes, and we were still in that heady, hubristic honeymoon phase – that wide-eyed window before the giddy wave of Cleggmania and the buzz of ‘new politics’ subsided and was replaced by the grinding reality of cuts, spats and unpopularity. Up until that point, working with the Conservatives had been an abstract notion for me – something I understood that we were now doing but not something I had been asked to dirty my hands with. The pair of us had been called in to No 10 to help plan a joint press conference with Sayeeda Warsi and Chris Huhne to expose some of the more gruesome details of ‘Labour’s Legacy’ that we had discovered since coming into office*.
It was my first time in the Big House. It’s a strange place, intimate and intimidating at the same time, like a National Trust manor that people live and work in. Having nervously shuffled through the famous black door and handed over my mobile to the custodian, I was sat in a small waiting room just to the left of the main foyer. Then this guy Nick arrived, we said an awkward hello, avoided eye contact and waited silently for something else to happen. At some point it clearly dawned on both of us that we were here for the same meeting, which had been organised by two newly minted No 10 special advisers, a Tory called Oliver Dowden (who is now an MP) and a Lib Dem, my old boss Sean Kemp (who is not). It didn’t make it less awkward.
It’s not like Nick was the first Conservative I had met. As a local reporter, some Tories had become my best contacts. Many of them even seemed like they were nice people. But that was local politics, where for every community-spirited public servant you come across there is a mad-eyed busy body or a miniature Mussolini. My assumption was that ‘proper Tories’, the type you’d find in places like Downing Street, were an altogether more objectionable sort. Then there was chucklin’ Charlie Elphicke, the eventually successful parliamentary candidate who I got to know when he rocked up on my patch in Dover in 2007. He seemed harmless enough and was good company, if a little ‘Hooray Henry’ in demeanour – the sort of guy who laughs through his nose at his own jokes. Later, I would bump in to him from time to time in Westminster and, once he’d clocked that I worked for Nick Clegg, he would start having these semi-conspiratorial conversations where he would tell me ‘something you guys really ought to know’. They never did make it back to the Deputy Prime Minister.
Anyway, in my own head I was able to discount all these examples of Toriness and maintain my prejudice that real Tories ate babies. I mean, look at George Osborne.
So there we were, Nick and I, two hoodlums from different sides of the tracks, standing in our civvies waiting to be escorted to a meeting in what turned out to be Margaret Thatcher’s old office, on the first floor, overlooking the Rose Garden. Inside were Oliver, Sean and three more Tory staffers (as ever, we were outnumbered). We all sat there, at an over-sized wooden table under a disconcerting oil painting of Maggie with eyes that followed you around the room.
Ladies and gentlemen, we were through the looking glass.
I can’t recall a great deal about the meeting itself, but the thing that stayed with me from that day was discovering the moon rocks. Maggie’s old office is by the state rooms on the first floor, near the top of the famous staircase lined with ascending pictures of Prime Ministers. Outside it is an ante-room that seems to serve no other purpose than to house random tidbits – silverware, donated artworks, gifts from visiting heads of state and suchlike. On a mantelpiece by Thatcher’s office was a wooden plaque with small fabric Union Jack encased in it and a lump of clear plastic at the top of it. The plastic contained four chunks of grit that, on closer inspection, turned out to be tiny bits of the moon. The whole thing was a gift from President Nixon to the Prime Minister in the 70s and the flag had actually been to the moon and back on one of the Apollo missions. It was an incredible piece of human history and yet it just sat there innocuously on the mantelpiece. I found it again when I came to work in No 10 several years later and it had been moved on to a table next to a fragment of the Chilean mine that collapsed in 2010 and a bizarre model of the front door of No 10 made out of sugar cubes. I occasionally daydreamed about putting it in my rucksack and walking home with bits of the moon on my person. Obviously I didn’t, but I probably could have got away with it.
*The press conference did, indeed, take place. Here’s proof.
Sadly, it failed to take on the same level of coalicious symbolism as the one in the Rose Garden.