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FUNNY OLD GAME, POLITICS (PART FOUR)

28-04-2007

Hugh McCallion’s reflections on his half a century in local politics have already triggered a massive response on our messageboard. In this latest exclusive extract from his forthcoming memoirs, he has more on former Birmingham councillor (and later, government minister) Edwina Currie.

As chairman of housing at that time there was ample opportunity to be in the media every day. Edwina milked this to the full. In addition to regular input to radio, the chair - or chairman as she preferred - and his or her shadow did an hour-long phone-in once a month.

Edwina prepared herself thoroughly for these and had officers scurrying around gathering information for every eventuality (in training for Prime Minister’s Question Time?).

The first couple we did she judged that I had come out on top. She was always jubilant when she felt that she had “won.” Apart from the egotistical thing I found out the real reason some time after she had been selected as the candidate for Derbyshire South.

Perhaps I should have realised what Edwina was up to but I didn’t. She had arranged for a friend to tape every phone-in programme we did. She then got another friend who was in the business to help with the editing.

What she ended up with was a 15-minute tape of her kicking seven bells out of me. She sent this with her CV to all those constituencies where she thought she might be in with a chance, so I may have inadvertently helped her into Parliament.

It was reported in the Birmingham Mail and on the local radio that Edwina had been selected as the candidate for Derbyshire South. There was a housing committee meeting the following afternoon and a beaming Edwina took the chair. Someone muttered something about congratulations being in order. She beamed from ear to ear as she said, “I am a very happy lady today.” Councillor George Canning, who hated her, immediately retorted, “Not as happy as we are.”

I leaned across and said in a half whisper, “Come on now George, you know you fancy her.” He shuddered as he spluttered, “I wouldn’t touch her with yours!”

You’ve probably got the message by now that it didn’t seem possible to shock Edwina, either politically or personally. Many members tried the old sexist or double entendre bit, but this was usually trumped and flung straight back at them.

One chap from her own side who fancied himself as a bit of a ladies’ man, ventured forth with, “A night in bed with me would do you the world of good Edwina.” The response was quick and deadly. “Oh, so you’re more accomplished in bed than you are in the chamber?”

Ever since Edwina revealed details of her affair with John Major, he has maintained a remarkable silence. There has of course been endless speculation about the affair. It has even been suggested that Edwina embarked on the project because she could see the commercial value of it in the writing career she was hoping to pursue. Could she have been that calculating? Did she lie back and think not of Britain but of her bank balance and her hunger for notoriety?

As a betting man and someone who knew her well, I wouldn’t know which way to punt - although I have little doubt that he would have found her clitoris easier to locate than her Achilles Heel.

Edwina’s bronze neck, her energy and her obsession with fame and fortune made her difficult to pin down - metaphorically of course. The only time I ever succeeded in knocking her out of her stride completely was by accident rather than design.

The Duke of Gloucester was visiting the housing department headquarters and Edwina and I, together with the Director and his Deputy, were to meet him at the door and show him around the building.

I arrived at the secretariat office which was wedged between the offices of the two senior officers, to find Edwina, as usual, issuing instructions. One of the secretaries said, “You’ll have to be careful chairman, it’s almost time to go and curtsy.”

“Curtsy?” she said haughtily, “I curtsy to no man. I will shake his hand and bid him welcome.” She looked towards me with a mischievous grin. “McCallion will probably curtsy, closet royalist that he is.”

As we headed towards the front door, Edwina was a few strides in front of me in the corridor. She was wearing an expensive looking, well-cut pink suit. I said, “Edwina, that’s a very nice suit but it doesn’t half show your knicker line.”

She stopped dead in her tracks for a few seconds before hurtling back to the office to seek an honest opinion from the women. They assured her that there was no problem but it had certainly unsettled her.

After we had dealt with the Duke I asked her what she would have done if the secretaries had confirmed what I had said. She was back to her old cocky self again as she said mischievously, “Don’t you have any imagination?” That’s probably the nearest I ever came to getting Edwina’s interlocks off - and, by the way, I never did see that pink suit again.

The Tories had developed a policy of selling empty council houses and Edwina embraced this with great enthusiasm. This was a totally different thing from selling council houses to sitting tenants, which by that time was also Labour policy.

When a house became vacant for whatever reason, instead of it being offered to a family at the top of the waiting list, it was sold at 30% discount. Within a short time of Edwina taking over, a substantial number of houses had been earmarked for sale in this way. Some people felt that it stood comparison to the kind gerrymandering that Shirley Porter became famous for, although of course Edwina did nothing illegal.

That didn’t stop us challenging her about it at council and in the press. On one occasion when I took it up with her on a one-to-one basis and accused her of trying to use council resources to create Tory voters, she said, “Of course. We might even make Kingstanding (my ward) a marginal, but if you tell the press I said that I will say you’re a bloody liar and I will get the benefit of the doubt because I’m good copy.”

I took it up at national level but we were just about to take control of the council again before I I got a coherent response. Jack Cunningham was our shadow minister and I was actually taking him round the city on the day Yvonne Fletcher was shot at the Libyan Embassy. He was whizzed back to London and we never got around to pursuing it again.

If anyone cares to do a study of the period when Edwina was chair between May 1982 and May 1984, you will see that a lot of empty houses in that category were sold.

The final word on Edwina must go to a senior officer from housing whose job it was to interface closely with the chair of the day.

I met him in the corridor one day after both she and Lynne Jones had departed the scene, Lynne having also served as chair of housing for a spell. I remarked on how well he looked bearing in mind that he must have gone through hell trying to please those two oddballs.

“It wasn’t really that difficult,” he said, “I just kept telling myself that politicians are transient and that during their tenure I had to accept that I was a congenital idiot.”

Now join the Messageboard discussion about Hugh’s Memoirs.

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