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John Rentoul

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.

"The Independent's must-read man" - Daniel Finkelstein

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The Maid and the Man Who Wouldn't Leave His Desk

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Wednesday, 26 August 2009 at 08:44 am
Sue Cameron in The Financial Times today identifies the excellent Dennis Kavanagh as the uncoverer of one of the best stories about Marcia Williams, now Lady Falkender, who was Harold Wilson's closest adviser.

Derek Mitchell, Wilson's principal private secretary, had such old-fashioned ideas about the proper spending of public money that he once told Williams that "if she wanted to travel with Wilson on an expenses-paid official trip to Washington she could go only as Mrs Wilson's maid".

Mitchell died earlier this month, and one of his obituaries repeated my second-favourite story about him, which I think is also attributable to Professor Kavanagh (it appears in The Powers Behind the Prime Minister, which he wrote with Anthony Seldon):

He [Mitchell] was appointed to succeed Sir Tim Bligh as Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister in No 10. The restrained Mitchell and buccaneering Bligh were good friends from earlier days in the Treasury. But, having tasted real influence under Harold Macmillan, Bligh adamantly refused to vacate his post for the position on offer. He seemed to regard himself as indispensable to the new Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and even talked of staying on for the widely expected transition to a Labour government. A frustrated Mitchell found no practical support coming from the head of the Civil Service, and William Armstrong’s advice was that he should find a desk and bide his time. Instead, Mitchell moved into the Private Secretaries’ inner room and sat at a desk opposite Bligh. While the latter despatched business and guarded access to the Prime Minister, Mitchell read novels and sometimes went to the cinema in the afternoon. This bizarre situation continued for nearly four months and was never made public.

There is one additional detail in the book (p63):
In due course Bligh caught a heavy cold and had to be away, so Mitchell moved into his desk. But Bligh came back so Mitchell returned to his former desk and carried on with his novels.


eventsdearboy wrote:
Wednesday, 26 August 2009 at 09:56 am (UTC)
Great post. Yes, it is a good book. I do enjoy these anecdotes when they do seep out.



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