I was the Queen's official gossip: Bitchy, witty and shocking – we publish letters by her Vice Chamberlain about what really happened in the House of Commons
06:56 GMT, 23 April 2012
They were the most bizarre official reports the Queen ever received – hand delivered to her each night at 6pm from her Vice Chamberlain, a Labour MP from mining stock in Co Durham.
When I was appointed Vice Chamberlain, the Government whip responsible for writing nightly reports to the Queen, I had no idea it would lead to regular chats with the Queen; that I would share gossip and witness at first hand her warmth and humour . . . and even talk about what the public were doing to the carpets in Buckingham Palace.
It was a pleasure and a delight, occasionally livened up by the odd comment from Prince Philip whose sense of humour is legendary. I recall once being introduced to him at a Buckingham Palace reception with my fellow Government whip, Jim Dowd, as a couple (we are now). ‘Are you from the same political party’ he enquired with a chuckle, clearly curious about our relationship.
The Queen used to receive the letters everyday at 6pm which were written by her Vice Chamberlain
I kept thinking of both my grandfathers, who were face workers in the pits, my father, who was a Labour agent in Jarrow, and my mum who was a housewife in County Durham . . . if they could see me now.
The first I knew about my new role was when I received a phone call from Nick Brown, the then Chief Whip, after Labour swept to power in the 1997 General Election.
A government whip Wow, I thought, rather fancy the idea of that. But there was more.
‘You see,’ said Nick, ‘there is something we have to do in government which we did not do in opposition, and we think you’d be rather good at it. Someone has to write to the Queen.
‘And you get another 20,000 a year,’ he added.
And so I was duly appointed Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household, the first woman to officially hold the position.
‘It cannot be easy,’ she once said to me, ‘juggling family responsibilities with Parliamentary and constituency duties, particularly if your constituency is some distance from Westminster.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it helps if you have a partner or spouse who is prepared to share the load.’ I suspect the Queen understood that only too well for it is clear that Prince Philip has been a great source of support for her.
However, I did tell the Queen that some of the older men were finding it a bit difficult adapting to such an influx of women. I said that once, when a group of us ordered champagne in the Tea Room to celebrate winning a vote, an ageing Tory grandee slammed down his drink and stormed out, complaining loudly about ‘the domination of this place by women’. Her Majesty did not seem impressed by this.
In some of my early messages, I mentioned that Glenda Jackson, then a junior Transport Minister, had failed to turn up in the Commons to respond to a debate. Another Minister had to step in at the last minute to deliver the speech she should have made. After that, there were a number of late-night debates to which Glenda should also respond. When I next met the Queen, she asked me about this and, displaying a sense of irony I hadn’t quite expected, pondered whether Glenda, a double Oscar-winner, had trouble with performing in public.
‘Poor Glenda,’ she said. A bit like Elizabeth II commenting on Elizabeth I (one of Ms Jackson’s most notable roles), I thought.
My first duty, however, was to go to Buckingham Palace as the ‘hostage’ on the day of the State Opening, in which the Queen outlines the Government’s proposed legislation for the coming session.
A Parliamentarian, namely the Vice Chamberlain, is required to stay in the Palace while the Queen is at Westminster, in order to guarantee her safe return.
The tradition dates back to the 17th Century. After Parliament cut off the head of Charles I in 1649, his successors were apprehensive about visiting Parliament. So a Government car took me to
Buckingham Palace on the morning of the State Opening. As the Royal party was about to leave, a group of us stood in the central courtyard to see the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh safely off on their journey to Parliament.
Prince Philip did not disappoint. He turned to me. ‘Hmm,’ he said, ‘if we don’t come back safely, you get shot or something, don’t you’
I then settled down in front of a television to watch the State Opening. Once the ceremony was over, the Queen and Prince Philip returned to the Palace, where there was a drinks reception, attended by several members of the Royal Family, and only then was I ‘released’ to make my way back to Westminster.
Another duty was to take Humble Addresses to the Palace for the Queen’s signature. I was never sure what constituted a Humble Address but they seemed to involve taxation agreements with former colonies.
In any event, they had to be personally conveyed by me to the Palace for the Queen to sign. All of these audiences with her required me to take my wand of office and to be fairly formally dressed (hat, of course).
On one occasion the audience took place in the Queen’s own study, a really beautiful circular room. Each of the famous corgis had its own feeding and play station. Her desk was piled high with several red boxes, for the paperwork the Head of State has to read is huge.
It was on these occasions that I was able to have a conversation with the Queen. She often remarked on the late-night Parliamentary sittings, asking, ‘When will they get some sleep’
After one such marathon session, the Queen remarked that ‘My Parliament has been sitting very long hours recently.’ She was clearly concerned about the effects on her Parliamentarians. ‘I thought
Mr Blair looked rather tired when I met him on Tuesday,’ she continued.
Once a Humble Address had been signed, my job was to report it back to the Commons. This involved me standing at the Bar of the House at 2.30pm after Prayers. Wand of office in hand, I announced ‘Madam Speaker’ – for it was Betty Boothroyd in those days – ‘I have a message from the Queen.’
I then had to take six steps forward, bow, six further steps up to the central table, bow again and hand the Humble Address to the clerk who would pass it to the Speaker.
Then came the really tricky bit. I had to do the whole thing in reverse, walking backwards to the Bar of the House. I had practised this in advance, not wanting to make a complete fool of myself. Alas, I did not bargain for the consequences of wearing shoes with heels. These made it very difficult to negotiate my way backwards in a straight line and once I almost fell into the lap of a Labour MP.
There was much hilarity right across the Chamber.
Her Majesty was very interested when the Agriculture Minister, Jeff Rooker, planned to ban green-top, or raw, milk. She told me she had read about it in my daily messages. ‘Is this true’ she asked.
I told her I had taken it up with Jeff because the milk was popular in my own constituency. I knew, too, that the Royal Family were devotees of green-top milk, especially the late Queen Mother. They get it from their own herds. It has been banned in Scotland and Wales for ages but Jeff never carried out the ban in England. I reckon that, once I had mentioned it in the messages, Her Majesty might have raised it with the Prime Minister.
Every year, the Queen hosts her Royal Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace. These are splendid occasions with hundreds of guests assembled on the lawns to await the Queen. The Vice Chamberlain is expected to attend all of them.
Tommy McAvoy, who was the Comptroller of the Royal Household (usually No 3 in the Government whips office) and I were allowed to take tea in the Royal tent. But Nick Brown, the Chief Whip, was only allowed in the diplomatic tent, and he was really keen for his mother to meet the Queen.
So we devised a plan. When the Queen and Prince Philip took their leave of us in the Royal tent, they would walk back down the garden and, en route, pass the diplomatic tent, where Nick and his mum would be waiting outside.
It worked like a dream and Her Majesty stopped to talk to Nick’s mother. She seemed delighted at the opportunity to make an elderly lady feel valued. Just another example of the Queen’s caring sensitivity. It is no wonder her children and grandchildren love her.
The Palace courtiers were clearly very bemused and interested in what Government whips did. So much so that they asked if I would get together a group of my fellow whips to lunch at the Palace.
About six of us went, and we had an hilarious time explaining to them that it was our job to make sure the Government’s programme was passed, and finally, of course, signed off by the Queen giving her Royal Assent.
But we could not resist also regaling them with a few tales of MPs’ misdemeanours with which we had to deal – no names, of course.
There were so many of us to go to the Palace that day that the government car service, which has a pool of vehicles for the use of Government Ministers, could only find a Daimler that was large enough to accommodate us all.
As we were leaving the Palace, Sir Robert Fellowes, then the Queen’s Private Secretary and now Lord Robert Fellowes, took us down to the waiting car. As we climbed into the Daimler, he stuck his head through the window and said: ‘Good Lord, I don’t even get one of these.’ We all felt terribly grand.
July 1998 was reshuffle time. This is when all Government Ministers, and those who aspire to be, sit by their telephones to make sure they can be contacted 24/7. There are some very funny stories about politicians who, suspecting they were due to be sacked, actually do the reverse. They disappear so they cannot be reached. This creates a problem because the Prime Minister cannot appoint someone new to a post until the sitting incumbent is either moved or sacked.
There have also, allegedly, been occasions when surnames have been muddled up and the wrong person has been appointed. If you are to be sacked, No 10 will try to warn you and will arrange for you to see the Prime Minister in his room at the Commons rather than subject you to the walk up Downing Street in front of the cameras.
So, when I was asked to report to No 10, I knew I was not to be sacked, although I had no idea where I was to be moved. I was soon to know.
‘Well,’ said Mr Blair, ‘the Queen has loved your daily messages, you know.’ I assumed that Her
Majesty had mentioned this when she met the Prime Minister. ‘Oh, good,’ I said, ‘I expect that’s because I used to give her all the gossip.’
‘You mean, who’s seeing who’ he asked, with a rather impish smile. ‘Certainly not,’ I said, ‘I wasn’t going to tell her that.’
Alas, my days of writing the daily message, which I had enjoyed so much, were at an end. ‘I would like you to take on Tourism, Film and Broadcasting as one of Chris Smith’s junior Ministers at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport,’ Mr Blair said.
What a terrific job! How could I refuse, but I should certainly be sad to relinquish my Royal role.
Before I could do that, I had to return to the Palace to hand over my wand of office to the Queen, whereupon she ‘broke’ it in two (which is to say she unscrewed it).
It was then inscribed with my name and later returned to me. I have it still.
I cannot deny there was a certain sadness about bidding farewell to the Queen. I had found her such a warm and understanding person and someone who truly cares about others.
Our final meeting was just before the summer opening of Buckingham Palace to the public. I decided to be a bit cheeky and ask her what it was like to open your home like this.
‘Do you know, everyone shuffles along in a line,’ she said, while giving a little demonstration of the public shuffle.
‘This means,’ she continued, ‘that they push all the carpet pile in one direction, so the following year, we have to turn all the carpets round so they can push it back the other way.’ A lovely person, and practical too.
Janet Anderson 2012. Janet Anderson left Parliament at the 2010 General Election. She now works as a freelance consultant.