Today, Gordon Brown and Ed Balls visited a school in my constituency, I was told to help launch the Government's new White Paper on schools. With my constituency being the closest marginal to Westminster, we are used to a few ministerial and shadow ministerial visits over the last ten years, but never I have I seen such manouvrings and political jockeying by officials as with today's.
As has become traditional with this Government - and contrary to the Commons Conventions and Courtesies - neither Brown nor Balls notified me of their visit. I found out from the Local Education Authority. When I arrived at the school 10 minutes early, waiting for me was a Ms Izzet from Ed Balls's office, who loudly announced, in front of an ITN camera crew, that I was "not invited". This was a new first - not only not told of a ministerial visit to my constituency, I was actively disinvited. The head Teacher of the excellent Fulham Cross School was being put in a very difficult position. Clearly, nobody had ever heard of a civil servant attempting to ban a Member of Parliament from a public facility in his own constituency. Realising that I wasn't moving, and in front of dozens of children eagerly awaiting the visit, Ms Izzet then tried to entice me to an office for "some refreshments". She was trying anything to get me out of the way, in a way that is outrageous to a Member of Parliament in his own constituency. Ms Izzet told me that I hadn't even myself visited the school, which was a lie, and that I would make the visit "political" - which was a bit rich coming from a Balls adviser.
Stephen Greenhalgh, Leader of the Council arrived, and Ms Izzet was remarkably and improbably even more confrontational towards him, even though the School was Council property and the Council is the Local Education Authority. She then proceeded to try to dupe Stephen and me into believing that Brown and Balls were coming in by a different entrance, and there was even a decoy posse of security people to help do the job.
We eventually got back into our own school, and were then treated to an hour of pure pantomime. The children, mainly 15 or 16 were on great form and were clearly thrilled by the visit. Brown's chatter, however, was embarrassing. Balls asked in the most patronising way he could about the quality of the food and about school sport, and seemed to have limited interest in the educational achievements.
Brown made a number of faux pas. His worst was to meet the same Italian teacher twice in 15 minutes and attempt to have the same conversation with her, forgetting he had already met her. Each time he told her he was looking forward to going to Italy next week (presumably on some official business, hard to imagine he is going on holiday), and he suggested she take the children to Rome "as that is where they have the ancient...." (he didn't finish the sentence, searching for the word monuments or sites, I suppose). Sometimes Balls had to add the words Brown was searching for, like "ambition" at one point.
Brown and Balls learned that the school is a specialist language school. I told them that French, Spanish and Italian were taught. One of the staff added that Arabic is also taught to those for whom it is a home language. "Arabic, that is a difficult langauge" said Brown; er, but not if it is your home language I suggest.
It has been much commented on before, but Brown's chatter at this sort of event is dire. Balls is little better. The school did a fantastic job under some pressure from the officials, but the overriding memory of this Prime Ministerial visit to my constituency is that Brown and Balls surround themselves with officials who might be even more hectoring and bullying than their masters.