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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 February 2007, 13:41 GMT
Day in the life: Margaret Beckett
She has just marked nine months in a job which she herself admitted she was surprised to get and now Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett has given the BBC's Bridget Kendall the opportunity to spend a day with her to see how the Foreign Office is run.


At the elegant town house that is the foreign secretary's London residence, Margaret Beckett descends by lift from the top floor.

Margaret Beckett

Immaculately dressed and coiffed, she is encumbered by a stack of documents in one arm and in the other, the red box of papers issued to every cabinet minister.

Her husband Leo, who runs her parliamentary office, slips unobtrusively past her.

It seems a late start for a government minister, but she tells us the day began earlier with several phone calls during breakfast.


She arrives by official car at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. One of the most imposing buildings in Whitehall, it dates back to the 19th Century and the heyday of the British Empire.

Normally she takes the lift up to her office, but today she walks up the grand staircase for our cameras. The walls are adorned with gigantic friezes depicting a female Britannia in various exuberant guises.


On her desk, a red leather folder contains the day's schedule.

Margaret Beckett

Her Principal Private Secretary hurriedly goes through late changes in appointments.

Wooden in-trays are labelled "waste", "urgent", "action" and "info".

A computer on the desk is not switched on.

I'm told she rarely has time to use it.


A clutch of officials arrives to brief her ahead of a grilling by MPs from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The subject will be India and South Asia.

She asks which officials will accompany her and whether she's likely to be quizzed on a recent trip to India by the Chancellor Gordon Brown.

A tea trolley is wheeled in. Everyone at the table is served tea or coffee. The meeting lasts an hour as they go through likely topics.


The next visitor is a retired British diplomat, Lord Hannay, lobbying on behalf of the United Nations Association. A former ambassador, he looks at home in these surroundings. More tea is served.

On the sofa, a row of diplomats silently take notes as over the next hour he raises concerns ranging from Darfur to UN reform with the Foreign Secretary.


She takes advantage of a free half-hour to continue to prepare for the afternoon's question-and-answer session with MPs. She seems almost dwarfed by the enormous office - a small figure at the desk, wielding a yellow marker pen.


The next meeting is on a lighter note: a BBC researcher arrives for a chat about a forthcoming appearance on the Radio Four programme Desert Island Discs.

She will need to select the music for it. Her husband Leo has slipped in. He is owner of the family iPod. She says her choice is likely to be eclectic, but she likes folk music, particularly singers.


As staff emerge from their offices for lunch, there is a certain bustle about the building.
Margaret Beckett

Two to three thousand staff work here, and a further 10,000 overseas.

But in the corridor outside the foreign secretary's office there is little traffic, except for a messenger's trolley making its antiquated rounds.

Inside at her desk Margaret Beckett is doing more preparation. She tells us she never has lunch unless attending an official function, in which case she skips breakfast.


A brief car ride takes her to Portcullis House, the parliamentary building next to Big Ben, where the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is waiting for her.


The session starts bang on time. The questions range broadly and are often pointed.
Margaret Beckett at Portcullis House

The MPs start with why India should be rewarded for acquiring nuclear weapons, while Iran is threatened.

The foreign secretary notes the deal (with preconditions) put to Iran last summer included advanced civilian nuclear technology, but was rejected.


The session wraps up early. Later one frustrated MP tells me that they got almost nothing out of her; known as a "safe pair of hands", Margaret Beckett apparently rarely offers unguarded insights.


As she emerges, she tells us she thinks it went as well as could be expected. She says she thought they might raise the row over the British TV programme Big Brother (specifically the concerns raised in India over possible racist comments).

She has never watched it. She tells us there is nothing in it that would interest her.


Back at the Foreign Office, two senior officials are waiting for a private word. We're told it's something to do with the Middle East. It's a late addition to her schedule, so probably important.


The Portuguese Foreign Minister arrives, attended by a large delegation.

Margaret Beckett
A few Portuguese photojournalists gather in an ante room for a brief "photo opportunity" handshake. There is little British media interest.

London is a regular stopping-off point for foreign dignitaries, so meetings like this occur two or three times a week.


As the guests take seats in her office, the tea trolley is trundled in again.

Officials on both sides take notes, but there are no translators. Increasingly foreign dignitaries are fluent English speakers.

The Portuguese foreign minister wants to discuss future EU foreign policy, ahead of Portugal taking over the EU presidency later this year.

He is asked to meet her even though the two of them have just seen each other at an EU Foreign Ministers' meeting in Brussels and both due to attend a further two conferences this same week in Europe.

Gatherings of EU ministers are now so large, I'm told, there is only ever time for a brief conversation or "brush pass", not a substantial private dialogue.


Now the guests have gone, the diary secretary puts through a phone call from the Home Secretary, John Reid. We are told it is about counter-terrorism. In the outer office, the Principal Private Secretary and his two deputies listen in and take long-hand notes to be circulated later to relevant officials. You can hear a pin drop.

On the walls portraits of Britain's former foreign secretaries gaze down on them sternly. All men, of course, until now.


With help from her Private Secretary, Margaret Beckett packs her red box, ready to leave. The Foreign Office day is nearly over, but she still has other duties. She needs to be in the House of Commons in time for a parliamentary vote at 7pm. It is a three line whip, compulsory for all MPs, including ministers. She is cutting it fine.


She made the vote in time. Now in her small parliamentary office behind the Speaker's Chair, Margaret Beckett is polishing wine glasses, ready for a small party with Labour backbenchers. Its purpose is to rally support ahead of the next day's big hurdle: a parliamentary debate on the Iraq war. It is the first one the government has agreed to in three years. And as Tony Blair has decided not to attend, she will have to open it.

Margaret Beckett

More animated and relaxed than she has been all day, she sits surrounded by her guests, clearly on home ground in this parliamentary environment.

On the table sits a large scarlet box - a reminder of the official papers she must work through once she gets home, to be ready for whatever the next day brings.

You can see more of Margaret Beckett's day on News 24 on Saturday 05:30, 14:30, 21:30. BBC1 on Saturday at 0530. News 24 and BBC1 on Sunday at 05:30 and News 24 at 14:30

World: Wednesday 14th Feb at 2030 GMT Repeated: Thursday 15th at 1030, Friday 16th at 1530 & 1930 (South Asia Only), Saturday 17th at 0230 (Not South Asia or Asia Pacific) and Monday 19th at 0830 GMT

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