Page last updated at 17:02 GMT, Thursday, 11 February 2010

Inside Whitehall's corridors of power

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Behind the scenes - Alan Johnson's first day at the Home Office

By Michael Cockerell
BBC News

The Home Office has long had a reputation as a glittering coffin for political careers.

Many recent home secretaries have, as one of them put it to me, left the place feet first.

There have been six New Labour home secretaries in the past 13 years - three of whom were forced to go.

The Home Office was born out of the barrel of a gun. It was created to prevent public disorder after troops shot dead nearly 300 people after rioting... in 1780

It was known last summer, when I began making a new TV series about the Great Offices of State that the Home Office was about to have a new political master.

I had a hunch it would be Alan Johnson, whom I knew quite well. I asked if he got the job, whether we could film him taking over.

To my agreeable surprise he agreed - but one of his special advisers told me: "We haven't been given a heads up from Number 10. So we are not necessarily expecting anything."

Poisoned chalice

Of course what we now know - though we did not know then - was that Gordon Brown apparently wanted to move Alistair Darling from the Treasury to the Home Office, and make Ed Balls the Chancellor. But "move over Darling" didn't happen, as the Chancellor dug his heels in.

And Johnson got the poisoned chalice. As he arrived to take up his new post, we were in the basement car park of the Home Office - where the department's top official, Sir David Normington was waiting to greet his new political master.

Michael Cockerell in teh corridors of power
Michael Cockerell got unprecedented access behind the scenes in Whitehall

It had been agreed that Johnson would be dropped there to avoid the media pack waiting at the front door.

Johnson swept up in his new official armour-plated Jaguar and Special Branch bodyguard. He was to be given the official line before he uttered publicly in his new role.

Our camera was running as he received his first briefing from the Home Office's Head of News, Simon Wren, a bear of a man with the confidential manner of a Scotland Yard detective.

"They're not expecting you to know anything," were his reassuring words.

As one TV previewer observes: "It's the real 'Thick of It' without the swearing."

Thus armed, Alan Johnson strode out to meet the hacks. The former postman is not short of self-confidence, mixed with a nice line in self-irony.

Asked later by his new department's house magazine who he would like to see play himself in any feature film of his life, Johnson replied: "George Clooney, but he would have to smarten himself up a bit."

He was now on the front line in the most hazardous job in government.

Queen's peace

The Home Office was born out of the barrel of a gun. It was created to prevent public disorder after troops shot dead nearly 300 people after rioting and looting on the streets of London in 1780.

Over two centuries later, keeping the Queen's peace remains the Home Office's Number one priority.

As well as Alan Johnson and his Sir Humphrey, Sir David Normington, I interviewed many previous home secretaries and their top mandarins.

Our aim was to capture the DNA and culture of the Home Office.

Its job is to fight crime and terrorism and control immigration. Life at the Home Office for its officials and ministers is always filled with jeopardy partly because as one former home secretary John Reid put it: "You haven't got the ideal client list."

And as another former Home Secretary wrote in a memo to his Sir Humphrey 50 years ago: "Poor old Home Office, we don't always get it wrong. But we always get the blame."

Michael Cockerell uncovers the secret world of the Home Office, Foreign Office and Treasury in Great Offices of State on BBC Four at 9pm on Thursdays from 11th February, repeated Mondays at 8pm and afterwards on BBC iPlayer



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