Chapter 27 of my book (My Political Race)
Bonfire Night 2002 and the Tory Party was almost ablaze. Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), their leader (yes, he really was, you didn’t imagine it), announced that his party must ‘unite or die’. The latest split was over gay adoption. IDS was trying to whip his party up to oppose it and Michael Portillo led the rebellion against him on Bonfire Night. So, what was front-page news the next day? What was everyone talking about in Parliament afterwards? It was the Duke of Edinburgh, what he’d said to me, what I’d said to him; whether he’d patted me on the back or whether he’d flipped me a V-sign. Here is how The Guardian reported it on their front page:
One finger or two?
MPs agog at Prince’s salute
The Duke of Edinburgh’s gift of the gaffe left him accused yesterday of giving a V-sign to a Labour MP at a Buckingham Palace reception.
Prince Philip was said to have issued the salute after encountering the backbencher at a party for parliamentarians hosted by the Queen.
According to a prominent Labour MP, the famously prickly Prince raised his fingers then turned on his heels after an exchange with Gloucester MP Parmjit Dhanda.
The Prince, on hearing Mr Dhanda had been a student and trade union official before entering the Commons, had told his guest: ‘You didn’t do anything then.’
Mr Dhanda, formerly assistant national negotiator in the Connect information technology union, used his industrial experience to turn the question back on the Prince. ‘What did you do before becoming the Duke of Edinburgh?’ he inquired. The Prince replied he had been in the Royal Navy, serving during the Second World War.
What did, or did not, happen next was the talk of the Commons bars and tearooms yesterday, with the precise details a matter of dispute.
The prominent Labour MP, who asked not to be named, swore that the 81-year-old Prince gave Mr Dhanda a V-sign. ‘It was unmistakable … bloody funny,’ said the MP. ‘I didn’t know he had it in him.’
Mr Dhanda, attempting to laugh off Monday night’s incident, said the Prince playfully raised one finger, not two.
The Blairite, elected in 2001, said: ‘He didn’t stick up two fingers, he pointed up one and said “there you go”, patting me on the shoulder before he went. He had a big smile on his face and it was very much in a sense of fun.’
A palace spokeswoman suggested there was ‘obviously not a lot going on’ in the Commons if MPs were talking about whether the Prince raised one or two fingers.
‘The Duke of Edinburgh would certainly have no intention of making a gesture of that nature in Buckingham Palace or anywhere else to a member of the public, let alone an MP,’ she said.
The Prince is no stranger to controversy and his comments have a habit of backfiring. Trying to share a joke this year with a blind woman and her guide dog in Exeter, he said: ‘Do you know they have eating dogs for the anorexic now?’
As I hid in my office for the coming days, avoiding calls from journalists and colleagues alike, virtually every newspaper covered the story – from the Daily Mail to Corriere Della Sera in Italy, from Private Eye to a Bolivian publication that I could not pronounce… and beyond.
They couldn’t get enough of it and I guess I was the lucky one – since the Duke is always making gaffes, he copped the flak. Reruns of every politically incorrect statement he’s ever made were reprinted – and, my goodness, there are a lot of them. But this one was a bit special for the gaffe collectors. It involved a young MP (you’ll note from The Guardian’s coverage I’ve gone from being called a Trotskyite in my political life to a Blairite) and it involved the trade unions (who had their own say on the letters pages about ‘Prince Philip’s disgraceful insult to the movement’). It also involved rudeness and a level of mystery because I wasn’t talking about it, regardless of the barrage of requests. To this day, whenever I receive messages on my mobile I still fear it’s Francis Elliott of The Times chasing me for a quote about what happened that night in Buckingham Palace.
In the coverage, I got away with being the quick-witted victim of the Prince’s crime. For years my colleagues – particularly those with republican tendencies – dined out on this story and often added their own spin on what I said to HRH or what he said to me. I’ve been asked about it many times over the years – the conversation, the manner in which it was said, whether it was actually one finger or two… Did I really ask him what he did before he married the head of state?
I have always kept my own counsel and my reply to these questions would always half-jokingly be: ‘You’ll have to wait until I write a book!’
So here is the definitive account of what actually happened the night I visited Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen and her consort…
It’s one of those invites you can’t really turn down. An invite for MPs to meet the head of state in her own home (one of them, at least) was not something this Mellow Lane Comprehensive kid could ever have imagined receiving. This was woah! Very big.
So off I went, along with literally hundreds of MPs. I remember walking up this long staircase and waiting in line. The Queen was shaking hands with each of us as we bowed or curtsied before making our way into a grand ballroom kind of a place. I don’t know what it was but it was an eye-poppingly big room steeped in splendour, with paintings and curtains you can’t even buy in John Lewis. When it was my turn to shake the Queen’s hand I was disappointed to see she was wearing white gloves and it was more of a parting magisterial high-five than a handshake, with no time to shoot the breeze. But I had no knowledge of etiquette or any common sense about such things so there was no point in feeling offended. It was her house, her rules.
My knowledge of protocol would change over the years as I got to meet her on several other occasions, but at this stage in my life the closest I had got to a royal event was a street party for the silver jubilee in 1977 on our road in Hayes. I was only six and had thoroughly enjoyed it. My sister entered the fancy dress competition as an Indian princess but so did every Indian girl on Berwick Avenue. It basically involved wearing an Indian suit, as they normally did at home, but borrowing some of mum’s make-up. The imaginative winner of the contest was an eight-year-old white boy (white people still lived down our road then) who had dressed up as an old woman by borrowing (without her knowledge) his grandmother’s dress, shoes, make-up and wig. Unfortunately, with a long line of MPs behind me bursting to get in to sample the household wine, I sensed this would not be the opportunity to share my story with our Queen.
I wandered around with a perfect crystal glass in my hand, and took a sip of red wine. There were lots of people there, mostly Labour from recollection. (This may have been due to the fact the Tories had decided to have their huge bust-up over gay adoption that evening. They must have concluded that spending an hour at Buckingham Palace wasn’t as much fun as spilling their leader’s blood on the carpet of the Palace of Westminster.)
I was talking to some fellow MPs when, out of the corner of my eye, I spied the Duke of Edinburgh. As relaxed as you like, he came over and joined Wayne David, Brian Sedgemore and myself. He was in a chirpy mood and, like the rest of us, was enjoying his drink. Then his attention turned to me:
‘You’re a bit young to be an MP, aren’t you?’
‘Yep, probably right.’ (It was all rather playful.)
‘So, you’re not fresh out of school then? What did you do before you became an MP?’
‘My student days weren’t that many years ago, but I worked for a trade union before becoming a Member of Parliament.’
‘Worked for a trade union?’ The Duke had a cheeky smile on his face and then delivered his line. ‘So you didn’t do that much then?!’
Now I thought that was funny – nice one! – and I wanted to join in this little gag-fest with my new friend. Then something sprang to mind as the perfect retort to ‘worked for a trade union, so you didn’t do that much then?!’…
An older and wiser Parmjit Dhanda would have bitten his tongue and smiled, but I was young, naive and having fun – and, from the glint in Prince Philip’s eye, he was certainly having fun too.
Then I said: ‘So what did you do before you married the Queen?!’
Momentarily I think that caught him off guard. Was the joke over? Was I about to get sent to the Tower? No. He came back with: ‘I was in the navy for fourteen years. So there!’
Unbeknown to me, one of our witnesses, Brian Sedgemore, was one of the biggest gossips in England and the story of me and the Duke was circulating almost before he’d stopped wetting himself with laughter – which may have taken an hour in itself.
Anyway, then the ‘one finger or two’ controversy happened. One version of events was that he patted me on the shoulder and pointed a finger as he said ‘So there!’, before spinning away to entertain another group of unsuspecting parliamentarians. The other version was that he gave me a two-finger salute as he turned on his heel. Whichever version of events was true, he didn’t deserve a week of articles in the media trawling through his gaffe collection.
My recollection – sorry to let the republicans down – was of two people with very little in common sharing a moment of humour and harmless sparring over a drink.
For the record: yes, it was two fingers, not one.