Fiona Millar's ringside seat as the Blairs swept towards No 10
PUBLISHED: 17:43 24 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:14 07 September 2010
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Enjoying life after Downing Street, journalist Fiona Millar talks to Ben McPartland about everything from her spat with Cherie Blair to education in Camden In 1995, as Tony Blair was plotting an unstoppable course towards Number 10, journalist Fiona M
Enjoying life after Downing Street, journalist Fiona Millar talks to Ben McPartland about everything from her spat with Cherie Blair to education in Camden
In 1995, as Tony Blair was plotting an unstoppable course towards Number 10, journalist Fiona Millar was drafted in by wife Cherie to help her deal with an ever more demanding media.
While Ms Millar was advising Mrs Blair, her own other half, Alastair Campbell, was earning himself the title King of Spin by holding counsel with his good friend Mr Blair.
Now 50, Ms Millar gave up her 'ringside seat' six years later after a somewhat acrimonious split from Mrs Blair.
But when I visit her at home in Gospel Oak, I get the feeling the Guardian columnist has still not fully given up the role of managing media enquiries about her former boss and friend.
"I hope this isn't going to be an interview about me and Cherie," she says, "because I haven't seen her for some time and I haven't got anything current to say about it. It wasn't great at the end. But we have seen each other since and it has been amicable when we have met."
Ms Millar first met Mr Blair when she was working as a lobby correspondent for the Daily Express.
The two couples became friends and their relationship grew in significance when Labour won its landslide victory at the polls in 1997, propelling Mr Blair into power.
Ms Millar spent every day working in Downing Street handling her former journalist colleagues, booking events, organising functions such as the Queen's Jubilee Dinner and the visit of another dynamic political duo - Hillary and Bill Clinton.
"It was very exciting. It was a wonderful opportunity, especially as a journalist, to see behind the scenes in a world which, before, I would only have been able to spy on from afar," she says. "I got to meet some amazing people. I would not have missed it for the world."
Things turned sour when Mrs Blair tried to sack her over the scandal involving Carole Caplin and her boyfriend Peter Foster, a convicted conman.
But as much as she tries to assure me they are still friends, I am unconvinced. When Mrs Blair starred in a fly-on-the-wall documentary, Ms Millar criticised her portrayal as a victim despite her 'privileged' role as the second most important lady in the country.
"I don't think the public particularly wanted to see these public figures moaning about how hard their lives were," she says.
And then there is Mrs Blair's book, released earlier this year.
"I haven't read it," says Ms Millar. "I've got a copy somewhere in the house but I have got other books I would rather be reading."
One thing Mrs Blair's book did reveal for the first time was Ms Millar's strong opposition to the war in Iraq - a stance she admits led to a few heated rows over the dinner table with her pro-war husband.
But the mother of three has no time for regret over how it all turned out.
And there was a plus side to leaving Number 10, which her three children Rory, 20, Calum, 19, and Grace, 14, will vouch for.
"The kids had started to do their secondary school exams and it was a punishing regime," she says. "I would get up at 6am and go swimming, then come back and get them off to school before going to work.
"Sometimes I would be there until 8pm or 9pm. So in that respect I don't regret giving it up at all because I think being a parent of a teenager is often more complicated than people think. Trying to combine the two roles was quite a handful."
Refreshingly, Ms Millar has no plans to release her memoirs but she has been inspired to write a book on working mothers.
She might be referred to in sections of the media merely as "Alastair Campbell's wife". But, here in Camden, her roles as governor of Gospel Oak primary and William Ellis secondary schools and her position as vice-chairwoman of the borough's branch of the Campaign for State Education (CASE) means she is a force in her own right.
Ms Millar, a former pupil of Camden School for Girls and then UCL, is a staunch supporter of state schools.
She says parents who choose to educate their children privately are wasting their money. "I think there is absolutely no reason why a child from an advantaged aspirant family in this area cannot get an extremely good education in a local state school," she says.
"The children who go to independent schools like Highgate are basically well-off children with supportive parents - not children on free school meals from disadvantaged homes.
"But I think those children would do just as well in William Ellis, Acland Burghley, or Parliament Hill as they would in Highgate. I have never ever seen any evidence to prove the opposite."
She is urging Gordon Brown to scrap the law which enables private schools to benefit financially from having charitable status.
Her involvement at William Ellis means she is aware of the difficulties in running a state school on a tight budget.
That task was made more difficult when it emerged this year that the school was half a million pounds in the red after the former bursar made a huge blunder with budgeting for the heating system.
The resignation of headteacher Richard Tanton in February was followed by a slap on the wrist from Ofsted inspectors who, despite making some positive remarks, judged that the school was not providing value for money.
"It has been a rough ride," she says. "I think the governors did the best we could under the circumstances. It was all very regrettable and I think we accept things could have happened differently."
But with no sign of any spin in sight, Ms Millar said she is confident it can be turned around with the arrival of new headteacher Robbie Cathcart in September.
With her finger on the pulse of local education issues, Ms Millar seems more at home in Gospel Oak than Whitehall and prefers the company of fellow school governors to members of the government.
"I like it here, I like the people and the whole community," she concludes. "That is why I feel strongly about local schools. They are so much a part of the community. "