WHAT must it be like to be the bodyguard to one of the most controversial figures of our time, wonders Jim Duffy
When you join Special Branch – and the protection service agencies that guard our top politicians – you have no idea who you will end up protecting. A protection officer is a special type of police officer: an individual who is willing to put his/her life on the line for those they intimately protect.
This is never more evident than with the American secret service and those who protect the president, vice president and senior US senators. We only have to look at the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan which saw Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy shot and wounded. It’s a selfless job, where your primary concern is the wellbeing, and indeed, life, of the subject you are protecting. The hours are wholly unsociable and it’s pretty thankless. The unfortunate irony is that unless you are shot at and become a hero, you are anonymous and work in the shadows getting little thanks.
Our own prime minister has a protection squad everywhere they go. I recall attending an event outside No 10 last year, where now former PM David Cameron, came out into the street and talked to a large group us. Two burly individuals were close by, but not in the way. I walked around the back of the then prime minister to get a selfie, of course, and I could see both these guys getting a bit twitchy at my actions. It’s what they are trained to feel and react to, like a new mother wary of anyone hovering over her newborn baby. I was happy to return to my initial position after the photo – both chaps soon lost interest in me.
Each British prime minister, on retiring or stepping down, is afforded 24-hour protection… for life – as Mr Cameron will be finding out right now. But, on the back of last week’s Chilcot report, the question that fascinates me is: what does it feel like guarding Tony Blair? What is it like guarding one of the most divisive politicians in the UK? And what does it feel like guarding a man whom some believe to be a war criminal or “the world’s worst terrorist”?
Protection officers are human beings. They have opinions. They have biases. They have private political perspectives. They have good days and bad days. They are not machines. So, how does it feel to be working on the personal protection squad looking after Tony Blair just now, in the heat following the long-awaited report from Sir John Chilcot? If you put yourself in their shoes, how would you feel right now? Do you just get on with your job and take a paycheque, while observing your duty of service? I’m guessing many of you will think that you can and that he deserves the dignity of an ex-prime minister. You will continue to do your job professionally and not let the Chilcot report, and its far-reaching ramifications, affect your judgment or stoical attitude to the state. Business as usual and a stiff upper lip.
But many of you will, I think, question your role in protecting an ex-prime minister whom some perceive as leaving a toxic legacy, while apparently making himself rich in the process. There is no doubt also that the chances of an attack on Mr Blair are now heightened and that as a result your life is in more danger, as are those of your colleagues on the same detail. Now that the media are poring over every decision made and memo sent, there is a sense of impending danger in the air, where some may see this as an opportunity to have a go at Mr Blair. And it falls to you to make sure no harm comes his way.
You never asked for this detail and to guard Tony Blair when you joined up. Every protection officer wants the big one – the Queen or the PM. But you’ve landed the poison chalice candidate.
Mr Blair is respected by many for his efforts in places like Northern Ireland, but despised by so many others for his decision to take us into war in Iraq. A decision that he now takes full responsibility for as comes out fighting in the media.
So here you are, gun in holster, highly trained and working toward your state pension. Here you are on a heightened state of alert. It’s not as if you are Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard and looking after Whitney Houston and getting paid handsomely for it.
Far from it indeed… it’s grey and bleak.
I cannot imagine what it is like guarding Mr Blair just now. One cannot escape the news and the outpouring of anger from all the service personnel’s families that lost loved ones or or saw them come home injured. One cannot fail to pick up on the feeling that some form of justice has been meted out in that Mr Blair is now being called to account for his actions.
One cannot get away from the notion that Mr Blair is starting his own life sentence. Not one in prison in The Hague – as some would have it – but one far worse for him. He has no legacy despite ten years in Downing Street trying to build a massive one for himself and his ego.
I just wonder how his protection officers feel – as they may have to share this open cell in public with him as he continues in his quest to clear his tarnished name and rebuild his brand on the global stage.
Will they be at his side – whatever?
• Jim Duffy is Head of #GoDo at Entrepreneurial Spark