Sheila“IT was just one of those ideas that came into my head,” Sheila Gunn confessed. “It wasn’t based on any justification. It wasn’t really much more than a thought that Cherie doesn’t look as if she like cats.” Here was John Major’s former press secretary, a former political correspondent and diarist for The Times, coming clean that she had dreamed up and planted the story that Cherie Blair had wanted rid of Humphrey the Downing Street cat upon reaching No.10 in 1997. Cherie was compared to Cruella De Vil as the pussy was carted off only six months later.

Sheila went on, at peace with herself over this silliest of scandals: “By my own code of ethics, I was quite happy to plant this notion about Humphrey but I wasn’t using any tactics against Cherie, and we didn’t as a party… But Humphrey was a good Tory at heart.”

It’s a well-known anecdote, but one that will spring to mind among the journalists and Conservative Party hacks she worked with as news of her sad passing was announced today. There are few details as to what has happened, but it feels sudden and immensely sad. It has been an awful shock for her many friends, not least those made on Camden Council.

Her good humour, laced with a bit of warm cattiness, could be seen at full council meetings, when at least once at every session she would look over, while a Labour councillor was speaking, to the press seats with exaggerated hiked eyebrows theatrical enough to possibly even match Flick Rea’s.

Maybe, as she looked over, she thought we were pretty small fry as journalists, having spent so much of her own career with the lobby hacks. But I don’t think so, more likely the opposite. For in her other pursuits she worked at City University lecturing waves of future journalists, many of whom appreciated her steady stream of anecdotes and stories, as much as the training. Certainly, there are a ton of reporters with a debt to her guidance.

Representing Belsize as a Camden councillor for the four years might not have been her first choice of roles. She courted parliamentary seats, including in Kensington and Chelsea and Hendon. Maybe past tabloid tales about her romance with former London Mayoral candidate Steve Norris followed her around when selection opportunities arose; not that she seemed ill-equipped to explain her side whenever it was raised. She stood in the hospital pass constituency of Labour-held Slough in 2005.

What we do know in Camden is that neither her quest for a Commons seat nor that recurring story, distracted her from the task in neighbourhood she had been elected to represent. She fought on parking and licensing issues, before becoming the spokeswoman on education and was, all-in-all, considered quite the catch for the local group.

As the sands shifted in Belsize, however, temporarily in favour of the Liberal Democrats, adventures laid elsewhere and she upped sticks to Gloucestershire. Instead, locally, we had to make do with her insight in her regular letters to newspapers, often popping up in the Evening Standard’s postbag.

There will be a flood of tributes, for here was a spin doctor who showed you could handle the press, at a Downing Street level, without Tuckering every reporter’s head off in a mist of screaming, and a tutor who showed you could be the press without menacing press officers in return. The warm words are already coming from both sides of that fence.


3 Comments on Sheila

  1. John Bryant // October 24, 2014 at 9:36 am //

    Sheila was, to borrow a Thatcherism, a Tory I could do business with. During her 4 years on the Council she was placed by her group whip on a scrutiny panel I chaired on Suicide Prevention. Much of the creative work on this scrutiny was not conducted in the evidence gathering sessions in a Town Hall committee room, but in the Skinners Arms afterwards where the cross party group discussed the way forward over drinks with our policy officer, the irrepressible Graham Magee.

    It was usually when Sheila was starting on her second glass of red wine that the juicier gossip was let slip, including her titbits about Steven Norris.

    It is always a reminder of your own temporary presence on this planet when a well regarded former colleague, irrespective of party, leaves us prematurely. Your blog has led me to stop and reflect today Richard.

    Stop the hurly-burly. There are times when we must be thankful of our time here and remember with affection our past colleagues.

  2. Lovely lady and great fun and a good local councillor!

  3. Lovely reading about my mother in law, thank you:)

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