I would like to add my voice to the tributes which have been paid to Mark Bennett, who died today. Just writing those words – ‘who died today’ – adds to the horrible sense of shock I felt on receiving a phone call from our mutual friend Margaret McDonagh to be told the dreadful news. Virtually everyone who has called or emailed this afternoon and this evening has said the same thing. ‘I just can’t believe he has gone.’
Mark worked for me. But that short description of our connection does not even begin to capture how much he meant to me, my family, and my circle of friends and colleagues both in the Government and the Labour Party.
When I first met him he was a civil servant, whose life in Downing Street began as the only man in the Garden Room, famed for its ‘Garden Room Girls’ who act as administrative and secretarial support to the Prime Minister.
Later he joined my PA Alison Blackshaw, the two of them sitting outside my office, working as gatekeepers, support staff, advisers and friends. They basically ran my professional life for me and I trusted them totally to do so.
On paper, he was a relatively low ranking member of the support team. But because of his dedication, his intelligence and his acute political mind he was much more than that. Yes, he would make the tea and file the papers. But he would also give comments not just on what I was writing and doing, but the Prime Minister too. ‘All wool, no thread,’ he said of a draft speech to the Women’s Institute. He was right. TB was slow hand clapped as he delivered it.
As the 2001 election neared he did something that few civil servants do. He resigned his position so that he could continue to support us in the election and effectively became my right hand man for the duration of the campaign. This despite the fact that it meant an inevitable end to his
civil service career.
But he continued to work for the Party and for Labour causes and though alas he failed in his efforts to get selected as a parliamentary candidate, he was a councillor in Lambeth, and a brilliant one at that. At the time of his death, aged just 43, he was the Mayor of Lambeth. His blog and his twitter feed will provide ample evidence for any who want it of his passion for the place, the people and the chance he had to make a difference.
It is partly thanks to Mark that I am even able to post this tribute now. He used to mock me for my pen and paper, anti-computer ways in Downing Street. But when I left in 2003 he was the first to persuade me I really had to ‘get with the programme.’ He got me blogging and also taught me all about the social networks and how to use them. It was Mark who coined my twitter name, @campbellclaret, having given up trying to explain why I couldn’t use my own name.
The reason he was so important to the family came less from his time in Number 10 or on the campaign battlebus but from the fact that when I came to transcribe my diaries and begin the mammoth task of preparing them for publication, Mark became my right hand man once more. So the two of us sat for day after day upstairs in my office trying to make sense of the millions of words I had recorded.
In the cast list in The Blair Years he is described as my ‘researcher’. Again that does not get close. He was a calm, steady voice. He was someone unafraid to say what he thought, even if he knew I might not want to hear it. He had a wonderful dry wit. He had real fire in his politics.
At some of the most difficult points in my life – moments of personal loss, moments of high stress – Mark was there, always clear in his thinking, always loyal and supportive.
The last time he worked for me on a big project was when I was preparing for the Chilcot Inquiry. He had helped me prepare for many inquiries, hundreds of media briefings at home and abroad and I knew that for something as important as this, I needed him to be there as I worked my way through the mass of papers, and marshalled my arguments. He and my son Rory accompanied me to the inquiry hearing. He always knew when I might need him around, didn’t have to be asked. Like when he had been helping me prepare for BBC Question Time in Burnley with George Galloway and as I got ready to head north he said ‘I think I’d better come with you … I’ll step in if it gets to fisticuffs.’
I have spent the last couple of hours telling colleagues and friends, Tony Blair among them, the awful news. Everyone says the same. Great guy, team player, too young. In both Number 10 and the Party, and more recently in his fantastic work in local politics, he touched so many people, which is why there is so much sadness tonight.
Mark, you were a big character, and you left your mark on all of us. I will miss you and so will all who came to know your wit, your passion, your commitment and your determination to do something good for the world.
— You can get a flavour of Mark’s wit and wisdom if you read his own ‘About Me’ section on his website here