22 March 2017: a day I’ll remember

The killing of a policeman in Parliament took place just yards away from me…

Yesterday (22 March) was such a remarkable day: I was about 20 yards from where the policeman was killed, just minutes before the attack happened.

It started with me chairing an event for Fair for You in the Terrace Pavilion, overlooking the Thames, at which a remarkable woman called Lisa told our guests what a difference we, as an ethical loan social enterprise, had made to her family’s life. I offered her and Chris, a new supporter of FFY who’d come from Cheltenham for the event, a tour of Parliament, always a nostalgic moment for me. We visited the Terrace and in Portcullis House, at 2.30, Lisa suddenly screamed ‘There’s my MP!’ so I grabbed Seema Malhotra to come and say a quick hello! Seema was on her way to vote and the guy with her, Don Brind, was, moments later, an eye witness of what happened.

We left Portcullis House and crossed New Palace Yard to enter Westminster Hall, where I used the privilege of the ex-MP to show my guests the chapel in the crypt – including the cupboard where suffragette Emily Wilding Davison spent census night in 1911. I had once arranged for High Peak’s Kinder Children’s Choir to sing in the crypt, a rare and wonderful moment in that spectacularly beautiful room. With us in the crypt yesterday were David Amess, a Conservative MP, and his four guests from the Maldives including a government minister and the deputy ambassador.

As Lisa, Chris and I were leaving the crypt, passing the memorial book for my friend Jo Cox, there was a commotion as two very scared women ran into the crypt from a private, side entrance. I recognised one as Gemma Doyle, another former MP whom I know from when she worked for the Labour Party. Her colleague had seen the man wielding the knife.

We remained in the crypt for two hours (possibly longer than anyone since Emily?) venturing out just once to be told by a police officer to stay where we were (at least he knew we were there!). The ten of us followed events on Twitter and David spoke to his staff on the phone – they’d seen the incident from their office window. We had no idea of the scale of either the crime or the lockdown response. At one point a security officer came down to take the young woman’s details as a witness; he was close to tears.

MPs, staff and public are held in Westminster Hall during the Parliament lock-down

We were eventually corralled out to join a crowd in Westminster Hall and, half an hour later, 1,000 of us were led by armed police to Westminster Abbey where we were held for a further three hours. MPs, peers, staff, journalists and visitors; no frustration, no panic… very stoical English! At last we had access to loos and something slightly resembling tea. And biscuits. Chatted to Tom Watson, Maurice Glasman, Caroline Flint, many others.

Eventually (9pm) we were released: to a media horde who pounced on me – so I did the proper thing, with a dozen lights and cameras, mostly foreign journalists – followed by my second chat with BBC’s Nick Robinson in a week! A quick chat with my old boss, a visibly shaken Hilary Benn, then Chris and I paid for Lisa to have a taxi back to Hounslow. We collected our coats from Parliament (by now reopened for that very purpose) where I shared a hug with Yvette Cooper.

It was only later – post-adrenergic shock – that I started to realise what I had been through – and, more to the point, what might have been. I was proud of Fair for You, my friends, and the institution of which I was once – and perhaps always will be – a part.