When you tell people you work in politics, the conversation will, eventually, come to the point where someone asks:
Is your life ever like The Thick Of It?
I've always answered by telling people that my friends at University nicknamed me Ollie because I, apparently, share the mannerisms of Chris Addison's character from the TV show and leave it at that. But as it's my first proper post on this blog, I thought I'd tell a story that could have come out of the show itself.
It was the Liberal Democrat Conference 2013, and my role back then was planning all of the visits that Nick Clegg was doing over the course of the 5 days in Glasgow. This included finding somewhere suitable to announce a new 5p charge on plastic bags, which had the unusual honour of being a policy liked by both Liberal Democrat members and The Daily Mail.
I picked out a lovely nature reserve just south of Glasgow called Cathkin Marsh*, which allowed us to tell the story of how discarded carrier bags murder cute, furry animals, damage the environment and ruin picturesque landscapes.
Now, as part of arranging any visit for Nick, who at that time was obviously DPM, you had to recce the site with his Metropolitan Police protection team. As we were in Scotland, we were also accompanied by some officers from Police Scotland, who opened my eyes to a startling fact.
'Interesting place for a visit' said one officer after the recce, which had mainly involved walking around a marshland on a wooden boardwalk.
I, thinking he meant they usually take politicians to schools, factories or nursing homes, launched into an explanation about why we'd chosen this location, the environmental impact discarded bags can have etc etc. I was swiftly cut off.
'No, I mean because of what the locals use it for' he said.
Now, 'what the locals use it for' is never a good sentence to hear, because usually 'the locals' are never using 'it' for anything good. I didn't want to ask what he meant, mainly because I knew what he was going to say if I did, but felt that I had to.
So I did.
And then came the reply I had both expected and dreaded.
'Oh, it's a dogging site.'
A dogging site. I'd arranged for the Deputy Prime Minister to visit a dogging site. Armando himself couldn't have written this script.
Thinking that the police might be playing a cruel joke on me, I raced to my hotel room and promptly searched for any links relating to Cathkin Marsh and dogging. In hindsight, searching for local dogging sites on a work computer probably wasn't a smart move, but I wasn't thinking clearly.
And what did I find? I found this Daily Record story about the 'dogging hotspot', as well as a number of links that I simply can't post on a family friendly blog.
That's right. Just 4 weeks before our conference, two pensioners had been caught doing what The Daily Record chose to describe as 'unsavoury' things to one another in the very bird hut I'd walked past that afternoon and signed off as a suitable location to announce brand new Government policy.
And now I faced a choice. It was Friday night and the visit was scheduled for Sunday morning. There was enough time to plan a brand new visit in a brand new location, just. But that would require me to admit to my error, open myself to ridicule and highlight my own incompetence in what was my first major role in Nick's team. On top of that, we'd already starting briefing the visit, so a sudden change of location would cause intrigue and potentially lead people to discovering the information themselves.
Or I could take the highly risky strategy and tell nobody, hope that no one noticed, and potentially ruin a significant Government policy announcement, as well as my career, if they did.
I'd just about accepted that I had to come clean when my phone rang and James Holt**, a then Number 10 Special Adviser and current Lib Dem Director of Communications, told me that the policy had been leaked and would be on the front page of the Daily Mail on Saturday and that we'd need to bring the visit forward to the next morning.
Decision made then. There was no way we could find an alternate location in that time, and the announcement needed a visit for the pictures. So I made the very brave (or very stupid) decision and told James that would be fine.
So the next morning came, and off went the Deputy Prime Minister and Lord President of the Council on his morning visit. To a dogging site.
The visit itself went off without a hitch, we got the pictures and coverage we wanted, and then I waited.
And nothing came. Not a single one of Her Majesty's loyal press corp, a group of people able to send even the most seasoned politician into a tail spin, had stumbled across my faux pas. I had, somehow, gotten away with it.
Nick Clegg, checking for doggers
I recounted this story to a lobby journalist recently who politely described me as 'f**king lucky', which is not only totally fair but also a gross understatement.
So the answer is yes. Sometimes, life in politics really is like The Thick Of It.
* - Cathkin Marsh is a genuinely beautiful nature reserve, so if you ever get the chance then you should definitely visit. Just not for dogging.
** - While I've recounted this story enough times over the years for it to become well known in Lib Dem circles, there may well be people reading this who haven't heard it before and are therefore totally unaware that I completely misled them. To those people, I am sorry.