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From the day he left his daughter in a pub to the day he swore on radio... my life as David Cameron's press secretary

She was the former prime minister's trusted aide, now Baroness Bertin is sticking up for the voiceless from the House of Lords. Here, she tells Joe Murphy about losing her little brother to cerebral palsy at the age of 12 and why her Stalking Bill will fix a glaring hole in the law

Gabby Bertin who is now in the House of Lords
Gabby Bertin who is now in the House of Lords
Gabby Bertin with then PM David Cameron

For more than a decade Gabby Bertin was one of the powerful women by David Cameron's side, an invisible yet hugely influential figure around Westminster and Whitehall. When the former Prime Minister left his daughter in the pub, it was to his press secretary, Bertin, that he first confessed his mistake. When he accidentally swore on live radio, it was her disapproving tones of middle-class Croydon suburbia that upbraided him. And when the EU negotiations became fraught, she was at his side urging him on.

Today, however, the ultimate backroom aide will step into the limelight in her own right when she pilots a bill into the House of Lords to crack down on the terrifying phenomenon of stalking by strangers.

"Can you imagine not being able to leave the house to buy a pint of milk or walk your dog?" asked the mother-of-two, her pragmatic brain cutting through myriad legal issues to focus on the realities of what stalking means for its victims.

Bertin's ability to think and speak "human" was valued by Cameron, who nominated her for the Lords when he left office. At just 40, she stands out in a chamber where the average age is 70 and where 13 members are nonagenarians.

"If you are given an honour like this you have to use it properly," she says, appreciatively. "I wanted to give a voice to people who don't have a voice."

Cameron valued Bertin, who comes from a non-political family, for her ability to see problems the way ordinary voters did. "Gabby can see round corners," a former colleague recalls him saying.

"I was always very blunt with him," she says. One occasion was when he told LBC listeners that "too many tweets make a twat". Bertin remembers thinking "that's my day over" and scolded him in the taxi. "I said: 'You can't swear on breakfast radio'. He said: 'I didn't think I did'. He thought it was like saying twit."

Working at No 10 was a whirlwind of 24-hour breaking news and dramas. But Bertin's favourite memories include the unexpected comedies, such as when Cameron, after flying into war-torn Libya with Nicolas Sarkozy, had to use a podium supplied by the diminutive French president's staff. "I had to make that speech on my knees, the podium was made for Sarko," exclaimed the PM.

At a lavish dinner thrown by Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier served five courses all coloured the green, white and red of the Tricolore and then devoted the night to telling endless jokes through an interpreter who had zero comic timing. "We had no idea when the punchlines were and were all laughing in different places," smiles Bertin.

The day after Cameron left his eight-year-old daughter Nancy alone at the Plough Inn in Cadsden, Bucks, he asked her to "stay behind for a few seconds" after the morning meeting. "'Close the door,' he said. 'I think I may have just added something to your to-do list'."

There is nothing of the grande dame about Baroness Bertin of Battersea. She was raised in south London ("Terry and June country") and attended Croydon High School before taking a degree in French at Southampton University. Her French-born father had a job in the City while her mother was a fashion designer who became the lead buyer for children's clothes at Woolworths.

At 16, Bertin was heartbroken by the death of her little brother Marc, aged just 12. He had cerebral palsy and suffered greatly but is remembered lovingly as a hysterically funny sibling. "Marc was great fun, he had such a wonderful smile, he really could light up any room, and had a wicked sense of humour. My memories are happy but it was very apparent to me that his life chances would be far less fortunate than mine, which just seemed grossly unfair."

Her parents separated when she was small but she remains close to both. "I looked at it as having two loving families," she says.

After university she almost joined the police. "If Cressida Dick had been head of the Met then, I would probably have taken a completely different career path," she says. "Role models for young women and young men are so important."

It's a lesson Peppa Pig needs to learn. Bertin was annoyed when her daughter, aged six, declared after watching the cartoon that her brother, four, "can be a doctor" while she would be a nurse.

Instead Bertin joined a City firm, trading cash equities. "If you can survive the trading floor, you can survive anything," she says, recalling juggling two phones and "being shouted at a lot".

After two years of that she was bored and happened to meet then-Tory chairman Liam Fox and his wife Jesme. Fox, spotting a potential talent from outside the Westminster village, invited her to interview for a job in his office. She accepted.

Two years later, then Tory press chief George Eustice (who resigned last week as fisheries minister) asked if she would be interested in doing media for the then up-and-coming shadow education secretary, David Cameron.

They hit it off immediately. "You could tell from the beginning he was a breath of fresh air. He was so relentlessly modern. For me, as a junior cog in the wheel, it was like watching a kind of political entrepreneurialism. Looking back, 'vote blue, go green' may seem obvious but nobody else was doing it. All these fresh ideas were coming out of a gang of determined and energetic people. You could tell it was going to be a game-changer."

They also bonded because Cameron's son Ivan was severely disabled and Bertin was one of the few people who understood the joys and challenges of living with a disabled child. One of her current campaigns is to persuade companies to hire disabled people. "Disabled people are brilliant in the workplace," she says. "Companies should not look at it as 'the right thing to do', it is also the economically sound thing to do."

But first on her agenda is the Stalking Protection Bill, which aims to plug a glaring hole in the law that leaves thousands of people suffering the unwanted attentions of strangers. It aims to create stalking protection orders (SPOs) that would ban a stranger from loitering near someone's home or following them. SPOs could even be used to monitor a suspect's computer or order him or her to attend a course of therapy.

"It is a terrifying crime and more common than you realise," says Bertin. "One in five women can expect to be stalked in their lifetime. It affects one in 10 men as well."

Under current laws, victims must wait for strangers to be prosecuted before protection kicks in, which takes months. "I lost someone very dear to me who paid the ultimate price for unwanted attention," says Bertin. She will not discuss what happened, but it is clear that a bereavement underlies her passion for her bill.

Bertin, who works part-time for BT, dislikes the notion of the "superwoman" who is expected, in the words of billionaire Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, to "lean in". "That's fine if you have 24-hour wraparound care but it's not so easy if you are a nurse who has no flexibility in her shifts," she says.

Loyal to the end, she left Downing Street when Cameron resigned after the Brexit referendum. "I did cry, but in truth you could not waste time worrying about emotions," she says. "I saw David in the best light ever. He just said: 'We have got to get on with it. The meetings will be on time, there will be no wallowing. The country has made its decision and we have got to do the right thing for it'."

Cameron may be gone. But the torch of Tory modernisation still burns brightly in the hands of a new generation like Baroness Bertin.

© Evening Standard

From the day he left his daughter in a pub to the day he swore on radio... my life as David Cameron's press secretary

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