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Walking up to a door and hammering on it, knowing you’re going to ruin someone’s day, is both the best and worst bit of being a reporter.

You must persuade someone to open up, overcome their blanket distrust of all journalists, and be invited to sit at their table. You need to tease the truth from them carefully, like reeling a Guinea worm out of their guts with a slowly-turning stick.

It’s hard enough with any door, but when it’s the one leading to the Prime Minister’s private Parliamentary office, and Nadine Dorries is guarding the corridor outside, it takes considerable extra effort.

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Usually, getting through the door to find another journalist has got there first is wall-punching time. Instead, I cricked my brass neck, put my hand out to Boris Johnson, and said: “Hello, Prime Minister, I’m Susie from the Mirror.”

He stepped forwards, hand out, in greeting-people mode – “hello, hello” – then looked up and there was a flash of recognition. “Susie! Aha! Yes!” The thought occurred that perhaps he recognised me as that woman who bollocks him on the telly, oh dear, brazen it out, tell him only he can fix this injustice, and then introduce him to everyone filing in behind.

The knocking on this door began just over a year ago, when the Mirror launched its Look Me In The Eye campaign to get a sitting Prime Minister to hold a meeting with Britain’s nuclear test veterans for the first time, and explain why they didn’t have a medal. Keir Starmer gave it a bang last June, and Salford MP Rebecca Long-Bailey knocked again in November. In December, metro mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram thumped it a fourth time, and in March, Rebecca came back for another try, followed a month later by Tory grandee Sir John Hayes.

But in truth it goes back further – to 2018, and a widow called Shirley Denson who knocked on the door of then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and asked him to explain why her husband was ordered to fly through a mushroom cloud, and then abandoned by his country to years of illness and eventual suicide.

L to R: Nuclear test veteran Doug Hern, Mirror reporter Susie Boniface, Doug’s wife Sandie, test veteran widow Shirley Denson, and campaigner Al Murray in Parliament, 2018

It goes back to 2012, when the High Court said the veterans’ case should be heard, and 2014 when the Supreme Court decided it shouldn’t. It goes back to 2007 when Gordon Brown said the veterans were owed a debt of honour, and then didn’t pay it.

It goes back to 1990 when, as a young MP, Tony Blair backed a law to compensate the veterans, and once in office said there was no need. It goes back to 1988 when the government published its first, long-awaited study into the cancer deaths of these men, and didn’t bother to publish the 140 pages of data which would have proved the case for many of them.

The path to this door began with the discovery of plutonium in 1940, the weapons’ first use in New Mexico and then Japan, the deaths of scientists, soldiers, and civilians. It zigzagged across continents and through families, parliaments and universities, and in most places it found some sort of resolution.

In the UK alone, the path to justice for nuclear veterans has been unremittingly hard, without succour or shade from the state, which is how we found ourselves on Wednesday walking through the maze of green-carpeted corridors to knock on the most important door so far.

Ready for the meeting: L-R back row Laura Jackson, Alan Owen, Jackie Purse, Laura Morris, Mirror Editor Alison Phillips, John Morris and MP Rebecca Long Bailey Front row Steve Purse

  • Read the full story of Britain’s nuclear bomb tests at DAMNED

Daily Mirror editor Alison Phillips came to wave us off, and we had tickets to Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s private gallery in the House of Commons to watch the first Prime Minister’s Questions since he survived a no confidence vote on Monday.

An aide from the PM’s team collected us, and led the way through a maze of green-carpeted corridors. Past Dorries, through a door, a twist, another door, offices with people bent over their desks, another turn, and into a room with a ceiling far beyond the reach of any mortal stepladder, and here we are – the place where either the path becomes a dead end, or the PM decides to walk with us.

The 6 – veteran John Morris, his granddaughter Laura, widow Jackie Purse and her son Steve, and siblings Alan Owen and Laura Jackson – had rehearsed on Zoom for two months. Unable to fit any more people in the room, they each had to speak for a different injustice, with just 3.5 minutes each to make their case.

The veterans and families sat on one side of a 20ft table, with the PM, his advisers, Veterans Minister Leo Docherty, and civil servants on the other. They had leather-bound notebooks, and as Rebecca thanked them for organising the meeting, they started taking notes with expensive-looking fountain pens.

Test veteran John Morris and granddaughter Laura Morris, holding a photograph of his son Steven, who died in his cot

I made mine with a Bic I’d probably picked off the floor somewhere, in a dog-eared spiral-bound that was half-inched the last time I was in a newsroom.

We had planned that John would speak of Operation Grapple, the tragic death of his baby son Steven, and his fight for a war pension. Steve would discuss medical research, and the horrors of the radioactive ‘minor trials’ in the Australian Outback. Alan and Laura would cover the need for education reforms, and Operation Dominic, a series of massive US tests in which British servicemen and resources were used, and compensated by a foreign government while ignored by their own.

John spoke first, and got carried away. He banged the table, he raged, and fought back tears, and when he finished I looked at my watch and saw we’d burned through half our allotted time.

But it had worked. The official pens were down, brows furrowed, ears quivering. As John spoke passionately of his pride at securing the nuclear deterrent for his country, the ex-military in the room stiffened their spines. When he outlined his health problems and said he’d been refused a war pension, the PM burst out: “REALLY? No PENSION?!” He looked disgustedly around the room.

Then John’s voice broke, as he said he just wanted justice for his dead son, and the room had nothing to say. The PM, shaking his head, softly said: “And you found him in his cot? I’m so sorry, I’m so, so sorry for your loss.”

The Prime Minister listens as test veteran John Morris demands justice. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

I sat at one end of the table, with the PM’s official photographer taking pictures over my shoulder. Clutched in my hands all day was a folder of evidence. As the others made their case in turn, the Mirror validated their words with the proof of what they said, from the latest research and the government’s own documents. Their testimony was punctuated with facts we had triple-checked – the rates of infant mortality, the radiogenic nature of the illnesses being discussed, the fact 92% of servicemen at Operation Grapple Y in 1958 never even had their radiation monitored.

And I waited for the right moment.

During our preparations I’d written briefings for the PM and his team, made the case for a medal, and laid out what else we’d ask for. But I kept one thing back – a fact which I wanted the PM’s raw reaction to, without time to think of excuses or platitudes.

It happened earlier than I expected. John mentioned having blood samples taken while on Christmas Island, with no sign of them in his records. The PM nodded, and if I didn’t say it now there wouldn’t be time. “These are the blood counts taken for one airman,” I said, shoving a 1958 memo at the PM. “Yet his family have been told there are no blood counts in his record. Withholding medical information is a criminal offence, Prime Minister.”

“Yes, it is,” he agreed. He read the memo. I showed him two more. He asked me to explain what they meant, and I told him what the experts had told me. “I simply cannot explain the shortage of medical records,” he said, shaking his head. He looked at me and said: “Where do you think they are?”

Nuclear bomb tests

When the PM has to ask the Mirror what’s going on, he’s in trouble. They must be found, he said. Whatever vault they were in. The meeting turned from a politically-necessary listen, to an eye-opening revelation as the others spoke their pieces, and we ran over time.

I told the PM that many veterans couldn’t get a medal because they were dead, and others were too angry to accept it. “You’ve heard there are many things that could and should be done,” I told him. “But the one thing everyone I’ve spoken to agrees on is that what’s really needed is a moment of national recognition – an event, where the state acknowledges these men and says ‘we see you’.”

Sir John closed the meeting, the PM thanked everyone and posed for a photo, and as we filed out I noticed the very expensive wallpaper which, for once, was nothing to do with him.

Because we had spoken to the office of Prime Minister, not the man accused of lying or lockdown parties. We knocked on a door which few people ever walk through, into a room usually reserved for firing ministers in a reshuffle. In the place where he was used to exercising his power, we had exercised ours.

Perhaps this PM will also be the first to see the political necessity of helping the test veterans; of forcing leadership rivals, Keir Starmer, and the SNP, to say ‘well done’ to him. For a man whose legacy in office will be so divisive, it must be tempting to know that he has the means to unite all his enemies in praise.

And that’s why journalists knock on doors and bother people: if we didn’t, things would be worse.