ONE of Tony Blair's closest advisors leaned over to John Burton and whispered to him: "You bugger, Burton!" It was on the small plane flying overnight from May 1 to May 2, 1997, from Teesside Airport to London.

Blair - having just been re-elected as MP for Sedgefield and flying south to be confirmed as the new Prime Minister of Great Britain - was on board with his wife Cherie. Also on the plane were spin doctor Alastair Campbell and Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, plus Anji Hunter, Blair's personal assistant.

Peter Mandelson was there, too. As he was the most technologically advanced, the election results were coming through on his mobile phone live as they were announced. Later Mandelson would remark to Burton how strange it had been to fly over the constituencies as their results came in and as, in many cases, they changed political colour.

But it had been a strange evening and Burton's memory of it is understandably a little hazy.

Sometime around midnight, Burton had had the extraordinary experience of returning from Blair's count at Aycliffe Leisure Centre and taking to the stage at Trimdon Labour Club where he had announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, the next Prime Minister, our own Tony Blair."

Once the balloons had risen up to the ceiling and the tumultuous welcome had died down, Blair had spoken for about 15 minutes. He had said: "It is you people here who have been my foundation and support all the way through my political career. It was here, in this constituency, that we created New Labour.

"I believe in you, and believe you represent all the best in this country, and the greatest pride I could ever have is to repay that trust one thousandfold." As he had finished, people in the hot, sticky, sweaty room were literally jumping, crying, and singing, in sheer joy.

He had called Burton "a star", and had then left, followed by the band of about ten who were allowed to accompany Blair on his historic flight south. Naturally, John and his wife Lily were among the first on board.

"The cabin crew looking after our creature comforts on the flight down from Teesside came round and asked us what we'd like to drink," recalls Burton in his new biography.

"Taking their lead from Tony, most on board asked for a soft drink but I fancied a Scotch and lemonade so I asked for one and then lit my pipe.

"I'd noticed that Anji kept going into the toilet but thought no more of it until she came up to me, leaned forward and sort of hissed at me in a friendly way, something along the lines of: 'You bugger Burton! I've been slipping into the loo to have a smoke and I fancied a real drink too. Why couldn't they have asked me after you'd ordered yours?'

"I enjoyed the flight down."

The rest of those travelling to London from the constituency followed in a larger aircraft and all met up for the celebration party at the Royal Festival Hall. Dawn was breaking, and thousands of people were outside the hall waiting for the new Prime Minister to speak and singing New Labour's anthem, Things Can Only Get Better.

Even from a distance of six years, Burton finds it very emotional to recall that night and that morning. Hearing Blair speak in those early day-break hours was practically a mystical experience for him.

"I remember him standing there, starting to talk, and the dawn and the light came up behind him, and I thought: 'Bloody hell, he's going to walk on the Thames!' It was a wonderful feeling."

But for Burton the blur continued. "After that, the whole world wanted me. Lily and I did GMTV with Tessa Sanderson and Tony Robinson, and I think they'd brought Father John Caden - Tony's old tennis partner - down from Sedgefield...

"And we stayed that night somewhere near the Oratory School... I don't know where... it was a big posh hotel..."

Lily tries to bring the blur into focus: "It had windows overlooking this lovely garden... a very big bathroom... and a four poster bed..."

"And we never used the bed," says Burton. "We didn't get there until eight in the morning, we had an hour, and then we went back out again, so God knows how much it cost us not to sleep in it..."

Much later that morning, a much more composed Tony Blair had an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and he accepted her request to form a new government. He arrived in Downing Street at 1pm to more cheers from assembled staff and friends.

"It was a moment to remember forever," recalls Burton. "A kind of video of it all runs in my head whenever I look back on it. I hear the applause; I see the television cameras, the outstretched hands holding those pleading microphones; it's all in a weird sort of slow motion. Then, through a sort of haze, Tony goes through the door of Number 10 with his family and the door closes behind him. I'm left outside."

He continues: "I've never told Tony this, but I'm sure he knows that when that door closed, I wondered why I hadn't been invited inside. I don't think that it had occurred to me that I wouldn't be and that nor would the others of us from the North. In retrospect, and knowing what I do now, it was never going to happen - but, at the time, it hurt; it hurt like mad. But time's a great healer. Since then, I've always enjoyed an excellent working relationship with Downing Street. They've always respected me and they respect the fact that I've got a special relationship with Tony.

"It wasn't Tony's fault that I wasn't invited into Number 10. It wasn't anyone else's either and it wasn't an oversight. Tony Blair, that ambitious young man who had knocked at our front door in Trimdon Village so many years before, had become the political leader of the nation and those who take care of such matters needed to follow precedent and to brief him, as quickly as possible, about national and international matters."

Burton and the Sedgefield posse adjourned to the nearest pub and were soon at home: it was the Red Lion in Whitehall, as opposed to the Red Lion in Trimdon.

"This young lad came up to me," says Burton. "He was a big lad with a t-shirt on, in his twenties, and there were tears streaming down his face. He said he wished his father had been alive as he'd longed for a Labour government.

"Everybody in London was a foot off the ground. A Japanese tourist stopped us and asked for a picture - he'd seen us on television.

"I took Lily to a Hockney exhibition in Bond Street and while we were wandering round someone came up and said: 'Thanks very much, I'm a BBC engineer, thanks for changing everything and giving us a Labour government.' That's when I finally realised what we'd achieved."

l The truth about the special relationship. See tomorrow's Northern Ech