FROM THE ARCHIVES: In Conversation With Matthew Parris
2 Apr 2018 at 09:00
This is an interview I did with Matthew Parris in September 2010. It remains one of my favourites. It’s another interview that has stood the test of time.
If you poll any group of politicians, journalists or newspaper readers and ask them who their top rated political columnist is, chances are that Matthew Parris’s name will emerge at the top. I don’t read many newspaper columns. I buy newspapers for news, rather than opinion, but I find Matthew Parris’s columns unmissable. He writes in a uniquely personal style and provides an insight which is unrivalled by his competitors. Even though he left Parliament 30 odd years ago, he manages to display an empathy with politicians his rival columnists find impossible to emulate. He doesn’t necessarily defend the parliamentary classes but he explains what lies behind a lot of their actions and utterances. And he uses humour to absolutely devastating effect.
We conducted our interview on the riverside balcony of his docklands flat. As we were finishing he told me that the following night he and a friend were going to go to the other side of the river and then swim across. “You’re mad,” I said. “You could die. The tide will carry you down river”. “No, we’ve checked, it’ll be fine,” he reassured me. I thought no more about it and assumed he wouldn’t actually go through with it. But he did, and I read all about it in the Evening Standard a few days later. I was right, to the extent that the tide did indeed carry them a mile. Unfortunately Matthew had calculated the time wrongly, having forgotten to allow for the fact that we were on British Summer Time rather than GMT. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, the two of them found themselves in Wapping rather than Limehouse, dripping wet in their underpants at 3am. They had no choice but to run home, hoping that no one would see them. What an adventure!*
Iain: How has turning 60 affected you, if it all?
Matthew: I’ve got a bit of a limp which comes from literally tens of thousands of miles training for marathons. I did my last London marathon in 1985 when I was 35 and achieved a very good time. I’ve given up long distance running since then. I think running is bad for you.
I definitely agree with that. Did you get reflective about where you’re going now?
There does come a point, and I guess in my case it has comes about now, when you think you probably aren’t going to do anything else big career-wise. I am now definitely not going to be Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary or a minister, or write a great book.
You’ve written several great books.
Well they’ve been fun to do. My agent Ed Victor, tactfully not associating it with me, his client, said that there was a kind of writer who happily accepted that God had given him a minor talent and wasn’t expecting anything more and at the age of 60, I see that God has given me a minor talent and that’s all really.
In terms of writing, do you prefer the 1000/1500 word article to actually writing something really substantially lengthy?
I don’t think it’s a matter of prefer. It’s a matter of habit and I think anybody, any columnist would tell you this, that when you’ve spent your life writing things in 1000 word chunks, a little bell begins to ring in your brain automatically when you’ve reached 1000 words – you just know you have. After that you find you haven’t anything else to say because your brain has ordered things into something that lasts 1000 words and it’s hard to get out of the habit. But as I have a funny butterfly mind, I’ve probably chosen the right career.
Have you got a big project in mind you never got round to starting?
No. Were I serious historian, I’d like to have done a history of the road and the path, a history of the tracks and trails that human beings make to transport themselves terrestrially. I don’t think any world history has ever been written and I’d like to do that. I’ve never had any ambition to write a novel, ever since I read George Elliot’s Middlemarch; I never saw the point of trying to compete in that market. The political stuff I have done has been minor but I’m quite happy with it. So no, no big project. I am at the moment, for this autumn, putting together a book which I’m having a lot of fun with, called Parting Shots. I did a radio series, collecting ambassadors’ valedictory dispatches, the final sort of parting shot, a polite and gentle version of the office leaving do where they say everything they’ve always wanted to. Some of these dispatches you can get out of the Freedom of Information are fantastic and we are getting a book out of them. I may do a few more things like that.
Is it writing that gives you the most pleasure?
The two things I like are writing and radio. I love radio, I love writing. I really don’t like television very much. It’s partly that I don’t approve of television very much because I think it is an inherently stupid medium.
Because if you must accompany every thought and piece of information with a picture, you enormously slow down and shallow-ify what you can communicate. So much can be communicated in words that can’t be communicated in pictures which is why human beings, unlike other animals, speak. It’s partly because I’m not very good at it. I enjoy reading my own stuff and some of it is quite alright. I like listening to myself, I sound like a sort of cross between Little Noddy and a pussycat. I don’t mind the sound of my own voice but I don’t like looking at myself. I’m a huge disappointment to myself visually. They talk about people being comfortable in their own skin. The minute I’m in vision, I feel a little uncomfortable. I can’t walk for television, I begin to mince. I can’t do natural movements for television, they begin to look stagey.
You have to do exaggerated movements, don’t you? They look natural on screen but don’t feel natural when you do them.
Yes. There are people who do this second-nature and I don’t. The other lovely thing about radio is that it’s communicator led rather than technician led. It’s the presenter and, to a degree, the producer. At the very most a two person team and quite often a one person team who are making the programme as they go along. Television has so many people involved and usually technical people telling you what you can and can’t do and “would you please do that again”. Something gets lost.
How do you feel your writing has changed since you first started writing for The Times?
Hardly at all. There’s hardly been any development in my writing. I read some of the early stuff I wrote. I got more practised at it. I can’t say I see any sort of enlargement in my style or deepening in my talents. I think that people have got used to my voice as a writer and so think I’ve got better as a writer. I haven’t actually. I started writing sketches and very much 13 years later I stopped writing sketches. I developed a bit of a judgement that most columnists develop about how to set about tricky or sensitive tasks.
The thing with your columns is you develop an argument better than anyone else. When I was writing a column for the Telegraph, every time I pressed the send button I thought they’d send it back saying “this is crap, start again”. Have you ever had that feeling?
Yes I do have it but I can usually see what is wrong and I do start again. John Birt is quite out of fashion now but Birtism at the BBC, for all its slightly caricaturable side, had one big central truth. John Birt always used to say when he was at LWT and I was presenting Weekend World, “but what is your argument?” If you just keep, as a columnist, putting that to yourself, you’ll be OK. Were I a great observer of human behaviour, were I an evocative re-creator of landscapes or situations, or had I any talent to reproduce conversation, then I might be a different kind of writer but with me it’s “what’s your argument?” It is always the first question and if you hold onto that like you hold onto the mast of a ship in a storm, you’ll always get through as long as you have an argument.
You mention Weekend World there. You’re quite critical of yourself in your autobiography on that. Was it something that you felt instantly uncomfortable with?
Yeah. I felt instantly uncomfortable with it when I started. I thought, and I suppose everyone does, that after a while you’d get better at it but I found after two years I still wasn’t getting better at it and our ratings were dropping. I don’t think I was a flop. What I failed to be was the new Brian Walden. The programme itself was probably out of date. The concept was arthritic and old-fashioned. I think a really sensational presenter could have given it a new life and I just wasn’t doing that. I just wasn’t sensational.
Don’t you think nowadays there ought to be something like that on television? There is no longer any inquisitive interview that lasts longer than 10 minutes.
But would anybody watch it? If you want a presentation about something that develops an argument carefully and thoughtfully, is television the best medium in which to do it? No, I think people watch things like Weekend World because there wasn’t anything else to watch. They learned to appreciate its strengths and they developed the patience you need, but modern viewers don’t have that patience and why should they?
What frustrates you about the way the modern media behaves, if anything?
I like the modern media. I thoroughly approve of it. I think a good deal of it is absolute nonsense but that doesn’t matter. A lot of people want to read and see absolute nonsense. Most of it is dross but most of any age’s media and art will be dross. Amidst all the dross, there is as much more good stuff now than there has ever been.
But isn’t it quite shallow? Look at the 24 hour news channels, you and I go on and give our views, but what can you say in 2 minutes on Sky News that’s of any benefit?
Ask Adam Boulton. I think Adam Boulton, as a commentator, or Nick Robinson on the BBC, are as good as any equivalent that you could name from 30, 50, 150 years ago. Plainly there wasn’t rolling television then but were the commentators in the 18th and 19th century better? I get the impression when you listen to Nick and Adam that you have two people who do really understand it, they sum it up beautifully; they lead your thoughts in the right direction. I have no problem about it. I think rolling news may be a bit old fashioned because you can go quickly and unerringly towards the report that you want to hear about – you don’t have to sit and wait until something rolls around.
What do you think it says about politicians and politics in general that the likes of you and I are invited to give our views? We’re not elected to anything and yet 20 or 30 years ago, the newspaper would have gone to a backbench MP about something rather than an independent pundit.
Well, they get a better comment from us than they would have from a backbench MP 20 or 30 years ago.
Correct answer. (Both laugh) I always remember when the Hutton enquiry was going on, I did half an hour straight off on Sky News live on College Green when nobody else was about. I thought “why am I doing this? It should be someone from the security committee”.
No, but then you look at the membership of the security committee and you see very well why you’re doing it and not them.
Do you think there’s any hope for backbench MPs now in a new political environment? Is there going to be change? Are they going to break the shackles?
Yes, I do I feel a little bit hopeful about the new parliament. I think backbenchers could do a lot better than they have done over the last 20 or 30 years. Looking at the backbenchers we have now, I think there’ll be all kinds of ideas and movements and campaigns that are going to add a lot to national life.
You seem quite comfortable about the coalition. In one of your columns you wrote “Lib Dems bring to government a distinct and healthy slant on politics. There is a reactionary component in the Tory make-up; I often share it, but it must always be kept in check”. That almost seems to buy the LibDem line that it’s their main job in the coalition to keep the Tories in check…
Yes, but not just as a brake. You do need a brake on some of the hot-headed reactionary instincts you find in the Conservative Party, but as an accelerator too for ideas of their own. Michael Gove’s education policy is not at all unlike David Laws’ education policy was or indeed Tony Blair’s theoretical education policy was. In all parties you have people who are dynamic. What I like about the LibDems is they do combine creativity and dynamism with a belief in the individual, and you don’t get that in the Labour Party. That is what I hate about the Labour Party and is the reason I could never have joined the Labour Party. The Labour Party in the end and in its very core is distrustful about the individual.
The LibDems tend to be quite a ‘big state’ party…
Some of them are. Some may not in the end feel that they are natural members of the coalition like this. I can see the coalition not splitting, not fragmenting but being shaved at the edges, at the right and the left, of people who don’t feel it’s for them. I find it hard to reconcile some of the things Tim Farron says with what the coalition stands for. Simon Hughes, it’s sometimes hard to know what he thinks and he may feel uncomfortable too. I can think of plenty of people on the Tory right who are really not for this sort of thing at all. The coalition may lose a few at each end but I think the centre is strong.
Do you think the media coverage of the coalition is slightly behind the curve with everybody trying to find evidence of a split here, a crack there, without actually thinking of the bigger picture that in coalitions there are inevitably going to be differences and it doesn’t mean that in a year’s time there aren’t going to be differences?
Yes but that is the media’s job. When two parties that have been part of the warring tribes in Westminster for as long as anyone can remember suddenly join to form a government, it’s right for the media to push and probe and ask how far they really are apart. The media will notice, the newspapers will notice and are noticing, that the public quite like this thing. It’s for the coalition to prove that the centre is strong and the ideas are real. I think it is for the media to probe, I don’t think David Cameron or Nick Clegg would expect anything else.
If you were a coalition MP, what would be your biggest difficulty?
It sounds slavishly adoring but I’m completely on board the whole idea and for what they’re trying to do. I as a Conservative think we should make the positive case of cuts rather than just wringing our hands and saying “I hate it, but I do it and it’s hurting us more than it hurts you” because it’s not hurting me. Some will hurt me but the idea of reducing the size of the state seems to be an idea that will stand on its own – should stand on its own, and it is simply convenient that the impending bankruptcy is forcing the idea in the country. I want it anyway but I can see why from the point of view of the coalition, that case can’t be made.
Has a part of you ever thought “I’d quite like to be an MP again in this government”?
No, because I really wasn’t very good at that either. Certainly not a backbencher. No. I’d still like to be Secretary of State for Transport but I’m not going to be.
Really? Because I’ve always wanted to be Transport Secretary too!
I’m sorry Iain, but I’m older than, you so it’s my turn first.
I’ve always said that if any ministerial job was to come my way, Transport Minister would be it.You actually do things as Transport minister.
Of course you can! Where is there a better case for big government in providing roads and railways, it’s just obvious. I really disapprove of the way the Conservative Party has never thought that transport mattered.
Have you ever, since you left Parliament in 1986, thought “actually I shouldn’t have done that”.
Not for a moment. But that was only because I wasn’t going anywhere. There have been times when prime ministers have been appointing junior ministers when I thought “if only I had been doing well as a backbencher, I might now be being made that appointment”… John Major told me he would have made me a junior minister if only I had had a bit more patience, and that he was fairly confident I would have made a hash of it.
That’s a very nice thing to say.
He said he’d give me a try.
Rail privatisation! That would have been you!
Absolutely! Or I would have said something like Edwina Currie that a good winter cuts through the bed blockers in the elderly population like a knife through butter. John Major said he would have defended me on my first gaffe but perhaps when it came to the second he would have let me go, and I think he’s spot on.
How did your political views form originally? You don’t sit in any particular Conservative camp.
Two things form my political views. One is being brought up in Southern Africa and my mother being involved in the fight against white supremacy in what was then Southern Rhodesia. So I then became very interested in human rights, although I don’t really believe in human rights. But I became very interested in equalities between people and opposing discrimination, that’s the liberal side. At university, when I began to follow British politics, I became seized with a conviction that collectivism as seen through the prism of a labour government would be the downfall of Britain and the state and the gradual extension of the state was slowly taking us to destruction. So I didn’t join the Conservative Party out of any enthusiasm for the Conservative Party but out of a feeling that socialism, even the weak milk and water variety of socialism that we got from Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, had to be stopped. When it came to Margaret Thatcher, she did seem a person who would do that. I had already become a Conservative, but then I became enthusiastic about it.
How did you get to work for her?
I was sent over by Chris Patten. I was working for the Conservative Research Department. Chris sent me over to what was considered in the CRD, who were a bit sniffy about Mrs Thatcher in the early days, a very unpleasant job which was answering her letters from the general public. I was her correspondence clerk for her last two years in opposition, which I also cocked up.
There’s a theme developing…
Yes, it makes a good after dinner speech, I can tell you. Her image is so different from that which anyone who has ever worked with her would tell you. Loyal to her staff, but not always to her colleagues. I think she was a very tricky person to work with. Certainly loyal to her staff. There are bits of Mrs Thatcher’s public image that are right and bits that are wrong, the bits that are wrong you’re right – she was loyal to her staff and it’s also true that she was much better at compromising. Although she raged against contrary advice, she often took it. There was, is, a sort of coldness about her. I never felt that she especially loved human beings. She had great faith in the qualities of the human animal but a love and a warmth towards particular human beings, apart from Denis, didn’t, I think, characterise her. She treated people well, I think, because she had been brought up to treat her staff well. But not because in her heart she really cared.
Do you think politics is very much a young person’s game now in this country?
I was the chairman of a number of selection meetings, constituency associations, Tory ones, choosing their candidates. The last that I did was for Stratford on Avon which Nadhim Zahawi won. One of the people who didn’t win was a woman called Georgina Butler, who had been an ambassador in her career, just recently retired from the Foreign Office. I thought what a good person she would have been, on the backbenches or as a junior minister, and I felt sorry that there is this prejudice now. I think these things go in cycles. There’ll be a fashion for youth, then we’ll find out what youth lacks, then there’ll be a fashion for grey hair and then we’ll find out what grey hair lacks. It is just swings and roundabouts.
Is it healthy for politics when you have all the leaders look, to the public, the same?
No they’re not the same, even though they may look the same. They are all about the same age. The similarities between Cameron and Clegg are quite striking although the differences are quite striking too. Certainly in backgrounds, the similarities of the two Eds and David Miliband, but in outlook they are very different, very different indeed. I think it is just something of a coincidence there that they are all the same age. In the selection panels I chaired, there is quite an appetite now for candidates who have done something else in their life – like Dr Sarah Wollaston in Totnes, I chaired that one. It definitely was the fact that she was a doctor that helped her and the fact that she had only relatively recently didn’t join the Conservative Party didn’t help her at all – so again these things swing backwards and forwards.
Do you think some of the new MPs might become disillusioned with their existence fairly quickly? You talk to some of them and they are not happy people.
Disillusion is not quite the right word with IPSA. It’s just a sort of rage. I don’t think they’re disillusioned with the House of Commons, they’re not disillusioned so far with their roles and their constituents and that side of things. But IPSA is just a disgrace, and I’m completely on the side of Members of Parliament here and I don’t know what we do except wait for the wave of public indignation to die down and the just double all their salaries. I don’t think increasing all their allowances again in a slightly surreptitious way is the right way to do it. I’d double all their salaries and then abolish their allowances. But now is not quite the right time to double MPs salaries. I’m not sure the individuals who staff IPSA the problem, it was the circumstances in which it was born and the expectations placed on it and the rules it has to implement. I don’t think the Daily Telegraph played an entirely glorious role in all of this. They were probably right to publish once they had the disks. I think it could have been done in a more balanced way. They have done quite a lot to discredit the whole profession of politics. MPs themselves have done something, but so has the Daily Telegraph.
Do you recognise that you have become a bit of a role model for younger gay men in politics, or more generally?
I do hope not. I’m a completely crap gay.
But you’ve been completely open for years at a time that many weren’t… when I wasn’t. I think you underestimate that.
Yes, but I judge these things as everybody does, there were years until which I wasn’t open because I judged I would never get into politics and I wouldn’t have and I wouldn’t have been selected.
I wish now that I had come out when I was a Conservative MP. I think I could have got away with it in retrospect, but I think it would have been a close run thing. I had the nicest constituency and the nicest association and it would have given them an awful shock. A lot of them, I’m sure, had their doubts already and I think I could have ridden the storm. I so much admire Chris Smith for taking the risk.
He came out when you were an MP, didn’t he?
No, it was some years later. Nobody did in that parliament. I think it was in the next parliament. It’s true he was a Labour MP in a metropolitan constituency. I can rehearse and believe me in my mind a million times I have rehearsed all the reasons why he could do it and I couldn’t have. But I still wish I had.
Did Mrs Thatcher know you were gay?
Yes because I went to see her.
She was always quite tolerant of things out in the ordinary…
I think she quite liked gossip. I think she thought that the things human beings do are really very strange and unknowable. I told her I was gay when I went to say goodbye to her and she put an arm on my wrist and said “Matthew that must have been very difficult for you to say”. She meant it kindly.
Do you think in this country we are a little bit obsessed with anybody who might be gay? The David Laws issue wouldn’t have been such a big story had there not been a gay element to it.
What gay men who are not really out need to beware of, and Peter Mandelson notwithstanding, this is a warning not a threat, is the status of being a little bit gay and kind of suspected of being gay but not having admitted that you are gay, because it really whets the media’s appetite. Either you stay right in the closet, or if you’ve edged a little way out, for God’s sake come all the way out quickly. There is no status, although Peter Mandelson hoped there would be, in your homosexuality, as Peter puts it, being “private but not secret”. It’s public or its nothing.
Has he forgiven you for outing him on Newsnight?
He may have forgiven me, he’s perfectly kind about me in his autobiography and I’ve nearly forgiven him. I do think he made the most tremendous hoo-ha about it and I don’t think the BBC would have been so silly unless they thought Peter wanted them to.
Just to put it on the record, you thought genuinely that he was out in the open?
He was. He may not have thought he was out in the open, but as he says in his book you’ll see that he points out, as I pointed out endlessly at the time without anybody being remotely interested in hearing it, that he had been comprehensively outed by the News of the World 10 years before. I read that and I had read the other articles in the Evening Standard which had described him as gay. It was the media who decided to use the rather high profile glancing reference as their peg. Peter got quite unnecessarily cross, the BBC took huge fright, I was sacked as a columnist from the Sun. I don’t suppose Peter spoke to Elizabeth Murdoch or anyone else. Plainly somebody did what they thought he would think was appropriate, so I’ve nearly forgiven him. After his memoirs which were quite kind, I’ve almost completely forgiven him.
Do you think politics is sleazier now than 20 or 30 years ago?
It’s definitely not sleazier now. It probably was sleazier 20 or 30 years ago. It has been getting steadily less sleazy for about two centuries. The next big sleaze story is lobbying. They don’t call themselves lobbying companies now; they call themselves public relations and all that sort of stuff. Strategic consultants. It has wrapped its tentacles around the American political system in the most throttling way; it is just beginning to do that here. We could well do with a new wave of sleaze busting whose target is not the politicians but the commercial interests who attach themselves limpet-like to the political process. If I was advising a young man or woman thinking of going into political communications, I’d say ‘watch out’ as the industry could be the next big car-crash.
Back in 1990, I turned down a job with Ian Greer.
So did I. He wanted me to be a director of his company. What were you going to be?
I don’t know but when a poodle walked into the office during my third interview I decided it wasn’t the job for me. I also turned down a job to manage Shirley Porter’s re-election campaign. I regard those as two of my better decisions in life.
Ian Greer got a rather raw deal because he was a bit extravagant and colourful in the way he went about the schmoozing. He became the lightning rod for the whole industry and the media decided that it was just Ian Greer Associates. All Ian Greer did was in a more flamboyant way the things that a lot of other companies were doing and that crash has still to come. It’s not enough to send Ian Greer off into exile as some kind of scapegoat. He was in many ways a nice and generous man.
Lobbying is a perfectly legitimate activity, if you want legal advice you go to a lawyer, why shouldn’t a company go to a professional firm of political consultants for advice on how to get their message across?
Because if you want legal advice, you need to understand the law. If you haven’t followed the law and learnt the law, you won’t understand it so you have to ask somebody who does. A democracy, if it is to work, has to be something that anybody with an argument to make or evidence to give can feel they can go directly to the people whom they’ve represented. They shouldn’t need intermediaries. Once you begin to establish intermediaries, the intermediaries begin to establish a convenient working relationship with the politicians and begin to exclude the public from coming to them or interest groups from coming to them in any other way than via the intermediaries – and it’s a very malign process.
You’re very rude about Gordon Brown in a few of your columns.
Yes, I’m proud to be.
Do you think he was bonkers?
I think he was unhinged. That’s the same word Tony Blair used of Margaret Thatcher. I think Tony Blair was a bit unhinged too. I think Margaret Thatcher had her unhinged moments. I think there was something very odd about Gordon Brown. It wasn’t an oddness that made him unfit for any useful role in public life but it certainly made him unfit for any central role as a communicator or explainer but more than that as a listener. He wasn’t a good listener, he wasn’t good at being honest about what the problems were. He seemed to have a difficulty with bad news that was more than the difficulty Tony Blair had, which was he didn’t want people to know it. Gordon didn’t seem to want to hear it himself.
Have you read Alastair Campbell’s diaries?
Yes, now! I hadn’t read them when Alastair Campbell put me as a quote on the back cover saying “these diaries are brilliant and future historians will read them gasp and come to rely on them”.
How did he come to do that?
I wrote that about something else. Other diaries that he wrote that I had read, but not the latest.
Didn’t you feel having read the Campbell book “how on earth did the rest of the Cabinet allow this man [Gordon Brown] to become prime minister”? The whole book is a catalogue of incidents that show him to be demonic in some ways and totally irrational.
When you’ve finished Peter Mandelson’s diaries, you’ll feel that three times over. From Peter Mandelson’s diaries, an even more weird character emerges. It isn’t just the demonic nature of Gordon Brown. It isn’t just the fact that he was impossible to deal with, the rages and the refusals to listen to the truth and accept bad news and all the rest. Some very great men and women have had those traits. It was that in the end had nothing to say. There was no treasure trove of new political ideas. The cupboard of his philosophical mind was completely bare and anyone who had followed him as I had, and the things he had said and written and listened to him answering questions would have realised that from the start. I have a real problem with his senior colleagues who knew what he was like and did nothing. I also have a bit of a problem with the media and the lobby who decided that he was a great man because he told them he was a great man and started writing he was a great man, when it became apparent that he wasn’t emerging as a great man, started writing that he was a great man but his greatness had not yet emerged, which was really by way of an explanation of why they had said he was a great man in the first place. The truth was he was never a great man, he wasn’t’ a great man, there were never any hidden depths and none of us should have been conned into thinking there were.
In one of your more generous moments to Gordon Brown, what would you advise him to do now?
Quit the House of Commons as there is no way he could creep back as a backbencher. I think he will quit the House of Commons before the end of this year and write, and perhaps teach. I think he could be an interesting lecturer to an audience that knew what he was talking about. I don’t think he’s a good explainer to the uninitiated, I could see him at an American university. I could see him writing about the subjects that he knows a lot about. I don’t think his memoirs would be very interesting unless he suddenly discovers an element of self examination in his character which has not yet been displayed. I know people say he should go to the IMF or the World Bank or all that but I’m not sure.
Since you’ve been active in politics, who are the three most impressive figures you’ve encountered?
Keith Joseph, who really drew me into politics not long after I left university because he seemed to say the things that I was thinking that no one else dared to say and the Conservative Party wasn’t then daring to say. Nick Ridley, who was Secretary of State for Transport when I was still hopeful of becoming a junior transport minister. I loved his honesty; I loved his uncompromising right wing views. I loved his liberalism in the economic sense. Who I would choose as a third person whom I admire? I’m afraid it would be David Cameron who has seen what the Conservative Party needs to do and needs to be and has had enough steel to bend the party to his will and I believe is going to be a great prime minister.
I think in party terms he is the most powerful Conservative leader since, Churchill. I’m not even sure Churchill had complete control over his party. Margaret Thatcher certainly didn’t but I think he does.
Yeah which is partly judgement, partly luck. The coalition and this is something that never occurred to me, didn’t really occur to many commentators before the election, the coalition has left us with a stronger government, not a weaker one. I never wrote a more mistaken column than the one in which I say that England doesn’t like coalitions and if we have a coalition government, it’ll just stumble onto another election in a year. Looking back as I did on looking back at so many great discoveries, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me.
You had your three most impressive, what about three people that you’ve just thought why have they bothered?
If someone was completely unimpressive, one wouldn’t want to knock them. I think there are a few people who have really significantly increased the amount of evil there is in the world. Alastair Campbell is one of them. I believe he has made a personal contribution to lowering the terms of politics and the media in Britain. I think Tony Blair has actually done more evil, much more evil than Gordon Brown, who is simply incompetent. Tony Blair was a confidence trickster of the worst kind. I’m not going to cast around for a third person!
You spend a lot of time in Spain, what does Spain give you?
It’s family really. Wherever my family were, my father until he died recently, my mother and my five brothers and sisters, three of whom live in Spain, there I would be. We have this great house that my sister and her husband and I have been restoring in the Pyrenees. I love that project although it’s nearly complete now. I love mountains and where my families are is the Pyrenees but really if it were the Andes, if it were the Pyrenees, if it were the Drachensburg Mountains in South Africa, I love mountains.
Do you ever go back to Africa?
Yes. I haven’t been back to Zimbabwe because until recently I have thought I might be persona non grata because of the things I have written. I think I might now. I’ve been back to Swaziland where I was educated, back to South Africa. I go a lot to East Africa. I’ve got to like Ethiopia a great deal and I love Algeria.
Bread and butter pudding.
Tell me something that few people know about you:
I have a rudimentary third testicle.
I wasn’t expecting that! What does rudimentary mean?
It never completely formed. Apparently it’s not uncommon!
Ok… pity we don’t have a cameraman here.
You’re blushing Iain!
What’s your favourite view? Don’t say ‘my third testicle’!
It’s the view of the City of London from Waterloo Bridge.
Favourite holiday destination?
One thing you’d change about yourself?
I’d like to be astonishingly good looking.
What book are you currently reading?
I’m just finishing Peter Mandelson’s autobiography.
Whistle Down the Wind.
One thing you wish you’d known at 16.
That if you pull the paper hand towel from the dispenser in the public lavatory before you wash your hands, it won’t come to bits in the way that if you try to pull it from the dispenser, it does when your hands are wet.
What makes you cry?
Other people’s misfortune.
Peter Wildblood. The journalist convicted in the Montagu, trials who wrote the first book about being gay that has ever been written in the English language.
(laughs) Tony Blair.
I thought you may say that.