7 Apr 2018 at 08:00
I wrote this in 2010. I wouldn’t change a word of it now…
This could turn into a 100 page epistle, if I am not careful. As you know, you have had a perfect childhood – brought up by two loving parents in a wonderful rural environment. I know you know how lucky you have been. Life isn’t always this perfect, as you are about to find out, as you enter adulthood.
My first bit of advice will not come as a surprise. You need to develop a harder edge. You can’t be liked by everyone, no matter how hard you try. There are people out there who will want to do you down and slag you off. You cannot win everyone over and there’s no point in trying. You know that throughout your school days you have been bullied by various people and yet you’ve never stood up to them. Now’s the time to start. Do it once and it becomes very easy the next time. You know you give the impression of being an extrovert, the life and soul of the party and willing to speak up in a meeting. Yet you and I both know that you have an inate shyness which you constantly seek to repress. Few people know the real you. Keep it that way. Those who want to dig beneath the surface will do so. Those who are only interested in you for what they can get out of you won’t bother. There will come a time when everyone seems to want to know you. To want a bit of you. Beware of those people. They’re easy to spot. They’re the ones who look over your shoulder at a party to see if there’s anyone more important there. What I am saying is that you should be very careful of loving the spotlight a little too much. Fight your natural disposition for your head to get that little bit too big. It’s a fight you will probably never win, though!
My second piece of advice is about your future career. You and I both know that you knew you didn’t want to be a farmer from about the age of eight, even though everyone in your wider family expects you to take over the farm. We also know how difficult has been to carry on the pretence that you would be going to agricultural college. But getting ungraded in Physics O Level and Grade D in Biology was a pretty good indication to everyone that this was not a direction in which you are headed. You feel you are letting your parents down, but you’re not. They want what’s best for you and will support you in whatever you do. You know that deep down. At the moment, because you’ve suddenly found out that German is the only subject you excel at, you intend to be a German teacher. Fine, you think that now, but don’t put all your eggs in that basket. Your career is likely to take a very different direction. You recently joined the Liberal Party and have discovered an interest in politics. If I told you now that Margaret Thatcher would have a huge influence on your future life and that you would write books about her, you’d probably laugh. Throughout your career you’ll come across people you feel inferior to or that in some way they are better than you. You will envy the self assurance and confidence of those who have been to public school and Oxbridge. Fight it. You know deep down they are no better than you, but it is true that you will always have to fight that bit harder than they do to get where you want to be.
You know as well as I do that you are, and will be, under tremendous pressure to conform – not just to what is expected of you career-wise, but also in your personal life. People will expect you to get a girlfriend – indeed, a succession of them – and get married and live happily ever after. Just like most of your friends and cousins (except most of them end up divorced!). Life ain’t like that, as you are already coming to realise. You don’t have to pretend to me. I know the inner feelings you’ve had since the age of eight, and so do you. You know that society in 1978 demands you should feel ashamed. But you don’t. And you’re right not to. So far so good.
The Britain of 2010 is very different from that of 1978. You won’t believe me now, but one day you will somehow summon up the courage to be open about exactly who – and what – you are. The path won’t be smooth and one or two people will be hurt along the way, and it may well mean that you don’t achieve what you want to in your career, but you will have no regrets. No one you care about will shun you, you just need the courage to say ‘accept me for who I am or do the other thing’.
You’re scared. That’s natural. You won’t make the first move. You carry on the pretence for some time, and break a number of female hearts along the way. You’re not playing them along – you genuinely care about them, but deep down you know that there’s something not quite right, that you need more. So you get to a certain stage and won’t go further. One day – and it’s some time off, everything will fall into place. I promise you that one day you’ll find what you’re looking for. And you’ll be happy.
You have a wonderful life to look forward to, one which most people would envy. It’s not all smooth sailing – it would be boring if it was, wouldn’t it? But if it’s any consolation, you’d probably settle for it now.
LBC Book Club: Iain Dale talks to John Bird & Judith O'Reilly
John Bird discusses his book THE NECESSITY OF POVERTY and 'Wife in the North' Judith O'Reilly talks about A YEAR OF DOING GOOD.
6 Apr 2018 at 16:00
So far this year there have been 51 murders in London. If the rate continues we will have close on 200 murders in 2018 compared to 130 last year. That’s quite an increase. The mayor of London is completely devoid of ideas as to what to do and jerks his knee by blaming police cuts for the rise. The right instinctively blames the fall in the number of Stop & Searches, while the left – in the form of Diane Abbott – blames social deprivation. David Lammy says a lot of it is down to drug gang turf wars. In truth, there is no single cause, and if we’re honest it’s probably in part down to all of these things. There is no short term ‘single bullet’ solution. I had a teenage caller on my programme on Tuesday who said one of the long-term solutions is to get rid of ‘gang grooming’. He reckoned that it’s schools who hold the key to stopping 12 or 13 year-olds joining gangs. Gangs give some kids the feeling of belonging and family that they may have lacked in their home lives. The reality of gang life needs to be explained to young boys, especially young black boys, at a very early age. It’s a truth we all need to recognise.
By Thursday night at midnight every company in the country with more than 250 employees had to file gender pay gap information to the government. I may not like this nanny state approach to the issue, but it’s thrown up some very interesting information. It may be a blunt instrument but it does show how much work there is to do on the subject of equal pay and opportunity. Airlines complain that of course there is a big gap with them because most of their employees are cabin crew, of which 70% are women and much lower paid than pilots, only three per cent of whom are women. Perhaps they ought to ask themselves why only 3% are female and then do something about it. There’s no intrinsic reason for women to shun the opportunity to train as pilots.
Someone asked me this week if I thought it was now possible that Theresa May could fight the 2022 election as Conservative leader. Most people assume that she will step down after Brexit is complete at the beginning of 2021, giving her successor time to bed in before an election. If her performance continues to improve, as it has done in recent weeks, then she may be able to demand the right to continue. I’d say there was only a 10-20% of her still being in Downing Street in 2022, but that per centage may well grow over the coming months. Watch the betting markets. As the local election campaign gets underway – and has anyone noticed? – it will be interesting to see if Labour’s anti-semitism woes have any effect on voting patterns. There has been a remarkable dearth of opinion polls in the last fortnight so we have no evidence to go on, but it would be remarkable if Labour hadn’t lost a couple of per centage points. The last poll showed a three point Tory lead. If by the end of the year there is a 6 or 7 point Tory lead, I suspect Theresa May will have every right to say she ain’t goin’ nowhere.
I had a week off last week and started watching Game of Thrones. I must admit it took quite a few episodes to really get it into it. There are so many characters that it’s quite difficult to follow who’s who and how they relate to each other. It all fell into place when I realised that the Queen was actually shagging her own brother. And the series isn’t even set on the Isle of Sheppey, a place where the family trees apparently don’t fork to often. Or so rumour has it.
Isn’t Turkey a member of NATO? Why then is it buying defence systems from Russia? This week Turkey’s President held a summit with Putin and Iran’s President Rouhani. I think of it as the Summit of the Three Monkeys. Hear no evil, see no evil, and evil. I’ll leave you to guess which one is which.
The Greatest Showman has possibly the best ever movie soundtrack. Discuss.
6 Apr 2018 at 13:11
Can we wean ourselves off plastic? That was our question today. If you want a good laugh make sure you watch the first few minutes when I expose Ayesha’s coffee cup habit!
6 Apr 2018 at 09:00
1. Margaret Thatcher
2. Labour couldn’t win an election
3. Putting the Unions back in their box
4. Enabling millions of people to buy shares for the first time
5. A-ha & Alphaville
6. Audi Quattros
7. Ejecting the Argentinians from the Falklands
8. Enabling hundreds of thousands of people to buy their own homes
9. Ronald Reagan & Mikhail Gorbachev
10. The Mullett
11. Ian Botham
13. Trevor Brooking & Alan Devonshire, Tony Cottee & Frank McAvennie.
14. Winning the Cold War
15. Trivial Pursuit
16. Tina Turner
17. J R Ewing
18. Nena’s 99 Luftballons and her hairy armpits
19. The Conservatives winning three elections in a row
20. The advent of Sky TV.
21. The ZX Spectrum
22. Apricot computers
23. Shoulder Pads
24. The Pet Shop Boys
25. Mrs Mangel
26. Sue Ellen’s quivering lip
27. Anne & Nick
28. Frank Bough’s jumpers
29. Gyles Brandreth’s jumpers
30. The vanquishing of Arthur Scargill
31. Big in Japan
32. The smell of the Sunday Times magazine
33. The VW Scirocco
34. Wired for Sound
35. Vincent Hanna
37. Gregory’s Girl
39. Krystal Carrington
5 Apr 2018 at 09:00
A few years ago I wrote this in relation to people who stand for Parliament. It got quite a reaction. So if you’re standing for your local council in the May elections, quite a lot of this applies to you too!
1. You can’t do everything yourself. Let others take the strain. You are the leader of the campaign. Act like it.
2. Keep your cool. There will be moments in the campaign when you want to scream your head off. Resist the temptation. Count to ten. Then count to twenty.
3. Your campaign workers are volunteers. They don’t have to turn out to help you. They do it because they want to. Motivate them. Treat them well.
4. Make sure all your literature is proof read. Three times. And not by you.
5. If you have a campaign blog, never write a spontaneous blogpost. Always run it by someone else first. Be incredibly careful what you tweet. Imagine your name in bold print in the Daily Mirror. If you hesitate before pressing SEND, it probably means you shouldn’t.
6. Make sure you keep to your normal sleep patterns. You may think you are Superman/Superwoman, but you’re not. You need your sleep. Make sure you get it.
7. You don’t need to hold a long campaign meeting every morning. Three times a week is usually enough. Make sure that the only people who attend are those who really should. Restrict meetings to half an hour.
8. Posters do not gain extra votes. But they make your local party feel good and give your campaign the appearance of momentum. Do not put them up too early. And do not put them up all at once. And if they get ripped down, make sure your campaign team has a strategy for replacing them within 24 hours.
9. Personalise your Sorry You Were Out Cards. Include your ten campaign pledges on them. And include an apparently handwritten message and signature.
10. Do not drive anywhere yourself. Especially, do not drive your campaign vehicle. Appoint a PA who will drive you everywhere and cater for your every whim.Tell them to make sure you eat properly, and regularly. McCoys, Coke and Mars Bars do not a healthy diet make.
11. If Party HQ offer you the chance of a visit from a politician even you have barely heard of, turn them down. Even if you have heard of them, consider turning them down. Visits from national politicians use up too many resources and rarely attract a single extra vote.
12. Don’t canvas before 10am or after 8.30pm. It looks desperate and annoys people. And be very careful about canvassing on Sundays. People don’t like it. Use Sundays to catch up on deliveries in areas with no deliverers.
13. Resist the temptation to strangle the next person who asks “How’s it going?” or “Are you going to win?”. They’re only being polite.
14. If you’re in a high profile marginal seat which the media find interesting, avoid spending half your day giving them interviews. Your only media focus is local. Ignore Michael Crick. He’s not there to help you.
15. Avoid the natural desire to believe what voters tell you on the doorstep. Most of them will tell you what you want to hear in order to get you off the doorstep. If they say “I’ll see how I feel on the day” you can safely put them down as a Liberal Democrat.
16. Your Get Out The Vote operation is more important than anything else you do during the campaign. Satisfy yourself that your Agent and Campaign Manager have it in hand and they know what they are doing.
17. Ignore those who tell you not to appear at your count until it is well underway. It’s your moment. Relish it. Prepare your speech. If you lose unexpectedly, you will be remembered for how you react. Act graciously towards your opponents during the counting and in your speech.
18. If you lose, you will be tempted to blame someone. Your party leader. Your local party. Anyone but yourself. Don’t. Whatever your personal thoughts, no one likes a bad loser. Be dignified and take it on the chin.
19. If you win, hubris may take over. It really wasn’t all down to you, you know. And make sure others know you know that.
20. Make sure you write a personal thank you letter – and I mean write, not type – to all those who helped on your campaign. Do it within a week of polling day. You really could not have done it without them.
Good luck, and try to enjoy it!
4 Apr 2018 at 21:07
A feisty discussion, which turns rather heated towards the end! With Ayesha Hazirika, Liam Halligan and me, with Hannah Vaughan Jones presenting.
4 Apr 2018 at 09:00
I did this interview in July 2010. Alastair never knowingly gives a bad interview and he was certainly very open in this two hour conversation.
When did you start writing your diary?
I’ve always done a diary, I started when I was a kid when my dad was in hospital and I used to write him daily digests. As Tony was preparing to leave I was getting so inundated with ideas, other people’s ideas, about how I might say something, do something about it and I just thought sod it, I’ll do it. I’ll give my own version based on the diaries but it would be just be a single volume which was just extracts. Obviously a lot of focus has been put on the fact that I took out stuff that people thought might be damaging to Gordon but actually what I was trying to do was do a book about Tony. It’s very much the key episodes for Tony really. So that was what the Blair Years was largely about, and then this just follows on from it.
But how unexpurgated is it because presumably you can only ever publish a fraction of the material that you’ve got.
It’s pretty much unexpurgated because I’ve kept out a lot of stuff that people would not be remotely interested in. You know, how your kids are doing at school and holidays. Some judgements you had to make legally. But by and large in terms of the key moments and the big stuff it’s unexpurgated. Bear in mind most days I didn’t have more than 10, 15, 20 minutes to write. So where some days are a couple of sentences, that’s all I did. Other days where it’s ream and reams and reams, that’s what I did.
How difficult do you find the judgement about leaving stuff in that you know is actually quite hurtful to someone?
I did think a lot about that. And some stuff, where I felt… you know, I did make a lot of judgements in The Blair Years and I veered towards leaving out. This time I probably veered towards leaving in. Partly because we’re talking about a long, relatively long time ago. Also to be absolutely honest every single one of us who’s a big player as it were within the New Labour, it’s not as if we’re not used to people saying part true critical things. Now I suppose the difference is that it’s us saying it. I sometimes left things out if they were in the mouth of others and I felt actually it was unfair to them. But when I say unexpurgated, its ‘unexpurgated. There’s nothing there I’ve taken out. Sometimes taste, sometimes law, you know, libel sometimes just because you think it’s too harsh or it’s something that is so rooted in that moment that you think it’s unfair, either unfair on the person saying it or about the person about whom its said.
And who do you think will feel most uncomfortable reading them?
I don t know. I think of all of us. When The Blair Years came out Jonathan Powell came up with this really great line. He said, ‘well no one can say this is a self-serving memoir because you come across as a complete lunatic’. So I think all of us at points will think ooh, maybe I would have rather not have seen that in print.
How can you go on about change when you’ve been in power for 13 years and Gordon Brown as Prime Minister then brings Mandelson back, brings you back and one or two others. It completely goes against that message doesn’t it?
I can see that. I think the change, from Gordon’s perspective was that he had to represent both continuity and change. I felt he could do both. Continuity is a good thing, it gives him experience, it gives him the record, it gives him a sense of knows what he’s for and what he’s on about. I think change was about the way the world had changed and the change challenges. If you were talking about the economy, or public services or foreign policy or the constitution or climate change the challenges had changed and that was what would give you the policy agenda going forward.
But wasn’t his problem right from the start was that there was no plan? You just kept waiting for this vision and it never really came. He had 13 years to decide what to do, for goodness sake! This was illustrated in Peter Watt’s book when he said come the election that never was there wasn’t even a draft manifesto ready and Harriet Harman ended up writing it!
I think he needed the continuity. The change bit was more difficult because Tony and Gordon were politically not that far apart. Tony may have been more on the outer edges of modernisation and the public services end and so forth, but actually, certainly, going back to where this book starts, the differences in so far as they existed were deciding who’s going to do the job and whether they can stand against each other. So I think it was the loss of the sense of continuity that gave him that problem that you defined. People were saying hold on a minute where is all this new stuff. I mean there was a plan.
My view is that if Tony Blair had been leader at this election he would still be in Downing Street now. What do you think?
Well it’s an interesting hypothetical. Tony used to say that no one in a top job should stay more than eight years. Now, I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. I certainly think that Tony, if he had been able to get through and fight this election, he was certainly the sort of opponent David Cameron would have found very, very difficult.
Did he ever contemplate actually carrying on that long?
No I don’t think so. He was always of the view that eight years was about as long as you could go. And he went 10. Now that being said I mean who knows. Who knows. Who knows whether the party would have allowed it.
Why did you go back into Downing Street after it nearly ate you up the first time around?
John Harris in The Guardian said it’s perfectly obvious to him Gordon Brown was the source of my depression. And I said, oh no, I used to get depression before Gordon. But people like him were saying how can you put up with all this angst and grief he’s causing you and then go back and help him in 2010. Now part of it is tribalism…
And that’s what people who aren’t involved in politics never get.
Yeah, I think that’s right. They just see the how can you put up with it. But part of it is also a residual understanding of his strengths and so I found at every stage, there were points at which I said to Tony ‘this is just terrible, I can’t go on like this’.
Did you actually ever come close to snapping?
Well there are points at which you think, there is another way here. But the point is Tony was the boss and Tony was always of the view, certainly for the bulk of the time he was always of the view that the problems were way outweighed by the strengths and the brilliance that Gordon brought to it. One, he was the boss and you had to go along with that, but secondly, he had a point. And so when the whole before the last election where there were lots of people saying that Gordon should be replaced kicked off, I was never 100 per cent of that view because you just don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know that we might’ve ended up in a worst position. You just don’t know.
But if Blair knew Brown was going to succeed him, it would have been good for him to be Foreign Secretary for a few years rather than just be Chancellor.
I think Gordon would have found it very hard to be anything other than Chancellor. Not that he couldn’t have done those jobs, but you know how they would have been perceived. But looking back, and I mean I haven’t talked to him about this, but would it have been sensible to have some sort of competition, some sort of leadership election? There is a view that the party would have found it very difficult for Gordon not to have been Tony’s successor.
But Gordon Brown appeared to think that the leadership was an entitlement, his by right and I think that was the root of the reason why he ultimately failed…
Because a normal politician would have had to fight for it and he just didn’t. He fought for it in the sense that there was a continual undermining of Blair but that was it.
No, I can see that and I think it would have been better had there been a fairly broad field. When you look now and see David and Ed Miliband in competition you do ask yourselves whether it might have been better back then. Prescott said so at the time.
Prescott comes out of your diaries as a bit of a hero.
Tony had a lot of doubts about John from the start but I think at the end he would say he had a great deputy leader. Really great.
He was sort of Heineken deputy leader- he could reach parts that Tony couldn’t.
But he was also somebody who’s political judgement and expertise is not to be underestimated. John’s always been somebody who, because of his rather curious relationship with the English language, has always been underestimated. People by and large do wear their hearts on their sleeves. I do, Gordon, whether he was saying what he thought or not you could always tell. Tony was probably the most able to just hide a little bit what he was thinking. Peter maybe a bit as well. But basically we were all pretty open people and John Prescott is somebody who, you know when he’s in a good mood, you know when he’s in a bad mood, you know when he’s serious, you know when he’s not. And I was the person who dealt with a lot of that.
And Peter Mandelson doesn’t come out of the book so well.
There was a problem there with me and Peter in that I never felt I could be totally open with Peter and I think funnily enoughin this recent campaign Peter and I worked really well together. Total openness, close. Back then I was never quite sure what he was up to but that’s part of who Peter is. The other thing I’ve learnt over time is that we’ve all got strengths and weaknesses and you have to appreciate all them. Sometimes the weakness is just the flip of the strength. It’s the other side of the coin and so you don’t necessarily get one without the other.
Is there part of you that would have liked to have been an elected politician but you had enough self knowledge to know that you were psychologically unsuited?
No, I don’t think so. The answer to the first part is yes. The answer to the second part is no I think I would be quite suited to it but it’s just the way the thing has worked out . In 1994 I was getting bored with journalism. In my mind I was thinking about moving into politics in some way. John Smith dies, Tony asks me to work for him and I do. Now actually there’s a passage towards the end of this volume which I’d totally forgotten about until I transcribed the diaries where Tony starts sounding me out about whether I should stand. By then I felt I was doing what I needed to do for him and for the Labour Party in that position. By 2001 I’m thinking as David Miliband Pat McFadden, James Purnell, you know these guys they’re all starting to get seats.. and I’m thinking maybe I should do that, but actually by then I’m kind of a round peg in a round a hole. But then by 2003, when I left, I just wanted out of the thing. By 2005 when I go back it’s very much to go back and that’s it. In 2010 I go back again and I sort of feel if I was going to stand I should have done it when David [Miliband] did.
Surely when Kitty Usher decided to go in Burnley, you must have thought, maybe now’s the time.
I did think that in 2005, and I thought it again this time. And actually when the results came in from Burnley and we lost it I felt quite bad about that because I think I could have won that. But you just have to make judgements and I did make a judgement about it when I left in 2003.
You will never escape the so-called dodgy dossier, however much you try and explain what it was or what it was not. That will hang around your neck for the rest of your life.
Well that’s for you to say. I get asked about it in interviews but when I go about the place talking to people very rarely does it come up.
You will always be associated with David Kelly. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it are, you will still always be associated with that.
If you put your head above the parapet and you do the sort of job that I did in the way that I did it there’ll be lots and lots and lots of things. I was thinking the other day, ‘bog standard comprehensive’, ‘People’s princess’… But every time I get into a cab in London if the driver is from Kosovo, I promise you I never pay. The driver will say ‘what you guys did in Kosovo, we’ll never forget it’. Going to Northern Ireland and it’s different. Yes, I accept the premise of the question and it’s a very, very odd situation because David Kelly, I never met him. I never met him. And yet we became inextricably linked. But all you can do, as you say, is keep explaining. That would never have happened if it had not been for what Gilligan broadcast.
When you learnt of David Kelly’s death you must have been like jumping off a cliff.
I felt a juggernaut coming my way. That was exactly what I felt. I felt an absolute juggernaut. And the truth is, you think about it. You do think about something like that. I don’t want to be pompous about it but they [the diaries] are, I think, quite an important historical document because they show politics and politicians in all their guises. And it shows how hard it is. It was hard enough for me but what it’s like too for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron? I mean it is such a difficult job. And it’s why although I will continue to work against the Tories and so forth I will always try and step back because I know how hard it is. And the other day for example when the David Laws thing was breaking and I did a blog about it Fiona said why are you so sympathetic? I said look, you’ve got to step back a bit and try and imagine you’re in their shoes. I don’t know them. I don’t know these guys as well as I knew our own guys. I’ve got very little time for Cameron in relation to this because of the way he exploited it in our campaign. But I did feel some sympathy for Laws.
Is there part of you that thinks you don’t want to push someone like that too far because you’ve always got David Kelly in the background? I’m not saying you pushed David Kelly to that, but I’ve always thought over this expenses thing that at some point someone could top themselves.
No, funnily enough,
I mean Laws I’m really worried about him.
I’ve been there. I’ve had to come out to my parents at his age, I know what it was like.
Well I can remember the Nick Brown thing. When Nick Brown was being done over by the News of the World. I remember that, I very quickly sensed that eventually he said that was the thing he was most worried about. I don’t really want to go there. Look, some MPs did terrible things but the general sense being given is that they are all at it but they are not. Most MPs have to subsidise their own existence. You know that, I know that, most journalists know that.
What do you admire about Adam Boulton?
I suppose the way he’s been there for a long time but I think that’s part of his problem to be honest with you.
Have you spoken to him since your incident?
But what happened when you went off air? Did it continue?
Oh yeah he just carried on ranting. “You’re a fucking liar, Mandelson’s a fucking liar, you’re all fucking liars”. Poor old Jeremy Thompson was trying to carrying on his broadcast.
And what provoked that? Just the fact that he was tired after the election?
I think it’s that, I really don’t know. Look, he really doesn’t like me, there is no going back. I think a lot of these journalists who see other journalists actually going over the other side of the fence have an issue with it. If you think about Adam Boulton’s life, he stands in Downing Street and talks about what’s happening inside but he’s not there. I think over the years he has really come to resent people like me. And he’s got this thing you know. I love the way he is describing me as unelected. Most people in politics are unelected, let’s be honest about it. Civil servants, defence chiefs, the people who run the quangos, journalists, people like Adam Boulton. The reason I was there is because Gordon Brown, in this very odd constitutional situation, had asked me to go back and help him, and then asked me to go and do some interviews because the Cabinet were meeting. So Boulton says he resented this unelected person telling him what the government was doing. Well that’s what he does 24 hours a day.
Did you actually think he was going to hit you at one point?
I thought he might headbutt me at one point. He came so close into my space. I remember thinking what happens if somebody headbutts you live on TV. Are you entitled, a la John Prescott, to go and hit back or do you have to stand there? I really was thinking about that. I thought he totally completely lost it. Now I don’t know if it’s true, I heard that Murdoch phoned him the next day and said well done. What Sky love is being talked about so they were being talked about. The really funny thing is when, if you are involved in something like that, you’re so conscious, I mean I was very conscious I’ve got a bit of temper, so I was saying to myself ‘keep calm’, so when I was saying ‘calm, calm’ I was probably talking to myself! I went back to Number 10 and I walked into what is my old office, you know the suite of offices at number 12 and they all stood up and clapped. I had no idea it had become this instant big thing.
But didn’t he do just what you did with Jon Snow after the Hutton Report was published?
No I don’t think so. To this day, I think I did the right thing there. Don’t get Fiona going on it! That was one of our biggest rows, of the many we have had. It reached that point where the media wasn’t listening on that story, and I just thought sod it, I’m going to have to do something about this. Now did I get a bit aggressive? People say they want candour and passion in politics and I was very candid. I’ve not seen that interview since – I’m not someone who goes and looks at how you did on the telly – but I read the transcript when I was appearing for the Chilcot enquiry, and I stand by every word. I stand by every word.
It wasn’t the words, it was the demeanour.
Yeah but sometimes you have to go just a little bit over the top for people to notice, and I’m not saying that was planned, but nobody could say I wasn’t saying what I thought.
And do you think it was right in retrospect to do the presidential thing after the Hutton Inquiry, the podium at the bottom of the stairs?
Well look, I felt I was entitled after all that we’d been through to say what I thought and, you know, I think that as to the venue, somebody else found that for me. It wouldn’t have mattered to me where it was. But I think I was entitled, after all the shit that was thrown at me over such a long period, you know with war protestors outside the house and all the rest of it. I was entitled to have my say.
How often does depression strike you, and how do you know what’s triggering it?
That is a hard one. I don’t record all my kind of depressive moments in my diary.
Reading the last book, correct me if I’m wrong, I just got the impression you could tell when something’s really building up, but you can’t actually stop it.
I can tell but you can’t stop it, no. Some people can. Now as it happens I had quite a bad episode just before Easter. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out, that was probably all the angst of going back. I’d promised Gordon, Gordon had been trying to get me to go back for a long time. I knew I could help him in some ways…
In your former position?
Or any other position. Lots of different positions but certainly that would have been one of them. And I just knew that that it wasn’t right, for me, and it therefore wasn’t going to be right. I had a pretty bad episode. Funnily enough, it’s just amazing how sometimes other people can see things for you. We were in Scotland on holiday at Easter and met up with Charles Kennedy and his wife Sarah, as usually do. I don’t think she’s even aware of this but Sarah basically persuaded me in my own arguments about how the Tories were stoppable. I’d been saying that Cameron had a problem with the public, that there people were beginning to resent the money and the posters and the negativity about Gordon and so forth. So I actually came back early from my holiday. I came back the next day. And the point I was making is that I neither saw that one coming, nor did I see it going. You always tend always to get a depressive episode after you’ve been through a big thing. I’ve had a bit of a wobble since.
Is depression also largely the reason why you haven’t gone into elected politics?
No I don’t think that’s the reason. I honestly think that I would have done had events worked out differently. I still might, but if this thing lasts five years I’d be 57 at the next election. I was 53 last week. Back in the old days that was fine.
Well I’ve already decided that I’m done with it now.
Because I’d be 52 at the next election. Who do you know that gets selected in the Tory party over the age of 50?
I’ve probably made that decision too but I just don’t know it now. Depression is interesting because it’s really hard to describe, because it’s like childbirth. I’ve seen Fiona having a baby three times now, and you just think, how do you ever want to go through that again? Answer: because you forget the pain, and it’s the same with depression. When I’m not depressed I find it very hard to explain what it’s like and one of the reasons I wrote the novel because I wanted to give some sense of it. I used to have to wait until I was depressed to get in the right mood to write. But if I waited too long and became genuinely depressed I couldn’t write. The thing that really helps is having a sense of purpose. What it must be like for people who are depressed and unemployed? I can’t even begin to think. Tony to be fair he didn’t know how bad it was until he read the diary. I used to tell him but he said he never realised I was actually that bad.
Is it something that unless someone suffers from it they can ever really understand? It’s very hard for me to understand because I’ve never ever had any kind of depression whatsoever.
Fiona finds it hard as she has to live with it so she sees what it’s like when it’s really bad. I find for example with the kids even though they can see when I’m depressed, I’m not quite as bad with them as I am just with Fiona because with Fiona I can feel that I can let myself go. Likewise if I’m out and about. I mean you know, I remember periods when things were really really intense at work, when I was actually in a state of clinical depression. You’ve just got to keep going. It’s very hard
How bad does it get in those circumstances? Have you ever come close to thinking ‘I’m going to top myself’?
No, but you understand why people do. Where I’ve got to now is, depression at its worst is feeling l dead and alive at the same time. You feel you’re alive, there’s a glass of water there, you know you’ve got to drink it, you’ve got to eat but you feel completely dead inside and where I’ve got to is an understanding that it passes. One of the first lessons of crisis management is understand it will end, and that’s the same with depression. It will end. It may end in medications, it may end in you going to hospital but it will end.
When you had that incident on the Andrew Marr show were you in the middle of it then?
Possibly. That was just a moment of absolute frustration. I’d been through the whole inquiry. I’d really prepared for that inquiry. I’m self-employed and I literally blanked out a month to prepare because I knew there were a lot of people gagging for me to screw up, desperate for it. So I prepared very very hard and I answered all the questions fully, honestly, fairly. I took it seriously. As I came out there were hundreds of journalists hanging around and I could sense their disappointment. There’s a guy [Andrew Marr] who has made a very good living out of being part of this media culture, and when he threw in that question about the figures – by the way the BBC have apologised on this about getting the figures wrong, they won’t do it on air but they have apologised. He got it wrong. He said they were UN figures about casualties – I think it was just a combination of things. The thing that was going through my mind was like you said earlier, that, it didn’t matter what I said to him, it didn’t matter what I said to him. And they like to say that, like Adam Boulton, they’ve got no agenda, they’re totally impartial. Bollocks.
And what about this role you have now as a sort of ambassador for people with depression. Are you comfortable in that role, is it something you like doing?
Yeah, I’ve got, I mean the only problem it gives me is that leukaemia, lymphoma research, they think I’m theirs…
They’ve done quite well from you haven’t they?
Cathy Gilmore is the chief executive, she’s brilliant. She stared off as a volunteer eight years ago and she’s now chief exec, and whenever I pop up on the radio or television talking about mental health she sends me this text and she says “tart”. No I do, because if one in four people in the public get mental health problem in their life, why should politics be any different?
There are a lot of politicians, past and present who have suffered from depression aren’t there?
The Norwegian Prime Minister told his cabinet he had to resign because of his depression and they insisted he stayed. He took a sabbatical, his ratings went stratospheric. I do feel comfortable with it because I’ve never felt ashamed of it. It is like some people get cancer, some people break their leg, some people get depression. And I think it’s important that we understand it in politics because I suspect it attracts more people of a mentally ill bent than other areas. We should be open about it. I won’t say who it was but there were a couple of candidates at the last election who came to me and said ‘look I’ve got problems’ and I said look I think it’s great that you’re open about it but I don’t want to be prescriptive. And neither of them were. I feel it’s never harmed me. I feel I get a pretty unfair press. I’m not moaning about it, it’s just a fact. On this issue I don’t. I feel actually the press have been pretty fair on this and I think that’s in part because within journalism you’ll find there are more people getting this then you’d realise, so I don’t mind that.
Is it true, as Lance Price told me, that it was actually Tony Blair who made the psychologically flawed quote?
You’ll have to wait for future volumes of the diaries.
Oh come on.
No I’m not saying.
You took the rap for it. Did you, in the final days of the Brown bunker, take the loaded pistol to Gordon Brown and say ‘it’s time to go’.
No. It was a fascinating few days. We were conscious about what was happening with the Liberals. I wasn’t aware of what was going on in the Tory party at all. There was certainly a point at which I wrote Gordon a note, saying in addition to pursing this track with the Lib Dems, we do need to start planning as it were, you know, an exit and it will be an important moment. These are really important moments. You’ve got to think about them and so I certainly wouldn’t say that was his lack of involvement, just saying you’ve really got to think about this, assuming this [the Lib-Lab coalition] wouldn’t work.
Why did Gordon Brown surround himself with thugs like Whelan, Balls and McBride?
Don’t know. There’s quite a lot about Charlie in this volume. I didn’t know McBride at all well. Ed Balls, he does have a lot of strengths. Charlie Whelan had some but I think Gordon would have done himself a service if he’d not had people like that too close to the operation
What was the truth of the meeting that was helped with the Lib Dems on the Monday afternoon?
I was getting text messages from Liberal Democrats who were not at the meeting saying this is all going very badly. So I sent a message back saying why, what do you mean? Oh Balls really rude, duh duh duh. So I sent a message to Peter [Mandelson] saying ‘don’t know what’s going on but I’m getting messages from Liberals saying this is going terribly and people are being really rude to them’. Peter sent me a message straight back saying ‘I don’t understand where that’s coming from, it’s going perfectly well’. You know what Peter’s like, he’s a very good judge of mood and that sort of thing. Afterwards when I talked to Peter and Andrew [Adonis] about it they said Ed Balls had been polite and Ed Miliband had behaved perfectly well. What that said to me was actually that the Liberals had already decided, that they’d already made their choice.
I think I wrote at the time that they were doing this to get cover with the left wing of their party.
Absolutely right, I’m sure that’s right. Vince [Cable] was the one that was talking most of all from a let’s try and keep it going viewpoint. Paddy [Ashdown], Ming Campbell, Charlie Kennedy, David Steel were all pushing towards us.
Which hurt more, Labour losing the election or Burnley being relegated?
Well I’d prepared myself mentally for Burnley over a long period, but it was a bad week, though, wasn’t it?
You’ve taken to the internet like a duck to water.
Oh, you think so?
Well, I do actually. But I do think part of it’s because of your personality. Because it is a bit sort of compulsive.
Well, there’s a few things to tell you, first of all that is all me.
Having taught you all you know…
That is me. I don’t know how to, I mean yesterday, my first hashtag. I’m hopeless at it, honestly. I get so many complaints off people who can’t read my blog off their iPhone.
That’s because it’s appallingly designed. That’s not your fault.
Well it is my fault, I OK’d the design. Anyway I’ve got to change it.
I remember having a surreal evening where I got an email from you saying ‘I’m going to start a blog how should I do it’ and then within minutes Piers Morgan had come up on Facebook chat thing and he said ‘oh I always read your blog when I’m in America, bla bla bla’. I thought can it get any more surreal than this?
Piers is very anti twitter. I like Twitter though, and I found on the blog, I found during the election what was interesting, was that I kind of used it as a bit of a strategic sounding board as well. Dave Muir who is one of Gordon’s strategists, even before when I went back, I would be sort of not flying kites for them. I don’t mean in an organised way but it’s almost like a focus group goes on. You work out the ones who are just sort of rabid Tory or rabid Labour, but actually you can work out when something’s kind of connecting.
3 Apr 2018 at 09:00
It really gets my goat when I hear people who ought to know better advising 18 year olds not to go on gap years. Instead, they should concentrate on getting work experience and extra training. Balls.
Going on a gap year was the best decision I have ever made – apart from hitching myself to Mr Simmons, of course.
I spent my gap year in Germany, mainly because the following September I would start my German degree course at UEA. It seemed a good idea to gain a greater degree of fluency in the language before I started. By the time I came back I was virtually fluent and had a far better grasp of the language, which meant that I was able to sail through the first year.
But there was something more important than that. I grew up during that year. I became an adult. I no longer had my parents and family to rely on. I was on my own. Independent. I well remember the day my parents took me to Harwich to get the ferry to the Hook of Holland. I remember going up the escalator and losing sight of my mother, who was in floods of tears. To be honest so was I. She told me a few years ago that she at that moment she thought she genuinely wouldn’t ever see me again.
I duly arrived in Bad Wildungen, a small spa town in Hessen, close to the Edersee of Dambusters fame, to which I had been twice before on school exchanges. It took me several weeks to find a job.
I had only gone out there with about £100 (it was 1980, after all!) and was about to run out. But the Werner Wicker Klinik came to the rescue and I got a job as a nursing assistant in the swimming pool area. I had no lifeguard qualifications and certainly knew nothing about nursing. But it was a job. And it paid. DM1650 a month – a huge amount to me.
The next thing to do was to get my own room. Up to that point I had been staying with my penfriend’s family. It was the first time I would live on my own. And I didn’t like it at all. Although I had made quite a few friends, it was always soul destroying to spend an evening in a solitary room watching an old black and white TV. And believe me, German TV was dreadful. Dubbed episodes of Dallas proved to be the highlight of the week. “Sue Ellen, bist du schon wieder besoffen?” “JR, ich hasse dich”. It wasn’t quite the same, somehow.
But I lived above a bar in the Brunnenallee, so life was never particularly quiet. And the work was incredibly rewarding. I ended up doing a lot of physiotherapy and hyrotherapy on the patients, again with no training. Most had suffered spinal injuries in motorcycle accidents, or had spinal conditions associted with skoliosis. I spent the first few days wandering around in a bit of a daze, just feeling sorry for everyone. I can’t remember who, but someone said the secret of being able to work in a hospital like that was to take the emotion out of it and never feel sorry for the patients. Once I had got my brain around that, it was fine.
It was in that year that I became a man. Now, that sounds an odd thing to say, but I would not have missed it for the world. And if 18 year olds are now being discouraged by some bureaucrat from UCAS from having the same life enhancing experience as I did, then things have reached a pretty pass.
So if you are a teenager reading this, follow your instincts. If you think a gap year is what you need, move heaven and earth to make it happen. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.
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.