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 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.
1 Apr 2018 at 09:00
Some time ago, back in 2006, I had intended to write a book about the month leading up to Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power. Part of the incentive to do so was that there seemed to be so many conflicting accounts of what actually happened. I knew I would be able to get access to all the leading players and was looking forward to the challenge. In order to provide a putative publisher with a sample chapter I set about researching what happened at the meeting of the cabinet on 22 November at which Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation. In the end I never wrote the book as a new job intervened, which meant I did not have the time to continue the project. It’s deliberately written as a dramatic, rather than a dry, historical account, but the dialogue and events are as accurate as I could make them.
At 6.30am two men arrived at the gates of Downing Street asking to be let in to see the Prime Minister. The policeman on the gate phoned through to Charles Powell, who was already at his desk. The two turned out to be Tory backbenchers Michael Brown and Edward Leigh. Powell gave them coffee and explained the PM was dressing and asked them to wait. They waited and waited – in vain. They were still there when the Cabinet convened at 9am. They were only put out of their misery when the PM’s Political Secretary John Whittingdale told them what they had already guessed. She was resigning. Tears streamed down Brown’s face as he left Number Ten through a back door, thus avoiding waiting TV cameras in Downing Street.
At 7am Cecil Parkinson was barely awake. The shrilling of the telephone put paid to that. It was one of his junior Ministers and a key member of the No Turning Back Group, Chris Chope. “She’s going,” he said. “You’ve got to do something”. Parkinson had last seen the PM at 6pm the previous evening, before her confidence had been shattered by the meetings with her Cabinet members. So confident was he that she was heading for victory, and that the Cabinet was supporting her, he went out to dinner with his wife and some friends. A few hours earlier, The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh had got wind of what was about to happen and had rung the Parkinson house to check if he knew anything. Parkinson had already gone to bed and his wife Ann, a close personal friend of the PM, said she didn’t want to waken him. Had she done so, there is little doubt that Parkinson would have hot-footed it to Downing Street.
After Chope’s phone call Parkinson immediately phoned Number Ten, only to be told that the PM was under the hair dryer and that he should phone back in thirty minutes. In desperation he then phoned his friend of twenty years standing Norman Tebbit. Tebbit had been with her until late the previous night working on her speech for the Censure debate. He told Parkinson the game was up and that her mind would not be changed. Parkinson decided it was pointless to phone Number Ten again.
By 7.30am Andrew Turnbull had been at his desk for an hour already. He sat there unable to concentrate. He spoke to the Prime Minister several times a day, but he knew their next conversation would probably be a fairly momentous one. The call came. It was the news he had expected, as the Prime Minister asked him to put in place the formal arrangements for her resignation announcement. The next call he made was to the Palace to arrange for the formalities of an audience with the Queen.
Woodrow Wyatt called to make a last ditch attempt to make the PM change her mind but for once, she wouldn’t take his call. In fact, she didn’t take calls from anyone until after the Vote of Censure debate was over, later in the afternoon.
Peter Morrison phoned Douglas Hurd and John Major to advise them of the Prime Minister’s decision. John Wakeham and Kenneth Baker were also tipped off by Morrison.
Shortly after 8am Denis Thatcher phoned his daughter. “There have been all sorts of consultations and your mother…”. Carol interrupted him. “I know, Dad”. Nothing further was said.
At 8.30 every Thursday morning it was usual for the Prime Minister to hold a short briefing in preparation for Prime Minister’s Question Time. As usual, Bernard Ingham , Charles Powell and John Whittingdale were with her. It was a subdued meeting and no one was really concentrating.
The regular Thursday Cabinet meetings were a matter of routine for most of those who attended them. This one was different. Cabinet meetings normally start at 10.30am but this one had been brought forward so as not to clash with a memorial service for Lady Home, which was to be held later in the morning at St Margaret’s Church, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Normally, the Cabinet would gather for coffee fifteen minutes before the meeting and gossip about the latest political machinations, before the Prime Minister would rush into the room, apparently always in a hurry. That was the signal for the rest of them to take their seats around the famous oval table.
But on this morning the atmosphere was strained to say the least. The few remaining Thatcher loyalists eyed up the rest of their Cabinet colleagues and could barely bring themselves to speak. In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher recalls: “They stood with their backs against the wall looking in every direction except mine.” According to Cecil Parkinson Kenneth Clarke was the only one who was showing the remotest sign of life, telling “anybody who cared to listen that if the PM did not resign before noon that day, he would do so himself”.
Thatcher’s arrival was normally the signal for everyone to file into the room and take their places, but it seemed there was a delay. John MacGregor had been held up in traffic. The awkward silence continued for an unbearable ten minutes. At 9.10 the Cabinet filed in. The PM was in her usual chair, half way along the table in front of the fireplace. They took their places in silence – even the sound of the chairs being pulled back seemed to grate. For the first time in living memory, the woman who had dominated her Cabinet for 11 years seemed powerless. The aura had gone. Still, there was silence. Cecil Parkinson noticed her reddened, swollen eyes. A carton of tissues sat next to her on the table. While the Cabinet were taking their seats she picked a tissue from the box and dabbed her eyes. The dreadful silence continued. Slowly, Margaret Thatcher opened her handbag and pulled out a creased piece of paper. The Cabinet knew what was coming, but the performance had to be played out nonetheless. She read in a slow, halting, and emotional manner:-
“Having consulted widely among my colleagues, I have concluded that the unity of the Party and the prospects of victory in a general election would be better served if I stood down to enable cabinet colleagues to enter the ballot for the leadership. I should like to thank all those in the Cabinet and outside who have given me such dedicated support.”
She faltered several times and broke down sobbing. She wasn’t the only one. David Waddington, Tony Newton, John Gummer, Michael Howard and John Wakeham were all in tears. Cecil Parkinson later wondered why Mr Wakeham should be so upset, when it was he, in Parkinson’s opinion, who had largely brought about the events they were witnessing.
Half way through the statement she was so upset that Cecil Parkinson, already on a light fuse, shouted to the Lord Chancellor, who was sitting to her left: “For Christ’s sake you read it, James”. Lord Mackay briefly put his arm round her shoulder and said gently, “Let me read it, Prime Minister”. This brief interjection broke the unbearable tension and allowed the Prime Minister a few moments to gather herself. She stiffened both in resolve and body language and said, “No! I can read it myself”.
Norman Lamont recalls her “referring to the events of the last few days and to the advice she had had ‘from so many of you’ that she could not win and should not fight on. The way she put it implied that she did not agree and thought us spineless”. It was after these words that the worst breakdown occurred.
James MacKay, the Lord Chancellor, then read out a short tribute to the Prime Minister. She listened, eyes glistening and red and broke down again. She regained composure and told the Cabinet they must unite behind a candidate to beat Michael Heseltine. “We must protect what we believe in,” she flashed.
Kenneth Baker then spoke in his capacity as Chairman of the Party. “You have and will always continue to have the love and loyalty of the party. You have a very special place in the heart of the party. You have led us to victory three times and you would have done so again. Those who have served you recognise that they have been in touch with greatness”. He, also, was close to tears.
Douglas Hurd referred to this “whole wretched business” and said he wanted to put on record the superb way in which the Prime Minister had conducted business at the Paris conference, particularly with regard to the pressures of the leadership election on her.
The Prime Minister then called a halt, saying she could deal with routine matters but not sympathy. She was still in a highly emotional state and felt she might lose her composure entirely if such tributes went on for much longer.
She ended proceedings by telling the Cabinet that any new leader would have her total and devoted support. It was assumed this did not include Michael Heseltine. “Well, now that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the rest of the business,” she said.
The meeting then broke for ten minutes and coffee was served while courtesy calls were made to the other party leaders and the Speaker. The atmosphere was considerably lighter than at the preceding the meeting. A formal statement was issued by the Downing Street Press Office at 9.25.
The Cabinet then resumed and quickly skimmed through the rest of the normal agenda by 10.15. The final decision taken was to send an armoured brigade to the Gulf. Douglas Hurd’s mind was elsewhere though. He knew that events would move fast. Kenneth Baker passed a note to Hurd asking if he had come to an agreement with John Major about the candidacy. Hurd sent a note back saying they were issuing a joint statement declaring that they had worked closely together in the past but the best way of uniting the party was to let both their names go forward in the next ballot. He then passed the draft statement to Baker who regarded it as a “perfectly masterful composition”. Hurd then tried to catch Tom King’s eye to as if he would act as his proposer on the second ballot. King didn’t get the hint.
By the close of the meeting the Prime Minister was close to tears again, according to Kenneth Baker. She invited Ministers to stay behind for yet more coffee. By now she was fully composed and was keen to know her colleagues’ views on what might happen in the second ballot.
No one was keen to be the first to leave, although Douglas Hurd didn’t hang around long. Cecil Parkinson’s most vivid memory from the conversation after over coffee was when somebody – allegedly Kenneth Clarke – said “we are going to pin regicide on Heseltine”. For a moment the PM looked puzzled and issued a devastating reply: “Oh no, it wasn’t Heseltine, it was the Cabinet.” Parkinson says this was said without the slightest hint of rancour. “It was, to her, a simple statement of fact”, he says. Douglas Hurd, however, had other things on his mind and left immediately. Norman Lamont caught Michael Howard’s eye. They were both anxious to go. While Heseltine was out there campaigning, important time was being lost. After what seemed an age, Margaret Thatcher sensed what others were thinking and told everyone to leave and “stop Heseltine”.
As the Cabinet trooped out of Downing Street, Kenneth Baker, ever with an eye for the TV cameras, made a short statement outside the door of Number Ten, saying: “This is a typically brave and selfless decision by the Prime Minister. Once again Margaret Thatcher has put her country and the Party’s interests before personal considerations. This will allow the Party to elect a new leader to unite the Party and build upon her immense successes. If I could just add a personal note, I am very saddened that our greatest peace-time Prime Minister has left Government. She is an outstanding leader, not only of our country but also of the world. I do not believe we will see her like again”
John Wakeham followed suit. Asked about her mood, he said “Well, her mood is, like always, she does her duty, she’s – of course she’s sad.” It was rather an understatement.
While Denis attended the memorial service for Lady Home, the Prime Minister – for she still held that office – was driven to Buckingham Palace informing the Queen in person of her decision to resign. It was not a long audience. The Prime Minister was well aware she had the speech of her life to make in the House of Commons in just a few hours time. It was to be an occasion she, and the country, would have cause to remember for many years to come.
My new book, MARGARET THATCHER: IN HER OWN WORDS is a collection of her speeches, interviews and quotes. It’s a rather chunky 436 page paperback is should be in bookshops this week. An ideal Christmas present to your Labour supporting wife or husband :).
James Purnell is the former cabinet minister and now the Director of Strategy and Digital at the BBC. He is very uncomfortable talking about his £295,000 salary (more than twice what Maria Miller gets as Culture Secretary) and is unable to tell us how much the BBC’s move to Salford cost. Well, at that salary you wouldn’t expect him to be a details man, would you?
31 Mar 2018 at 15:41
Back in November 2010 I interviewed Peter Mandelson. He was in soul bearing mood. I thought you might enjoy it all over again. It took place not long after hi autogiograhy had been published, and only a couple of months after Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader. Reading the interview back, it hasn’t really dated very much.
ID: What was your experience of writing your book The Third Man?
PM: The book has been in the process of being written and produced over many years. I wasn’t writing it during the election campaign at all. It had two false starts when I embarked on it but something happened to divert me, either going to Brussels or back to government here. The construction of it took place over many years and I worked on it on long intercontinental flights. I had somebody go through 36 box files of papers. I worked out what I wanted to say and then the real intensive writing and production of it came after the election. I went off and hid with two of my closest advisers and two people from HarperCollins who were absolutely indispensible. It’s not something I could go through again in a hurry.
Why the rush with publishing the book? To beat Tony Blair?
I wanted to move on in my life. I did not want to have such a book come out at the end of this year or beginning of next, when the Labour Party wants to move on. But these things have to capture a moment and I felt the moment was then, as did the publishers. There were a whole series of difficult judgement calls about what to include. I decided that I couldn’t tell the real story unless I told, broadly speaking, the whole story. I couldn’t leave certain events or exchanges or episodes out because I wouldn’t be able to explain what happened later. So, having approached it in the first place in a rather sort of cautious, judicious, discreet way, I found that I had to put in more than originally intended because that was the only way to tell the story and to have it make sense for people – but not in a nasty way. I think that people reading it will feel it’s balanced, it’s rounded. It is honest about people, but it’s not nasty about people and the only thing that I regretted about some of the newspaper coverage of it, was that the book was presented as me settling scores or getting my own back on people, and that was simply not how I felt, not how I wrote it. But I guess that’s the only way in which newspapers know how to write stories about such books.
I said in a review: “He’s painfully honest about his relationship with Gordon Brown and completely up front about his political and personal weaknesses – almost completely. Yet in the chapters on his return to government you sense that he would like to say more, but he doesn’t want to hurt his old political friend (and foe) anymore than he has to.”
That is absolutely right. There was an editor who will remain nameless who said: “You’ve got to be more explicit here. You’ve got to lay it out more fully. You’ve got to be tougher here.” And I replied: “I will be tough in my own way.” People will know what I’m saying without me laying into an individual. Even now, with the documentary [Mandelson: The Real PM?] some of the newspaper reporting is of me being nasty or catty or bitchy about Gordon. If you look at how I talk about Gordon it’s with affection. When I talk about him being a combination of a snowplough and a combine harvester, that’s a compliment. I mean Gordon had, as I described in the book, a certain force majeure. A determination not to allow anything or anyone to stand in his way when he was doing what he thought was right. Now that’s a vital ingredient that I believe a prime minister needs. In some respects, I wish Tony’d had more of the force majeure. Similarly, I wished Gordon had had a little bit more of Tony’s sort of feline charm. If you had Gordon’s intellect, his grasp of the big picture, that sort of forcefulness that a prime minster needs, a determination not to let anything get in his way, plus Tony’s charm and tact, communication skills, ability to pull together a team and his leadership, you would have the perfect prime minister.
There was a growing frustration, particularly in the run-up to 1997, that you were always operating in the shadows.
It was convenient for Tony but damaging for me. But you can only understand me, and what happened to me, by realising how difficult a role it was. Tony was very conflicted on this. On the one hand, he regarded me as a good minister – somebody who could take on a portfolio and deliver. On the other hand, he was affected by people whispering in his ear, and saying, ‘Peter’s too controversial’, or ‘Peter attracts too much media attention’, or ‘Peter’s too manipulative’, or ‘Peter’s a problem between you and Gordon’. He had a lot of that going on in his own circle. None of it designed to help me. I had to cope with that, while at the same time facing Gordon’s hostility from outside the Blair circle.
Every political leader, particularly the prime minister, has to have someone in your role who they can trust 100 per cent. Tony Blair could have said ‘every prime minister needs a Peter’.
Yes, but I was completely un-self-interested and that’s what some people didn’t realise at the time. I was working for the success of Tony Blair because I believed we’d only be elected as New Labour and that we had to govern as New Labour as well. It was the party’s success that mattered to me more than my personal ambition. If I had put myself first I would have done things quite differently. Quite differently.
What would you have done differently?
Not been so much at the cutting edge of change in the Labour Party. I would have been less outspoken, less forceful. I would have spent much more time in the Parliamentary Labour Party, in the tearoom, in the smoking room, making friends, agreeing with everyone, rather than contesting a lot of their views. You know, the problem is, as I explain candidly in the book, that I not only have very strong views about what the Labour Party had to become and change into to be elected, I was forceful in expressing those views. I didn’t really take hostages when people were trying to oppose or derail us. Now, that is not the recipe for a successful political career. Politics requires you to be a bit more amenable, a bit more accommodating, nice to everyone’s face, whatever you say behind their back, just altogether more oleaginous. And I didn’t do oleaginous.
When you came back in 2008 we saw a different Peter Mandelson from the one we’d seen before.
My colleagues did, very importantly. I came back as a sort of elder statesman – somebody who had gained considerable experience and status as a European commissioner. I returned as a fireman, as a safe pair of hands to help the government and the party in what was a crisis. I want to continue as a trusted and respected grandee or great uncle. What’s happened since the election is that we’ve all made up now. I felt hurt, I felt denigrated by some of Ed Miliband’s remarks. Talking about me in terms of ‘dignity in retirement’, I felt as if I was being unfairly treated and packed off rather prematurely to an old folk’s home. I also thought to define himself against New Labour, as opposed to being a development of New Labour, was electorally unwise. But again, we’ve all moved on. What I’ve got to do now is remain a candid friend but also constructive and always loyal. I was always loyal. I started at the beginning of my career, my full-time career in politics, as very loyal to Neil Kinnock, even though I didn’t agree with everything he was saying and doing. Nonetheless I thought he was tremendously courageous and bold in the leadership he gave to the party. I ended up equally as loyal to Gordon Brown who I didn’t agree with entirely either and I will be loyal to Ed Miliband because that’s how I am. I don’t want to become a sort of irritant or a backseat driver. I want to continue as I began when I returned in 2008.
Ed Miliband, during his leadership campaign, was playing to the people who were voting for him.
He has a very strong character and personality, as his brother discovered. He has strong personal qualities and something that people don’t realise is that when I came back in 2008, the colleague with whom I spent most time in the cabinet was Ed Miliband – partly because he was a neighbour in North London and partly because he went out of his way to befriend me. He really wanted to bury the hatchet and to put to rest all that he did for Gordon against Tony and among the Brownites against the Blairites.
People tend to forget him in that. Everyone thinks it was all Ed Balls.
He played his part, but he also wanted to put it behind him, and by befriending me and by spending so much time with me, he succeeded in that. I didn’t realise he had such strong leadership ambition. For me, the sort of default candidate and next leader was David. To be honest, I didn’t really think that seriously about Ed as a would-be leader. And as I said I spent much more time with Ed, and Ed was going out of his way to be more friendly towards me. But that again shows some of Ed’s cleverness.
Or deviousness. But it’s interesting that you didn’t identify him as a leader. Do you think he actually has what it takes to be a leader?
The fact that he came forward and challenged his brother, and conducted such a strong campaign, shows that he does have what is needed in politics to be the number one person. The one piece of advice I gave at the beginning of the leadership contest, was that he shouldn’t say anything to win the vote of the party that might make it subsequently more difficult to win the votes of the country.
But he ignored that advice didn’t he?
He ignored that advice but he’s made up for it since.
You’re one of the few people in politics who is listened to. Everything you say, people are interested in. You have an ability to get media coverage when you don’t need to.
That’s why I have to use my interventions sparingly and judiciously. I want to offer counsel to the new generation of Labour leaders and activists. I want to pass on my experience and my wisdom – not to interfere, not to try to rock the boat or drive the car from the backseat. Having come back as a safe pair of hands, I want to continue as such. It won’t stop me being candid in how I engage in Labour Party debates. But when you’re in a position like mine you have to weigh your words. I want to be trusted and respected for what I am and what I say, not regarded as somebody who just can’t bear to move on.
Trusted and respected by whom? Labour colleagues or the political classes generally?
By the new generation of Labour leaders and activists. I’m not going to say things I don’t agree with. When I was being interviewed recently, somebody asked me if I agreed with David Cameron’s big society idea. I said look back to the Progress lecture that I delivered in September 2009 and you will see the argument I made then that we have to maintain the quality and performance of our public services within new spending constraints. Their productivity, efficiency, accountability and tailoring them to the needs of individuals had to be achieved not by simply spending more money but by reforming them. The last thing I said was that you will find many of the ways in which we seek to change public services coming from within the communities, from the people who depend on these public services. That requires, I said in September 2009, a new path between those who deliver public services and those who use them, and depend on them. I said that long before David Cameron came up with his big society concept. It was reported in one newspaper as “Peter Mandelson praises David Cameron” but that’s politics. That’s creating a story. I can live with that. It is better than being ignored altogether.
Have you decided what you’re going to do now?
I’m not quite sure, but among other things I have to earn a living. I don’t have an income anymore.
I’ve always imagined that you might well become chairman of some big company, but would that excite you as much as politics does?
In the documentary you can see the sort of pressure I was operating under in the last two years as a minister in my department or the industrial policies and the interventions that I was trying to make – the time I spent in No 10. I was trying to support Gordon and help to manage different aspects of our communications and then our election campaign itself. I hear myself saying in that documentary: “How will I ever live without that pressure?”
Is it a constant adrenaline rush?
I’m not sure that rush is the word. It’s more like an ever-flowing river. And I will find [not having that] difficult.
Have you found it difficult in the last six months?
I know I should say to you that I’ve adjusted, I’ve moved on, I’m happy, I’m looking to the future with confidence. But the truth is that I feel a sense of bereavement for our government. Personally, I feel like a rather displaced individual and I’m not coping perfectly. But my word, I would have been in a much, much worse position if I hadn’t written a book and had that to talk about and do events about. It is a bit of therapy, but I also thought it was an interesting story and a historical account that needed to be given. I not only had a ringside seat but I was in the ring for a lot of the time. If you’re going to write the sort of book I’ve published without being vain about it, politics and how we’ve seen how we can understand the past and see the future, would have been the poorer.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read a book by Richard Nixon called In The Arena? It explains how you have to be in the arena to achieve anything. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and commentate. But can you get that back?
You have to be a Member of Parliament, in the House of Commons rather than the Lords. That is the essential platform and qualification for anyone who wants to be influential in British politics.
Gordon Brown did bring some people in from outside Parliament, but it didn’t really work, did it?
It certainly did work.
It did in Ali Darzi’s case but the others didn’t last very long.
Absolutely wrong, I totally disagree with that. It worked in Darzi’s case, Alan West’s case, Mark Malloch Brown … Mark had bigger potential and could have been used more.
They all buggered off after a year.
In my department both Shriti Vadera and Mervyn Davies made really important policy contributions.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in meetings with you and Shriti…
We got on well.
Really? She has a certain reputation.
She certainly does. It is well deserved. I respected her and she respected me.
Have you ruled out a fourth comeback?
I tend not to rule out anything in politics, given my roller-coaster career. Would you predict anything? I don’t think so. But I’m not going to sit by the telephone. I’m not going to hang around in expectation or with some sort of entitlement. I will find other things to do in my life – things that I enjoy, find stimulating or important, but also enable me to earn a living. If you were to ask me though, whether fundamentally I’d rather be in public service or the private sector … I’m a public service man. I was brought up in that way and that set of values and motives will never leave me.
If there was a vacancy, would you be interested in the job of EU High Representative?
I wanted to do the job. I couldn’t because I was a member of the government who had been called back. To be called back and then to leave a year early would have been impossible. I’m honest about what I say about it in my book. In the circumstances, with David Miliband not taking it, we would have been better to have an economic portfolio on the Commission. But I don’t expect it to become vacant so it’s a hypothetical question which is left hanging in the air.
Let’s talk about the election. There was a time when a lot of people in the Conservatives feared that you might have pulled it off.
We didn’t nearly pull it off. We got the worst result in electoral share.
There was a time at the beginning of the year when it looked as if it could be possible. The Tories were really in the doldrums. The polls were tightening, and a lot of us thought it could happen.
First of all, the Tories were never in “the doldrums”. Secondly, they were making the mistakes that arrogant people often make in politics. They just thought they had to sit tight and allow their opponents to lose the election. When the spotlight fell on them, people found them wanting. There wasn’t enough there. There wasn’t enough substance. There wasn’t enough policy, too few ideas. Also people felt that, for all his brave words, David Cameron had not actually changed, let alone transformed the Conservative Party, and they didn’t want the old Conservative Party back. We could have taken advantage if we’d had a more credible and acceptable position on the deficit. Gordon got the economics broadly right in the financial crisis but he got some of the politics wrong. He seemed to be the guy who was good for the war but not so good for the peace. I said to him on one occasion: “You’re likely to become the Churchill of this.” The guy whose strengths the public recognised in fighting the crisis but they didn’t think was the right person for the next leap forward.
I bet that went down well…
You don’t understand the relationship I had with Gordon. I can say these things to Gordon. You don’t have to sound nasty or spiteful when you say these things. You can have a perfectly good conversation with somebody you’ve known for 25 or 30 years.
But when you read your book, and indeed Alastair Campbell’s diaries, between 1994 and your second resignation, you clearly thought the man wasn’t fit for the job and you advised Tony Blair to get rid of him at one point.
I didn’t advise him to get rid of him. I advised him to reshuffle him. Alastair’s record is a diary. What you are reading is night after night the world according to Alastair’s mind and head as it was then. Mine is a more reflective and analytical book. Drawing yes, on my experiences and what happened, but I hope giving a balanced account. That’s why I include Gordon’s own words on how he saw the situation, why he found it so frustrating, why it was driving him so mad. Just as it was totally aggravating for Tony as well. You see it from both sides.
Tony Blair was being very weak. No, not being very weak. Managing a situation which he was unable completely to cure.
He could have cured it by being stronger. Every time he seemed to give in to Gordon Brown.
It’s very easy for an outsider – and we are all outsiders if we’re not the PM – to say of a prime minister that he should have done this or that. Tony had to trade off or balance the frustrations of having a difficult chancellor, but also a good and effective one in many respects. And consider the risk of destabilisation of his government and the party if he had shuffled Gordon out of the Treasury. Now, that is a judgement call that only a PM can make. True, there were options. But his judgement had to be about what was in the broader interests of the government. How was he going to sustain it? If you contrast Blair with Thatcher, Thatcher’s cabinet fell apart at the end of the 1980s. She drove very senior members to resignation. They walked out and finally got rid of her. That didn’t happen in Blair’s case. If he had shuffled Gordon he might have created the same circumstances which saw Thatcher’s cabinet breaking up at the end of the 1980s.
What about the broader interests of the country? I can’t understand how you, Alastair, Tony Blair – you experienced these deeply unbalanced rages from time to time from Brown – how could you have allowed…
Politics is about passion.
But this went beyond that. There was something fundamentally wrong about the way Brown would react to situations. And yet he was unopposed as party leader.
In a lot of cases Gordon was right. Gordon came into government in 1997 with a clearer gameplan and set of policies about what he was going to achieve than Tony did for the government as a whole.
He had a brilliant side to him, and no doubt still does. But I would argue that he wasn’t fit to be PM and yet he was elected unopposed. Every single Labour MP knew what he was like and yet none of them had the guts to do anything about it.
Who’s the person who called for a contest rather than a coronation? Me! I was the only person who did. I went on the Andrew Marr Show when I was being interviewed from Brussels and said that the interests of the party, the government and the country would be served by a contest, not a coronation. And I was right. Because Gordon suffered more than anyone from the shoe-in.
What was your biggest frustration in the election campaign?
We certainly had zero resources. It was shocking. We couldn’t even use our ad agency. We had no bought media. That wasn’t the case in 1987, let alone 1997. My second frustration was that we had failed to hammer out an electoral strategy and only the leader can make sure that happens. As I describe in my book, that process hadn’t happened. What I wanted was to get the best possible result in the circumstances, but above all to see the Labour Party united and with its dignity intact whatever the outcome. Keeping that campaign together and on track, making sure that we didn’t either fall out or fall apart was quite an achievement, given the pressures. I was the guy in overall charge. I wasn’t organising the campaign itself, others were meant to be doing that. If I made any contribution it was to ensure that we emerged with dignity and, much to people’s surprise, we even emerged having robbed Cameron of an overall majority.
That was a surprise to you? You thought that he was going to win.
Of course it was a surprise, because it’s not happened in British politics. It hadn’t happened since 1974 and even that was a real flash in the pan.
You did not plan at all for a hung Parliament?
The polls did not indicate that would be the outcome. We could and should have started paving the way for that eventuality not weeks before, but years before. We needed a good relationship with the Liberal Democrats of the sort that Cameron and Clegg were able to create. We hadn’t put in that spadework.
In his book on the coalition, David Laws contrasts what your negotiating team were able to do with the Tories.
Do you know the difference? The Tories had a head-start. They had very good personal chemistry between their two leaders.
But they hadn’t beforehand. They barely knew each other.
No, no, no, no. Please. They did. I know a little bit more about this. Thirdly, and most importantly, that was the outcome they wanted.
I shall send you a copy of the book, because I think you’ll find it very interesting. Obviously he’s writing it from a Liberal Democrat perspective.
I’m sorry, Iain. With the number of seats that we won, we were not in a good second place. We lost that election and to put together such a coalition and stay in power on the back of it would have been very hard, if not impossible, for us to achieve. I stand by my view. It’s not a criticism, it’s an observation. Chemistry between Cameron and Clegg was good.
You heard the conversation initially between Brown and Clegg, didn’t you? You were there.
I heard all the conversations and indeed, was in the key meeting…
… and it was a one-way conversation.
It’s not a one-way conversation. Iain, please don’t introduce your views and prejudices … It was a perfectly good conversation between Gordon and Nick. But it wasn’t one in my view that was going to deliver a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. The personalities were wrong. The politics didn’t stack up. But don’t blame me or the Labour Party. It would have helped and made a difference if we’d won 20 or 25 more seats. But we didn’t.
What book are you reading at the moment? Niall Ferguson’s biography of Siegmund Warburg.
What’s your favourite view? The view from Anacapri towards Naples.
Best friend in politics? Roger Liddle.
What food do you most enjoy? Apart from mushy peas obviously? Unfattening Italian.
What do you do to relax? Read, run and cycle, and look at DVDs, but very infrequently.
What makes you cry? Emotion.
Invite four people to a dinner party, living or dead. In politics they would be people like Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Macmillan, Jack or Bobby Kennedy. What women would I invite? Difficult. Oh, Barbara Castle.
Which period in history would you most liked to have lived through? The Second World War and the Labour government that followed.
If the producers of Strictly Come Dancing come knocking at your door, what might you say? They had their opportunity and now they can get lost.
30 Mar 2018 at 17:15
There are some books you finish reading and think to yourself: “Why in God’s name was this book written?” In the case of Hillary Clinton, I suppose it was cheaper than paying for hours of therapy.
Half way through this book I wanted to give up. Indeed, I had that thought after the first chapter, to be honest. Up to 75% of the way through I intended to start this review with the words: “This is one of the worst political books I have ever read.” The reason? Because every page was a vain search for the answer to the question: why did I lose? And that’s what makes this a bad book, because she never really comes up with the answer. It’s a very human thing to examine the reasons why you lost. I’ve been through it myself. The difference is, I came up with the answers and she didn’t. Much of the book is devoted to a plethora of reasons for her defeat, which Hillary herself had nothing to do with. A presidential election gives the voter a binary choice. And when the choice is Trump or Clinton and Clinton loses, it’s natural to do a bit of self examination. The closes she gets is on page 399 when shw writes:
“I have come to terms with the fact that a lot of people – millions and millions of people – decided they just didn’t like me. Imagine what it feels like. It hurts. And it’s a hard thing to accept. But there’s no getting around it.”
She scratches the surface of trying to understand why so many voters took against her. But she curiously takes comfort from the fact that although she lost the election, she won the popular vote. She shouldn’t. She won votes in the wrong places. Her campaign was a disaster in planning, execution and targetting. And she didn’t have the political dexterity or political acumen to turn political threats into opportunities.
There are 18 chapters in this book. Only three of them are worth reading. The chapter on the email scandal is worth it – her ire against James Comey is real – but the best chapter in the book is titled “Trolls, Bots, Fake News and Real Russians”. In these pages Clinton looks at Russian involvement in the election of the Russian state and Vladimir Putin in particular, she analyses his motives and methods and very concerning it is too. She’s obviously researched the issue incredibly well and anyone reading this chapter will find it utterly compelling and convincing. Given recent events it is clear that a pattern is emerging. Her analysis of Trump’s motivations for being so positive about Putin may be written off as the rantings of a political opponent, but that would be to misjudge what Clinton writes.
I do wonder how much of this book Hillary Clinton wrote herself. The folksy style is just not her – or at least not the ‘her’ we all know. Given that in normal circumstances I’d be a Republican supporter, you may think I write this with right of centre motivations in mind. Not at all. Given that the Republican Party is now more of a religious sect than a mianstream political party, I’m someone who would have voted Democrat for the last three presidential elections. I would have voted for Hillary. Unfortunately this book demonstrates all the reasons so many other people didn’t.
I did not enjoy this book, but I suppose I am glad I read it. It confirmed a lot of what I had thought about Clinton and it confirmed my view that she still doesn’t really understand why she lost, and her part in it. But most important of all it issues a stark warning for the future about dealing with the cyber threat from Russia. And that’s why this book does us all a service. So skip the other chapters. Just read that one.