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Politicians

Ed Vaizey: the dedicated Minister of Fashion

Ginny Dougary
ES MAGAZINE
March 2013

Ed Vaizey
The British fashion industry makes £20 billion a year for the UK economy, so it’s small wonder that the government wants to get inside your wardrobe. Ginny Dougary meets Ed Vaizey, our MP for high heels and handbags.

Ed Vaizey, as Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, has an alarmingly capacious portfolio, covering film, television, video games, advertising, architecture (pause for breath), broadband, telecoms (the 4G auction last month was his responsibility), all the arts, museums and not forgetting, as we speak while London Fashion Week draws to a close, fashion.

When I ask him if it’s too much, he says: ‘Well, I have twice as many meetings as other ministers, but I enjoy the work and I’m passionate about it.’ Although broadband takes up most of his time, he would like to stress, in his affable way: ‘But I’m absolutely there for fashion!’

We meet at his office on the top floor of a building off Trafalgar Square, soon to move to a smaller space — his department is being downsized as part of the PM’s austerity measures — in the Treasury. The walls of his room are covered in art from the government collection, but Vaizey is rather vague about the artists. He thinks a series of paintings along one wall might be by Richard Long and there’s one of Mark Wallinger’s Mark Wallinger is Innocent works. He once had a Tracey Emin — she cited Vaizey as one of the reasons she abandoned Labour for the Tories — but that’s moved on. By the window is an Oscar statuette, which he proudly informs me was Cecil Beaton’s (in recognition of his costume designs for My Fair Lady in 1964) and next to it are handwritten letters to the minister from Colin Firth and Kevin Spacey. On a round table is a slightly beaten-up brown leather shoulder bag. Aha, could it be that the Minister for Fashion has a ‘man bag’? ‘Yes,’ he says, with no hint of irritation. ‘It’s by Mulberry.’

Vaizey has a slightly Boris-y, rumpled quality and a not dissimilar amusing and often amused manner (our conversation is punctuated with long rolls of laughter, not always at predictable moments), which makes one want to tease him. He patiently lists what he is wearing — he is by now all too accustomed to this conversational foreplay — grey suit (TM Lewin), blue shirt and navy polka-dot tie (both from Charles Tyrwhitt). We move to the boardroom next door and he stretches out a sheet of paper, with a list of points he wishes to use this interview to express. He has old-fashioned loopy writing and says, without false modesty, that his handwriting is terrible.

To start with, he is a bit tense. At the end of the interview, he confesses to having been ‘completely terrified’. In the past, he has (again, like Boris) made the odd off-message comment from Planet Human that has got him into hot water. Like the time he suggested that Samantha Cameron had voted Labour.

His father, Lord Vaizey, an author, educator and political economist, died in 1984 at the age of 55 — Ed was 16 — from a heart condition that had afflicted him most of his life. After 33 years of Labour party membership (he was once described as the party’s ‘éminence grise’ at the rather ungrey age of 34), Lord Vaizey, impressed by Margaret Thatcher and disillusioned by his party, crossed the benches, a decision he later described in a letter to The Times as ‘painful’, leaving his old friends feeling betrayed. Ed’s mother Marina, 74, CBE, is a long-transplanted New Yorker, educated at Harvard and Girton College, Cambridge, an art critic of The Sunday Times, author, curator, judge of the Turner Prize and a fantastic champion for the arts.

I wonder how much of her American can-do-ism has been inherited by her son. ‘The personality trait I’ve inherited most from my mum is that she is quite gregarious — she loves meeting people, she gets on with people and people enjoy her company. She’s very optimistic. She always likes to say good things. One of the things I like about my job is that my mum goes to a lot of events and is so encouraging and I then get all that positive feedback.’

Ed and his older siblings Polly and Tom were taken to exhibitions at an early age. Their house in Chiswick, growing up, was always full of artists and politicians; Shirley Williams, another Labour defector, is a family friend. So it’s hardly surprising that Vaizey has been to see all the big shows — Roy Lichtenstein, the avant-gardists at the Barbican (he was at the Barbican’s annual dinner the previous evening), the Picasso at the Courtauld, and he caught the Manet exhibition in Paris before it came to London.

His most striking ‘fashion moment’ could as easily be described as an art moment. ‘I’ve been privileged to meet great designers and one of my most enjoyable moments was visiting Paul Smith’s office — which is absolutely amazing. It’s full of bric-a-brac, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. I said to him that he should leave it to a museum. Apparently there’s somebody in America who posts him things — like, literally, a traffic cone posted from somewhere in America, not even wrapped up but covered in stamps to his address.’

He always goes to the opening of London Fashion Week (Zoë Jordan’s show opened proceedings this season) and to the reception held by Samantha Cameron at Downing Street ‘which is very similar in many ways to a Westminster event, although it’s a different crowd’. This year it included Victoria Beckham and Donatella Versace. He also tries to take in at least one show; this time round he only managed Anya Hindmarch’s, but he’s pleased that Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May and Harriet Harman have all been along to Fashion Week: ‘It’s good that politicians take fashion seriously because fashion is a serious business.’

When I ask him who impresses him most in the fashion world, he goes into a very long speech about the British Fashion Council (one of his four points) and I have to say, ‘That’s enough, Ed.’ A short version is that he thinks it does a fantastic job supporting young designers and getting the message across that to back fashion is to back Britain and that Caroline Rush and Simon Ward, ‘the great leaders of the BFC,’ are jolly good eggs who taught him everything he needs to know about the business.

He was shown around the ‘ateliers’ (he does the inverted commas) of Christopher Kane and Erdem in the East End in 2008 by fashion writer Sarah Mower, when the designers were already known but not the huge stars they are now ‘and you see these people toiling away, they work all hours, and they’re very dedicated and passionate people. So for those who think fashion might be frivolous or whatever, it was illuminating to see these people doing their impressive work and it brings it home to you that it is an industry.

‘On to my second point — actually, what I just said is my second point, but a new point so now I have five points — is that when we see the catwalk and think, “Well, this can’t be serious,” actually, what you’re looking at is a £20 billion a year business, which is part of an eco-system — your readers want to read about fashion, for instance, and then there’s the hairdressers, photographers, stylists, the high street, and all of that is around fashion, so it is a very serious industry. Politicians will happily trot off to a car factory. Fashion is contributing as much to the economy as those factories are,’ he says, sounding a tiny bit defensive.

He mentions Vivienne Westwood as someone clearly impressive: ‘I’ve met her a few times. The fact that she is still an iconic figure, 30 or 40 years at the top of the fashion tree’ — he ticks himself off for not one but two clichés. Did she give you a hard time? ‘Well, I met her at Windsor Castle so she was probably on good behaviour.’

It is always assumed that before going to Oxford, Vaizey went to Eton, like Johnson and Cameron, when, in fact, he went, like George Osborne, to St Paul’s. It was his father’s decision. ‘My dad was on the Public Schools Commission, which was set up to abolish public schools, and he met the Highmaster of St Paul’s, Tom Howarth, who became a friend, and he thought it was the best school going.’

Vaizey’s wife Alex is a lawyer (as Vaizey was before turning to politics) and the couple have two children, Joseph, six, and Martha, four. I wonder what he does to relax. Alex is a good cook and Ed tries his best. They have what he describes as a ‘small’ house in Wantage (where he was elected MP in 2005) where the family often go for weekends. ‘Without wishing to sound too pious, I really enjoy my job. But I also really do like home life. I don’t have any particularly sophisticated ways of relaxing, but I like…’ he screws up his face and sighs, ‘Oh, the trouble with being a politician is that anything you say sounds like artifice.’ Another big sigh. ‘But just going out with the kids to the park is great.’

I don’t know enough about fashion, myself, to judge whether Vaizey knows what he’s talking about, but it’s obvious that, despite his efforts, he is more interested in The Frick than a frock. In truth, he is a bit fazed by the world of high fashion, as he is by the world of classical music. When we talked about his former colleague Louise Mensch’s new blog, Unfashionista, he applauded it for trying to make fashion less frightening. ‘One of my gripes with classical music, like high fashion, is that you can get quite intimidated. So I think anything that can make fashion accessible and say that it’s easy to look good and on a budget is a good thing. Just as anything that says you can come and enjoy classical music without feeling that you need to have four university degrees is a very good thing, too.’

Politicians

Gordon Brown interview: the election, Blair and family life

The Times April 10, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

Gordon Brown talks candidly to Ginny Dougary
Photo: Mitch Jenkins

Gordon Brown

By our third meeting, the Prime Minister’s skill at the public kiss had improved immeasurably. There was now definite contact between lips and cheek and no head clunking, although he still needs to work on his puckering technique. When I commented on his progress, in the library of 10 Downing Street, he laughed… which is something he does a lot, the more we meet, in-between some rather solemn moments. My teasing had come on the back of seeing his turn on Piers Morgan’s television show, and the clips of him bungling the continental double-kiss with the likes of Carla Bruni (but, really, who can blame him for being a little fazed by that?).

In the run-up to the election, the beauty contest between David Cameron and Gordon Brown is hotting up. After Brown’s hour with Morgan came his opponent’s twirl with Trevor McDonald, featuring the Tory’s “secret weapon” – after Sarah Brown’s endorsement of her husband, at last year’s Labour Party conference, proved such a hit – David’s wife, Samantha. But McDonald’s gentle lack of probing did his subject no favours, and Cameron’s performance – not helped by some rather ludicrous footage of him jogging to a soundtrack of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good – merely reinforced his critics’ complaints that he is a lightweight.

Brown has the opposite problem; where Cameron is accused of “hidden shallows”, the PM is thought to be almost too deep. There were cavils about him looking upset (apparently there is also such a thing as being “too human”) when discussing the death of his baby daughter, Jennifer, with Morgan but, on the whole, the attempt to portray him as less remote and more normal worked. So thus far, in the battle of the populist TV shows, it’s probably 15-love to Brown.

Our first day together started early with a photo opportunity at Euston station, the PM alongside Lord Adonis, to publicise the new high-speed rail link from London to the Midlands and the North. Then on to the train, in first class, where there is the first of several amusing moments. Brown comes over to greet us and blocks the aisle to the disgruntlement of a couple, behind him, who tut-tut and say, “Excuse me”, crossly, and when the PM turns round, the expression on their faces is priceless. Sarah Brown is accompanying her husband and, although we have met socially on a number of occasions, her manner is initially a little strained. This must be “protective wife syndrome”, since there was a similar quality of watchful wariness on Samantha’s face when we met at the Camerons’ home last year.

The main event of the day is at the National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire, a service of rededication of the Basra Memorial Wall. The original wall was built, with local bricks, outside the airport in Basra. It was constructed in the dark, in their own time, after they had finished their day’s work, by Royal Engineers, hanging it with brass plaques as each man or woman was killed.

The Browns are sitting in the middle of the front row, with the Duke of Gloucester and Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, alongside. At one end, is Cameron, slightly slouched, legs crossed over each other oddly casually, in contrast to Nick Clegg, at the other end, who looks about 12, and Brown, who looks his age (59), who are both sitting bolt upright and staring straight ahead.

After the lighting of the memorial candle by Tracey Hazel, whose son – Corporal Ben Leaning of the Queen’s Royal Lancers – was killed in action at the age of 24, the readings, the playing of the Last Post and the minute of silence, the families line up to place their wreaths.

As they approach the wall, it is hard to witness their faces, convulsed in grief. They are all ages: some will have lost their husbands or wives; some their sons or daughters. Brown and Cameron are seven seats apart but, despite the bigger gulf of their political battle, there must be some communality, at this moment at least, in their thoughts of the loss of their first-born children. In the silence and the chilly air, it is impossible not to empathise with the families’ bereavement. Cameron is stooped forward, deep in thought, with a furrowed brow. Brown’s hound face looks sunken, ashen and grave. Later, he tells me, several times, “War is tragic” in an echo of what his old compadre, Tony Blair, said: “War is horrible.” But all their knockers want to know is, “Could it have been avoided?”

Next on the agenda is a “healthy living centre”. This is a Brown initiative; multipurpose centres to serve the local community, where you can drop your child at the nursery, go to the dentist, and so on, all in one place. In the nursery, Brown drops down on his knees – no hint of creakiness – and chats away to mothers and nursery aides, and their charges.

I would say, having observed both Blair and Cameron in similar circumstances, that Brown, contrary to expectation, has more of a common touch than either of them. Perhaps this is to do with his upbringing – his late father, the Rev John Ebenezer Brown, was a minster of the Church of Scotland, and the family manse in Kirkcaldy, Fife, was something of an open house to the poor and in need. Gordon and his brothers, John and Andrew, were expected to be kind and hospitable to whomsoever arrived at the door.

On the train back, Brown and I are left to talk, in rather trying circumstances, knees to knees, juddering china, hovering rail staff with loudspeaker voices. His voice is low and soothing but his manner is more hesitant, particularly at first, than in subsequent meetings.

It’s intriguing to hear the private reflections and anxieties of our public figures behind their impassive façades. He was worried at the service, for instance, about how much eye contact he should make: “It was very emotional. I found it difficult because I wanted to look at everybody but not in a prying way. I wanted them to know that I wasn’t trying to avoid their… so I looked at them and sort of nodded.” Afterwards, he met the families. Did they express their anger to you? “That has happened but not today… Look, war is always tragic, that’s what I wanted to say at the Iraq inquiry.”

So why didn’t you say it? “I did say it but that’s not what was reported. Tragedies happen during a period of war or conflict and you’ve got to keep asking yourself, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Can you justify this? What is happening to these young people?’?”

Do you sometimes feel like weeping, yourself, in a public event like this one? “Of course, of course.” I ask him, then, about his emotionalism when talking about the death of his daughter on the Piers Morgan show. Was he surprised when his feelings overtook him?

“Well, we… I hadn’t really talked about it much in public and I just… um… I mean, that’s just the way it happened. I wanted to explain what had happened because these were ten…the ten most important days of my life and I can remember almost every minute of them. And, yes, you do cherish them.”

Who can forget those pictures and footage of Brown, happier than anyone had ever seen him, as he held his new baby girl in his arms? He came to fatherhood relatively late in life, and looked like a man who could hardly believe his good fortune. And then those grief-stricken, shell-shocked photos, ten days later.

Does that personal experience connect him to the people whose own children have died, and does it also reconnect him to his own feelings of loss? “Yes, it does, because a loss is not something you get over. You just adjust to it. It’s very, very difficult, particularly when people have built their whole lives around either a partnership with someone or their expectations that they will see their teenage son prosper and then, suddenly, they’re dead, and it’s very, very sad. It is a terrible thing to lose your child.”

Moving on, I ask Brown whether he has enjoyed being Prime Minister, which startles him. “Enjoyment! It’s not the first word that you’d use,” a big laugh. “I do enjoy being in politics and, I mean, if I thought that I wasn’t being able to do anything that was of any use, I’d get out immediately. I’m not really wanting to be there if I can’t do anything. So as long as I feel there are more things to do… Yes, it is enjoyable.”

Can you give an example of something you set out to do and have achieved; something which makes you feel proud? “I think we have probably created a fairer society and rebuilt our public services. These Sure Start Children’s Centres, for instance, like the one we were at today… There’s now 3,500 around the country and there were none in 1997.”

He talks about the new challenges each day brings, and meetings with Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the internet, and Martha Lane Fox: “We’re trying to work out how we can move to the next stage of the internet in Britain and how Britain can lead in that.”

How good are you at the new technology? “I’m not that great.” Do you tweet? “Well, I give people messages but we’ve got 1.5 million people on it!” How are you at e-mail? “I do e-mail and you can tell it’s me, I never correct the spelling. I can’t be bothered doing spellcheck.

“My father had a typewriter and when I was very young, we [he and his brothers] all learnt to type with two fingers. That’s never changed,” he demonstrates, looking like an old-time reporter in The Front Page.

Brown went to Edinburgh University to read history at the age of 16, having been fast-tracked in an experimental educational programme, selected at Kirkcaldy West primary school, and taught in a separate class – with the other hot-housed children – at Kirkcaldy High School.

As a teenager, he wrote about how much he hated the experiment and he still clearly believes it was a bad idea: “My school life and everybody else’s was determined by this narrow, narrow measure of IQ. The kids I was in a class with, with very high IQs, were being trained to do better at university, assuming they would go to university. And, actually, most of them didn’t go because the pressures were very high on them, and a lot of them just gave up on the way.

“The idea that you can narrow intelligence down to one measurement of IQ… when what we’ve got to have is both an education system and a society that recognises that people’s talents flourish in different ways. You cannot standardise a measure of talent.”

Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum, was a contemporary of the PM’s at Edinburgh and recalls Brown’s successful campaign to become rector in 1972, at the age of 21, following in the footsteps of such towering political figures as William Gladstone, Thomas Carlyle, Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill.

“He wasn’t the first [student rector] – he was the second – but he was the one who made the most of it,” Sudjic remembers. “Here was someone who was quite cerebral about politics but who also managed a very populist campaign [a posse of miniskirted cuties, who called themselves the Brown Sugars, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Brown’s face and the slogan, “Gordon for me”]. It was a time when students were more interested in sit-ins and were quite snooty about that kind of thing, but he had a gift for touching different sorts of people.”

Even then, Sudjic says, “Brown had a glow, which is nothing to do with hindsight – a charisma that this was someone who was going to do something.” They worked together on the student newspaper, where Sudjic was editor and Brown was the unofficial news editor who could be relied on to come up with cracking headlines, and quickly: “He was always the centre of a group of people who wanted to be around him, and popular – of course – with women. [His girlfriend, for five years, was Princess Margarita, the eldest daughter of the exiled King of Romania.] We’d all go to a pub – the Meadows Bar – which was a notorious dive.”

When Brown left university, staying on as rector until 1975, fighting and triumphing in various thorny political battles, his plan was to be an academic. He lectured in politics in Glasgow and Edinburgh, “and I was going down that sort of road, but after I had my series of eye operations, I decided to do something a bit more useful”.

As is well known, Brown lost his sight in one eye in an accident when he was playing rugby in his final year at school. Up to that point, he was a gifted and keen sportsman. I’d read somewhere that he’d even thought of turning professional, but when I ask him, he says “No! But I was very fit and I was very fast. I was a runner, you know, so whether you’re playing football or rugby or athletics, if you’re fast, you’ve got something to offer.”

But then there were complications in his other eye and he had to spend long weeks, with operation after operation, lying on his bed in the dark with nothing to do but think: “I decided I had to do something a bit more useful, so that’s when I got more involved in politics.” But what could be more useful than teaching?

“That’s true, but I thought I was doing it just for myself.” In-between being a university lecturer and an MP, Brown had a stint as a broadcast journalist on Scottish Television. How did you find that? “I thought it was fascinating because it taught me how – well, it should have taught me how – to present a case, and it should have taught me how to say things more succinctly!”

For the rest of the journey we talked about books and poetry. Brown knew that this interested me, for several reasons, and I had the impression that he had prepared himself. We had met years ago when he threw a drinks party for Women in Journalism, in a gracious reception room on the top floor of 11 Downing Street. He may have had, even then, a slight reputation for dourness – which was nothing compared to what it became – but he was incredibly charming and seemed totally at ease surrounded by legions of spike-heeled feministas who all wanted to get close to him. His chief memory of the occasion, rather disappointingly, was the enthusiastic smoking on the balconies.

Then, more recently, as Brown’s reputation hardened – and he was portrayed, in some places, as a moody, paranoid, bitter, neurotic, socially dysfunctional, obsessive, workaholic weirdo – it struck me how distinctly at odds this was with the impression of him conveyed by other people I interviewed. Talking to them revealed glimpses of a Brown that we rarely see, and I wanted to dig deeper into this hinterland.

Terence Conran, for instance, spoke about his passion for modernist architecture and how – before the big modernism exhibition at the V&A in 2006 – Brown had asked if Conran would give him a tour of the show one evening. What impressed him was the knowledge of the Chancellor, as he was then, but also his curiosity and desire to learn more.

Antonia Fraser was struck by Brown’s cleverness but also his passionate interest and knowledge of poetry. Brown remembers being invited to a reception for Fraser’s anthology of Scottish love poetry when he was a student: “This was very funny because Hugh MacDiarmid was there [the nom de plume of the communist poet Christopher Murray Grieve, who created a Scottish version of modernism] and he was just swearing at everything. This man who had this great talent with words was reduced to the adjective, the verb and the noun of swear words. It was incredible.” But why was he swearing? “Well, I was the rector of the university, and I was a student, and the establishment was not very pleased with me [Brown had taken the university to court over its investments in South Africa, and won] and so Hugh was siding with me.”

He still reads poetry, which surprises and delights me, and he really knows his stuff. Every time I make a reference, he joins me, and so we make a bit of spectacle of ourselves, yelling, “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense” over the rattle of the train. (The only other politician, in my experience, who has a similar love and appreciation of language is Boris Johnson.)

I had asked Brown to cite his favourite love poem and he’s a bit stumped. About a week after our last meeting, I have the faintly surreal experience of the Prime Minister calling me at home, on a Sunday, and quoting the lines of various poems that do it for him. Clearly, he was speaking from memory, because he is unable to tell me the titles, apart from Robbie Burns’s A Red Red Rose. He also likes this one by Erich Fried and recites it:

“It is nonsense/ says reason/ It is what it is/says love

It is calamity/ says calculation/ It is nothing but pain/ says fear

It is hopeless/ says insight/ It is what it is/ says love

It is ludicrous/ says pride/ It is foolish/ says caution/ It is impossible/ says experience/ It is what it is/ says love.”

Towards the end of our train journey, Sarah came and joined us. Her husband had been talking about his book of the moment, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

What I want to know is whether the Browns swap books at bedtime. Sarah says in her dry way: “I read a lot of chick lit… and Gordon, not so much.” Really, how can you fail to like her? “Well, Sarah reads a lot more than I do,” says Gordon. “I’m less interested in reading political biographies but I do find biographies interesting; the way they try to get at the heart of people.”

We’ve arrived at Euston. Brown ushers me into his car, en route for Downing Street, where he and Sarah are hosting a reception for the heroes of different communities, and talks in an unbridled way about himself.

There is a bit of a whiff of that “They’re out to get me” paranoia when he refers to certain newspapers, but then you could say it’s justifiable paranoia because they are. More interestingly, he says that for some years he had felt restricted by a kind of image-problem straitjacket but now he’s shrugged it off and can be himself. He talks about it as though it were a liberation.

Other people have witnessed this new lightness in the PM’s step, although they say the straitjacket was of Brown’s own making. One political commentator first noticed what a good mood Brown was in on the plane to Trinidad, last November, for the Commonwealth summit. “I kept saying, ‘Why is Gordon so relaxed? Is it because he can see the finishing line?’ He’s seen off the coups, and he’s got the polls in a good position and he’s been thrown a lifeline that wasn’t there – because the public has taken a good look at Cameron and they’re not quite sure about him… So Brown’s in with a chance.”

The accusations sparked by Andrew Rawnsley’s book that Brown has “anger issues” have tended to make the PM more popular. “The country was not shocked by suggestions that the PM loses his temper, and his staff don’t regard him as a bully,” the commentator continues. “He’s not a cruel guy – he doesn’t get any pleasure by being hard on people – but he is extremely demanding. I’ve had texts from people in No 10 saying, ‘God, he’s in a bad mood today,’ and there’s no doubt that he’s really, really moody. But now that it’s been seen that he can shed a tear as well as sock people,” he jokes, “Brown’s far more interesting to the public.”

I spoke to someone close to Blair who had witnessed the two of them during some of the more tense periods. “I’ve never seen anything like bullying,” he says. “I’ve heard horrible tempers but the most difficult thing with Gordon was his withdrawal or sulkiness which was much more tedious. His main problems were shooting the messenger and sulking when he didn’t get his own way, but my impression is that all that is better now and his team seems to be working better.”

It’s possible, of course, with the election only weeks away, that no one from Labour’s inner circle, past or present, is going to put the boot into Brown since there’s no shortage of people who will be doing that for them.

Our next meeting takes place, on Sunday afternoon, in the kitchen of No 10. It’s rather pokey and old-fashioned and to get there, you go up in a lift the size of one of those saw-the-lady-in-half magician’s boxes. The Browns’ sons are nowhere to be seen but I pass their brightly coloured wellingtons lined up, regimentally, in another tiny nook at the entrance of the flat. Sarah organises coffee in a cafetiere and, again, Brown and I are left alone, to talk around the kitchen table.

This lack of control-freakery is highly unusual with senior politicians. Brown’s press person leaves a tape recorder on the table but never sits in on the interviews. When I interviewed Tony Blair a number of times last year, again with no aide present, he said that when he was Prime Minister that would never have happened. I wasn’t allowed to be on my own with David Cameron in our time together, again last year, without his press officer glued to our side. Cameron’s people were also much more anxious about what I was going to write, while Brown’s lot are almost peculiarly chilled. It’s hard to know whether this is an extremely clever ploy – see how relaxed and confident the PM is! Gordon Brown has nothing to fear! – or a bit naive and unprofessional.

I ask Brown, after all the recent focus on his personality, how he would describe his temperament. “Determined, strong-willed, impatient, wanting to do things.” Are you moody? “Yes, but, look, every day you get up with a determination to do certain things, and you can get very frustrated if you haven’t done them by the end of the day. But every morning, I’m very positive about what you can do.”

There’s been no hint of brusqueness in our time together but I wouldn’t see that, would I, since we are both sort of wooing one another for our own reasons, aren’t we? He laughs: “I don’t think I’m naturally surly but I am very strong-willed.”

When I repeat what the political pundit had said about the public being more interested in him, now, because of the tears and him packing a punch, Brown says, “But I don’t pack a punch!” He talks about his father, to whom he often refers, with a rather touching admiration: “He was a man who I never heard raise his voice once. You always knew when he was disappointed by the expression on his face but he would not get angry. And every time I get impatient or angry around others, I remember my father was not prepared to lose his temper.”

Does Sarah ever tell you to calm down? “Not those words, no.” What does she say? “Move on to the next issue.’” Do you brood? “I think about a lot of things. But ‘brood’ is not the word. ‘Brood’ is your poets we were discussing the other day.”

I ask him whether this new lightness of being – he says that it’s a consequence of him not caring any more about what people write about him – means that he is philosophical about his future.

“I’m not philosophical in the sense that people might understand it – that I’m just letting events take their course. I’m fighting as we’ve never fought before to win,” he says.

Some commentators are saying that the danger is that you underestimate Cameron. “I don’t underestimate anybody,” Brown says steelily. “And I certainly don’t underestimate the Conservatives. I mean, they’re putting huge amounts of money and huge amounts of effort and huge amounts of personal… You know, sort of ‘Brown is the problem’, ‘Another five years of Brown’. I don’t underestimate them at all.”

Does he fear rejection, I wonder. Could this be the reason that he put off the election, the first time round, when he seemed to be in a much stronger position to win, even though the initial honeymoon period was over. “That wasn’t about a fear of rejection, it was about the right time for doing the right things,” he says. “And I’m not going into this election fearing rejection. I mean, if people decide not to vote for us, I’ll accept that. I have to accept it so I will accept it. I don’t think I’m motivated by the fear of rejection.”

So why didn’t you call an election at that time? “Because I’d just started the job… We’d gone through the summer with floods and terrorism, and foot-and-mouth, and I thought about it and then decided not to do it because I thought we would give people more time to see what we’re capable of doing.”

Hmmm, how very generous-spirited of you, I say. Do you despair of the fickleness of the public; the way when Blair had gone, it was all, “Thank God, no more of that dreadful showbiz and glamour – Gordon Brown is so solid and no frills,” and, pretty soon, it was you who could do nothing right?

Another big laugh. “Well, look around the world at every political leader and for most of the time that they’re in office, it’s a referendum on them. So – make a mistake [which his people admit he did on pensions, for instance], make a bad judgment, do something sort of idiosyncratic or do something a bit strange or odd or stupid, and – you know – people will mark you down.

“So most of the time, it’s a referendum and it’s only when it comes to an election – and, actually, it’s only in the few weeks before an election – that it becomes a choice. So if you’re asking people, most of the time, ‘What’s your view of the Government?’ they’ll say, ‘The Government’s done something wrong.’ If you ask them nearer an election, then they know they’ve got to choose between these two parties.

“And if I seem happy it’s because I believe that we can show people, against the odds, and the odds have been against us, that we can come through.”

I ask him what he’s learnt about people from his time in politics. Any surprises? “I think that in the job that I’m in there are lots of things that shock you!” Any examples? “I’d better not! I’m still shocked by some of these parliamentary expenses problems that I never knew about. There was a system that was wrong, but it does shock me how bad some of the experiences we had to deal with were.”

Are you a bit of an innocent then? “Maybe I am.” A huge laugh. “No, I think most people would be shocked by this. And when you see people abusing any system, you get angry and it made me very angry indeed.” He goes on: “I didn’t have any particular problem with my expenses but everybody suffered and it’s bound to affect the government of the day. In the last two years, we’ve had two of the biggest problems that British politics has had to face since the war. One is the trust in politics that has been damaged in a way that it’s never been hurt before by a sort of cumulative weight of public opinion against MPs – because of the expenses – which is justifiable.

“And the second is the global financial crisis – and when you ask me about why we didn’t choose to go for the election…” Do you regret that you didn’t? “No.” Why? “Because I think it was better for me to see through the global recession. And let’s see what happens in the next few months. I mean, there’s still a long way to go.”

He talks about “the tragedy of British politics”, when there are big moral questions that should be debated – such as the right to assisted suicide, genetic research, discrimination laws – that are “about the future of our culture, in some cases, as well as the future of our country”, and yet, “All you see is a sort of divisive, confrontational opposition versus government bun fight that is more reminiscent of a public-school debating society than it is of a serious chamber looking at serious issues.”

He continues: “We’ve got to do better than this confrontational point-scoring and legalistic cleverness because, that’s what it is, clever not wise. And the reason that people don’t feel that their politicians are in touch with them as they should be is that they don’t feel that politicians are debating the issues that really matter to them – like social care – how do you care for the elderly? If you could see Parliament really debating that, then people might have more trust in the political system. That’s where I’d like it to be.”

And, yet, there are obviously larger moments of shared humanity where all differences are put aside: “When people are talking in the House of Commons about the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mood is very different. Look, politicians can behave well, even if they often behave badly.”

I ask him what has been the happiest moment in his political life, and he says: “I think it was probably presenting the first Budget as Chancellor – probably because you felt you were actually doing something, after so many years in opposition of not being able to change things.

“The Budget was 3.30 one afternoon, and for some stupid reason the Conservatives decided to make points of order. And we had 18 minutes of points of order – hahahahah – and I remember turning to Tony and saying, ‘Look, we’ve waited 18 years, I suppose we can wait another 20 minutes.’?”

The relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is one that has riveted the public and media alike. It has been the subject of many column inches, books and a TV drama, The Deal. Given the Conservatives’ recent, rather counter-intuitive claim that they are Blair’s heirs, it seemed a good idea to contact the man himself. Blair is harder to pin down, these days, than the PM, but he spoke to me on the telephone, in snatches, from Moscow, London and Brussels, before flying off to China.

They were both new MPs when they met – Blair was 30, Brown, 32 – and they got on instantly. “He was pointed out to me as someone who was a highly intelligent, able guy – the rising star of the Labour Party – and we got talking and I found him both intellectually stimulating and a fascinating personality and then, by a curious quirk, we ended up sharing this windowless, airless room underneath a House of Commons corridor.

“That was the start of a very close friendship because we were in a very, very small room – slightly bigger than the inside of a car, but not much – and we were there all the time. First, there was a very strong intellectual curiosity, and an understanding that the Labour Party had to change and that we were in serious trouble.

“Second, we got on personally very well together, we really, really enjoyed each other’s company, and he certainly taught me a lot about politics.”

Blair offers as an example the first press release he did, “which was very much like a sort of lawyer’s opinion, and he said, ‘What’s the headline?’ And I gave him this intellectual analysis, and he said, ‘Look, what’s the headline?’ So he was extremely good at doing that.”

Brown also helped Blair with his first speeches: “Getting a point to them and a rhythm to them that was for a public speech rather than an argument. But the most important thing was that for ten years we were extremely busy iterating and reiterating where the Labour Party had to be… what was the modern form of social democracy that would be capable of remaining true to its values but win public support.

“So it was an intellectual bond but a strong personal friendship, too.”

I ask him about the next stage, when the decision was made for Blair to become leader. Wasn’t that awkward, since Brown had somewhat mentored him? “Well, of course, these things are always difficult,” he says, and then – which felt almost too melodramatically apt – the line went dead in snowbound Moscow.

We resume, a day or so later: “Of course, it was bound to be difficult because only one of us could go forward, and we’d been working extraordinarily closely together and very productively.

“But at the time, the great challenge was how to win the aspirantly upwardly mobile in the South.” And yours was the face that fitted? “You could say that… Obviously, it was very hard for him but, yes, I think he eventually reconciled himself to it.”

Blair says that the first term was about re-establishing Labour’s credibility to govern, “and he was a tower of strength, particularly in respect of the economy, because the worry had always been that Labour either didn’t understand it or couldn’t run it or manage it. And, actually, in those ten years we were a very successful partnership. But, yes, the tension obviously remained.”

I’ve been told, as was widely speculated, that after 2005, there was a real deterioration in your relationship, is that right? “I’m not sure it was quite like that but obviously Gordon still retained a very strong ambition to be leader – and he was perfectly entitled to, which is why I always thought he’d be my successor.

“When major events happened, like September 11th and Afghanistan and Iraq and so on, he was there and he was supportive. But there’s no point in being silly about it – of course the tension remained between someone who had the job and someone who wanted the job. That’s always the way it is, but it was still a very enduring partnership.”

Do you feel protective of Gordon when he is under siege? “Of course, because I know what it’s like to be under attack in that way. One of the reasons why I would never go out and criticise the person who is Prime Minister is that I know how damn tough the job is, and I also know enough about the way the modern media works to know that things can get extraordinarily exaggerated and your motives are completely traduced.

“But there’ll always be a basis of friendship for us and, indeed, respect – because on the great issues of the day, he is someone who thinks profoundly and, indeed, in an original way – which is a rare quality.”

I wait for the PM in the library of 10 Downing Street, with its rather gloomy landscapes in ornate frames, and books – lined up under august busts – which have an uncherished and unconsidered quality, dating back to previous incumbents. Only in one corner, almost embarrassedly tucked-away, is there any sense of the here and now – a photograph of a beaming Brown, with his two boys, John, 6, and Fraser, 3, wrapped up in his arms.

Sculpted into the cornices, around the room, are four tiny bees that Cherie had commissioned to represent the actual Blair heirs. The original vandal was Margaret Thatcher who had decided, in a fit of whimsical grandeur, to have four thatches attached to the stucco of the ceiling in one of No 10’s reception rooms.

When Brown arrives, I ask him what form his interior legacy will take. “I haven’t thought about that at all,” he says. “What’s Tony done?”

I had asked him whether his weeks of darkness and enforced idleness as a youth had taught him more about patience or impatience: “Impatience, I think – because I was doing all these things I enjoyed, like playing rugby and football, and then that just stopped.

“So, instead of allowing it to be a setback, you think you’ll try to make something of it – and I became more impatient to do things more quickly.”

And, yet, you had to be patient for so long, waiting to become prime minister? But then you weren’t so very patient towards the end, were you?

“Well, ask Tony. We had our ups and downs but there is no political relationship, as I have said, that has survived so long as Chancellor and Prime Minister as the one I had with Tony. How many Chancellors did Margaret Thatcher have? Three or four? And I was the longest-serving Chancellor for 200 years. So we worked things through when there were difficulties, and I’ve got enormous, enormous respect for him.”

He was also close to his special adviser Damian McBride, who had to resign after the e-mail scandal when he and Labour blogger, Derek Draper, fabricated unpleasant personal stories about Tory politicians and their wives. Do you still talk to him? “No, I haven’t talked to him.” Don’t you miss him and feel sad about it? “It’s a very sad example of someone making a mistake and paying very heavily for it. You can’t condone what happened but, equally, the penalty for him was very high.”

Does that mean that you’re not a good judge of character? “I don’t think so, no. One of the things about people is that you think you know them and then you get a surprise. But you think you know yourself and then sometimes you’ve got to think, ‘Oh, I’ve reacted in this way which surprises me.’?”

Well, look at Peter Mandelson, and how he bounces back. He’s gone from being the Prince of Darkness to – what? – the Labour Party’s Winne-the-Pooh? “I think people admire the way he’s fought back.”

Earlier, we had been talking about Brown’s extracurricular interests – he still plays the piano (as a boy he had lessons from his aunt, who was a music teacher) and he likes Bach, but he also can bang out some Beatles songs. What’s your favourite Beatles song? “Hey Jude.” He tells me that his older son, John, was given a teddy bear that plays Imagine when you wind it up – but it’s only later, when I compare Mandelson to a Mandy Bear, that he says: “That’s the guy who gave John the teddy bear that plays Imagine.”

What does he make of George Osborne’s claim that the Tories are the real Blair’s heirs, presumably trying to imply that Brown is a sort of Arthur Scargill throwback?

“It’s a Tory tactic to try to present themselves as centre ground and me as too far on the left. And it’s wrong because, basically, I am centre ground and they are too far on the right.”

Given that GB was as much the architect of New Labour as TB, the Tories might as well say that they are wearing Brown’s crown.

Moving on to Iraq, did he ever feel like resigning over it? “No… It wasn’t weapons of mass destruction or the issue about regime change that was important to me. To me, the important thing was, if you are creating a global community – which is what we are trying to do after the Cold War – you cannot have countries that persistently defy the international community by refusing to abide by their obligations.”

But was it our responsibility to go in? “There is a responsibility to protect – which we will have to debate – you know, we didn’t go into Rwanda when we should have done. You wouldn’t justify now the Western world’s inability to deal with the problems of Rwanda, would you? So you would support intervention in cases where it was morally justified.”

So are you saying we should be doing more Iraqs, not less? “Well, I think you’ve got to ask – what is a just war and what is a just peace.”

But, Gordon, do you understand that it’s not just the expenses scandal that has made the public turn against politicians – it’s also that thousands and thousands of people marched against the Iraq War but their opposition counted for nothing. Do you understand that anger?

“I understand the anger over Iraq, I do – because people feel that they were given information that turned out not to be correct. I understand the feeling that people have but you want me to, sort of, denounce something that I was involved with.

“Do I understand why people feel worried when there are casualties and people are killed? Yes, I do – but I can’t be in politics and be a pacifist.”

How much does the public have a right to know about their political leaders? “That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?” If you had been suffering from depression, for instance, should we know about that? “I’ve never really thought about it.” But weren’t you asked about that by Andrew Marr? “That was about prescription drugs, wasn’t it?” But if I asked if you were on Prozac, let’s say, should I expect an honest answer? “I think people have got to give answers to questions, yeah.”

But do you think that’s a legitimate question to ask? “Look, I think we are in a world where every part of my private life has been investigated by someone. Every part of what I do… my house, my marriage, my children. I didn’t choose to expose the fact that my son [Fraser] had cystic fibrosis. I didn’t want people to know that. I’m not ashamed of it but I didn’t want people to know because I want to protect my sons.

“But it leaked out. Someone sold the story. But I am realistic that people will ask all sorts of questions and they do – and in the end people will judge you by what you do.”

He had said that his upbringing was one where you didn’t talk about personal things outside the confines of your family: “I was quite a shy boy when I was young and, yes, I’m probably still shy… but not unwilling to take on the things I do.”

Do his feelings get hurt by the personal comments? “I think it does affect you when people say, ‘Oh, this guy’s got a…’ – hahahaha – ‘weird smile,’ and ‘This guy’s got something wrong about the way he speaks.’ I mean, people are pretty cruel sometimes. But, no, I don’t get hurt any more.”

Watching the Browns, over several days, one did, indeed, get the impression as the PM puts it, “We do well together – we’ve been very lucky.” He looks a bit emotional. “You’ve got to understand each other’s needs and, at the moment, she’s having to do more for me, so it’s more of a pressure on her.”

How much do you think Sarah’s changed you? “A lot, I think. She’s helped me to be more outgoing and more sensitive to things that probably I was not as sensitive to as I should have been.”

What have you discovered about her in this role? “Poise. I knew she was compassionate and very dedicated to what she was doing – but it’s a difficult job for her because there’s no official title or office that sort of backs her up. But she’s tried to do all the things that are necessary with poise and, I suppose,” – a shy laugh – “elegance.”

Can you imagine a life without children? “Not now – it’s absolutely the best thing that has happened to me, and it was never clear after Jennifer died whether Sarah could have more children, so we were very lucky.

“Working here and living here, you’re meeting your children throughout the day – so, you know, they’re running in to see you.” Are you demonstrative with them? “Oh, yes, very.” Were your parents with you? “Not so much, no. But children like that – we play a lot together and I try to read them stories… You know, it’s the softness of their skin which is just wonderful.

“I’ve been very lucky to have children at this age – Sarah is younger than me, our children are very young, and I feel younger as a result. It’s very energising to be around children.”

How does Brown think he and Sarah will get on when they have more time on their hands? “Better,” he says. “I think so because Sarah’s got things she wants to do, and I’ve got things I want to do…”

Can you imagine a life without politics? “Oh yes, I could always imagine a life without politics.” What would you enjoy? “Time to read, time to write… I have written one or two books and I love the intellectual discovery that comes with it. I’m fascinated by the moral sense that people have and how that arises, and what makes people do the things they do.”

When we had been talking about poetry on the train, Brown spoke about his favourite poem – Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, and its theme of potential never realised, the flowers never to blossom and so on, because of impoverished lives. I’d asked him, then, if he felt that he’d fulfilled his potential. “Not yet. Does anybody in the end? I don’t know.” He also said that everyone who is reported as being one-dimensional has more than one dimension: “Everybody has a hinterland of some sort.”

I spoke to Rory Bremner, whose job as a political satirist and impressionist requires him to examine our political leaders with forensic precision, and his view was that Brown was the most three-dimensional of them all. He also said that, “Brown is a serious man and a significant politician but the skills set of a modern politician is about fluency and ease and looking relaxed in your own skin, and Brown doesn’t fit into that.”

What Bremner said chimed with the general impression I had of Brown, while working on this piece that, despite, his mistakes, he is a man of substance in a shallow age. So the question is – will we get the prime minister we deserve?

Towards the end of our sessions, I put it to him that politics often seems not to be about the art of the possible but the art of the compromise. “It ought to be the art of making the desirable possible, in my view,” was Brown’s supple riposte. “Is that not what politics should be? Making the desirable possible?”

Politicians, Women

Pauline Prescott: ‘John would have resigned over his affair’

The Times March 06, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

Pauline Prescott talks to Ginny Dougary about public humiliation, private anguish – and why her husband now does the housework

Pauline Prescott
Photo: Phil Fisk

Pauline Prescott and I have been instructed to keep the volume down by a prefectorial therapist down the corridor from our tiny “treatment” room, where we are sitting opposite one another across a table, mercifully, rather than a collapsible massage bed.

For one of us, at least, the pre-emptive admonition is redundant. Paul, as she is known by her husband (she calls him Prescott, as in, so she says, “Move it, Prescott”) has the dulcet tones that our greatest playwright celebrated, “Her voice was ever soft/ Gentle and low, an excellent thing in a woman.” The former Deputy Prime Minister, however, unlike Shakespeare, apparently ticks off his wife for speaking too quietly. Well, tick-off shtick-off… Since Traceygate, the balance of power in their 50-year marriage has, Mrs Prescott confirms, shifted (irrevocably, one suspects) to her advantage.

She has just emerged from a photo shoot in one of the elegantly dilapidated rooms of the House of St Barnabas in Soho, formerly a home for the homeless, still a charity, and now doubling as a pop-up private members’ club for the metropolitan chic crowd. Her appearance is, as ever, immaculate. Unaccustomed as she still is to her turn in the limelight, however, Mrs P had a slightly wobbly moment in the ladies’ loo worrying that she didn’t look groomed enough (as if) for the photos.

Pauline’s appearance is – to use her favourite word – absolutely “fab”: the familiar jeujed-up raven mane, spidery eyelashes (a mixture of falsies and natural, truly fabulash), a tailored black trouser suit and fitted cream shirt (Jaeger), and a trio of black patent-leather accessories – a wide belt with a Courrèges-ish silver clasp, faintly dominatrix spike-heeled ankle boots, and a big slouchy shoulder bag. Talk about the “wow!” factor.

Her style has often been commented on – not always kindly – but this has more to do with its almost anachronistically high-maintenance glamour, particularly in the UK, where the prevailing look is more understated. In Italy or even New York – with her Nancy Dell’Olio nails’n’lashes femininity – Mrs P would blend in just peachily.

She looks great at 71 but, boy, she was something else in her youth. The cover of her new and first book, Smile Though Your Heart Is Breaking – a none too oblique reference to her husband’s two-year affair with his secretary, Tracey Temple – has a photograph of her as a wide-eyed ingénue, recalling a young Jean Simmons or Elizabeth Taylor (whom Pauline was often said to look like, although when John was wooing her, she tells us gamely, he said she reminded him of – what a charmer – Joyce Grenfell).

In another life, although she has no regrets at all about having been a full-time mother and housewife, Mrs P would have liked to have gone into fashion: “When I get up in the morning, it’s fashion TV straight on. I love all that. Yes, well, I could have done that. That’s probably what I would have done.” As a designer? “Not particularly, well, sewing clothes – I just love to wear them. I love Valentino and if I was to choose somebody to dress me, it would be Armani – I just adore his clothes. But I’m also wearing clothes, since I can still get into them, that I’ve had for about 30 years. Vintage, you know, and when I put them on, people say, ‘Wow! Like that suit!’”

She was dead chuffed that Sarah Brown had invited her to the next evening’s Fashion Relief charity show to raise funds for Haiti, and the following day’s newspapers showed shots of Pauline alongside the PM’s wife and Naomi Campbell.

John Prescott was also handsome as a young man, the couple cutting a considerable dash as they jived around the dance halls of Chester: “He was so much like Robert Wagner. Oh very much, and Dirk Bogarde – a cross between the two,” Pauline says. I ask her, rather baldly, whether she feels he has lost his looks. “Well… ah… we all get older. But, I mean, to me, he’s my John and…” But you can still see him objectively – the weight gain and so on? “Yes, he has put on weight but he has diabetes, you know. I think he carries it well. He’s very fit, actually. [They jived together at their local Chinese restaurant the previous week.] He goes to the gym and that sort of thing. But looks are only skin-deep. That’s what they say, don’t they?”

She likes people to be smart – not surprisingly, since she makes such an effort herself – but they don’t have to be beautiful or slim. In fact, she says – and this is unexpected – John met Gok “How to Look Good Naked” Wan, the other day: “And he said, ‘He’s the most charming young man’ – they got on extremely well.” After the Prescotts’ television forays into programmes on class and the North-South divide, is it possible that John and Gok are going to do a TV show together? What an amazing idea… “No, I don’t think so,” Pauline laughs gaily but not entirely unequivocally.

Actually, her husband is full of surprises. Who would have thought, for instance, that John Prescott would have any interest in reading the seminal feminist novel The Women’s Room, by the American author, Marilyn French, which honed in on the frustrations and depressions of a generation of stay-at-home suburban moms. “It was a staggering revelation to me that someone could feel like they were in a trap and couldn’t get out of it,” he said. “It must be terrible, absolutely terrible.”

More intriguing is the question of who pressed the book on him since it wasn’t his wife, who hasn’t read it herself: “No, I didn’t make him read it, actually I don’t read books very much, quite frankly,” she says. “I’m a great television person, really.” Her husband apparently is a great reader, mainly biographies: “He’s absolutely Oliver Cromwell mad… He was his hero, and Churchill, as well.”

Pauline had her first brush with women’s lib in the late Sixties, when she worked as a hairdresser to support John, who was studying economics and economic history at University of Hull: “There was this whole women’s group sort of thing, and I was asked to join them to [protest] against this pub that men used to go to where women weren’t allowed in, but I said, ‘Why shouldn’t the men go there for a drink? I don’t give a toss!’ I mean, I go for a drink with my female friends and it’s nice to be on your own without men, isn’t it? You don’t need to be escorted. Afterwards John said, ‘You didn’t go down at all well with the sisters, Pauline.’”

After the news of his affair broke, four decades on, it was another group of “sisters” (Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell, et al) who phoned Pauline to offer their support: “They’ve been great with me, absolutely lovely, and I got on well with all of them.”

Up to now, Pauline Prescott has been the most discreet and private of politicians’ wives. “I’ve always kept my distance and people have thought, I’m like a bit of a mouse, maybe,” she says. “You can cause a great deal of embarrassment to your husband when he’s in the position he was in, and if I had given my views… Well, I don’t always agree with John, you see, so…”

It was her boys, as she still calls them, who encouraged her to do the book – “Go on, Mum, go for it!” – after she had been approached by various publishers. She has two sons by Prescott, Jonathan, 47, a businessman who now acts as her agent (negotiating a fee of £350,000, not far behind his father’s £500,000 book deal in 2008), David, 40, a former journalist who is hoping to become an MP, when his father stands down after 40 years representing Hull East, and Paul Watton, 54, the son of a married US serviceman, whom she had given up for adoption. Their happy (newspaper-orchestrated) reunion, some years back, was the subject of a prolonged media blitz.

Pauline is full of praise for her book’s ghostwriter, Wendy Holden, and – with characteristic modesty – feels that it was she, not Holden, who was fortunate to be paired with such a collaborator. “You know she did Goldie Hawn’s book,” she says. “And after me, she went over to do Barbara Sinatra!”

How did she find the experience? “Well, I said, ‘I’ll probably clam up and end up stuttering,’ but it was like an unlocking – it just all flowed out. It’s been very therapeutic – we laughed, we cried – places that have been locked up for years because, of course, my boys didn’t know about my baby Paul… Lots of things like that.

“For years, people had never really asked me a great deal about my point of view, apart from my friends, and I’ve always kept quiet because of John. And I’m speaking because you’re asking about me basically, aren’t you? And so, yeah, I can let out my points of view now, without causing any embarrassment to John.”

One of the problems with this sort of book deal – the perils of Pauline, indeed – is the commercial quid pro quo, meaning Mrs P has had to invade her own privacy to a degree and dwell on matters that she would rather not have in the public domain. Although she writes about the affair in her book, she is not really comfortable talking about it, certainly not the specifics: “I don’t want to get in to too much depth about that. I have described how I felt about the affair and I accept the fact that he had it but the personal stuff – it happened and that’s it. End of story. I don’t bear any grudges and I don’t want to get into anything else about that.”

It would obviously have been easier to handle if the Prescotts had not been so much in the public eye, but she says: “When it happens to a woman, it’s devastating no matter who they are. But when you have to do it in the eyes of the media… I mean, the next day it was just bedlam outside my house – it’s in a cul-de-sac and all the camera people were there.”

How could we forget it? John had fled to Dorneywood but Pauline insisted she had done nothing wrong and was damn well going to stay put in her own home and – what’s more – go right ahead and have her new, swanky downstairs loo installed. I tell her that we all loved her for that; it might just have been her finest hour. Certainly, there could be no question that Mrs P would be leant on to do one of those grisly “Disgraced MP embraced by sorrowful but forgiving family” photo opportunities. “That was like my mum,” she says. “My mum was so feisty. It’s sort of like a northern thing… Just get on with it.

“But your self-esteem does take a hell of a battering… My boys and my daughters-in-law and my friends were a huge help and the letters I received! I tried to answer them all… But if you could just pop this in” – I’m happy to oblige – “‘Thank you to all the people who wrote to me.’ You know, you can’t run away from things because it’s always there to meet you.”

There was more northern grit in her insistence on reading every newspaper exposé: “John said, ‘You’re putting yourself through an awful lot more pain.’ I used to sit at home watching what was going to be in the papers on Sky. I saw the whole lot. You can’t confront anything until you’ve seen exactly what you are going up against, frankly.”

She holds no truck with the idea that the loneliness of the Westminster lifestyle – the late nights, work stress, separation from your family and so on – might be tough on a red-blooded man. In fact, she gives me an hilariously old-fashioned look when I go down this path. “No, if a man wants to do it, he’ll find a way of doing it. You can travel and it can happen at any time, can’t it?

“And let’s face it, I’ve been married all these years and I have never had an affair.” Have you ever been tempted? “No.” Have you never even been attracted to another man? “Oh, yes! I’ve looked at somebody and thought, ‘You’re handsome.’ You still do, don’t you? But I think about what I would be losing and I don’t think it’s worth it, quite frankly. And to lose the respect of your family, as well.”

Has John regained that respect? “Yes, he has because he was deeply, deeply ashamed and sorry. Some people thought, ‘A bit of a doormat, hanging on there,’ and that sort of thing. But you don’t throw your life away. You like your lifestyle and all that, and you’ve got your family to consider. I couldn’t have accepted it if there had been love involved – and John said there was no love, and so I have accepted that.”

You said that if it had been “a quickie in a cupboard” you could have handled that. “No, funnily enough, I didn’t really say that. I didn’t check that in the book and it was Wendy who put that in. It wouldn’t have been my terminology to describe it that way. But if it had been once at, like, an office party – I could have accepted that. What was hurtful was the deceit of the whole two years.”

The affair seemed to have happened around the same time as the newspaper revelations about Pauline’s son, Paul, about whom John had always known. “Yes, it was, funnily enough, and some people have said to me, ‘Oh, did that trigger it?’ But no, because our marriage was good. It has always been good. That’s why it was like a bolt out of the blue.

“What he did was very wrong and dreadfully humiliating, you know, and I don’t and won’t forgive him because, in my mind, to forgive is to condone. I’m sad when I think about it – I just think about what we had – but I’m not bitter. If I felt bitter about it, then I couldn’t have stayed with him – so you just move on from that.”

Do you talk about it any more? “You can’t not talk about it and we have been very open. People ask me for advice and I say, ‘Well, you know, frankly, you have to…’” She stops. “Sorry, give me a minute. It still gets to you.” Oh, I’m sorry. “No, no, it’s all right. No, it’s OK. We speak openly about these things… but you don’t dwell on it. If you keep going on about it, then you can’t move on, can you? But you don’t just say, ‘Right, I forgive you,’ and then forget it.”

Do you understand why and how it happened? “Not really, because I couldn’t have done a thing like that.” Do you believe that men are different, then? “Yes, because they can block it off and it’s sort of on one side, in a little box over there. They musn’t have a conscience. But women can’t do that, can they? I don’t know. I couldn’t.

“And I’m not judgmental about people – I’m really, really not – but I couldn’t live with myself. I’d have to tell and clear my conscience immediately. I’d want to be, sort of, ‘Forgive me, please.’”

When you insisted that he didn’t resign over the affair, how much of that was about you not wanting to give up the lifestyle? “I’ll be honest, I enjoyed it, obviously. John’s brilliant and I was very proud of him being Deputy Prime Minister. We were together as a family unit and we’d all worked very hard for what he’d done, and I didn’t want to see it thrown away, just because of that [the affair]. He’d earned it. And it was coming on to an election, so you can’t do that. He would definitely have resigned but I said, ‘No!’ And so we sat down with the boys and had a proper discussion about it.”

Incidentally, Pauline would like to point out that her husband, like the “very charismatic, warm, lovely” PM, “is so well thought of on the world stage. It’s just our own people that mock them. That is what annoys me. With John, they make him out to be stupid because of the way he can’t put his words together. No problem connecting with people, though!”

I wonder how her husband has changed towards her. She says that he has always been thoughtful – although he’s not particularly touchy-feely, more of an “actions speak louder than words” man: buying flowers and bringing her cups of tea in bed. She says in her book that, post-Tracey, she has become stronger and he has become softer. To me, she says: “I think he appreciates me more, and doesn’t take me for granted. He’s very, very thoughtful. He likes to surprise you and take you somewhere nice. He’s a very, very kind man and fond and, quite frankly, if he sees you’re tired, it’s not a case of, ‘Oh, that’s your work, woman.’

“Actually, the other week, I said to John that I was so far behind in my housework – it’s a big house, and I’ve never had any help for it – and I said, ‘I’ve got to wax this whole floor, can you put the wax on?’ So he does jobs like that. And then I said, ‘And while you’re down there, wash the skirting boards.’”

Well! That truly is a shift in the power dynamic, isn’t it? (I’m thinking Joseph Losey’s The Servant, here.) She laughs: “But it’s true. I’m not just saying that.”

What intrigues me about her husband are his neuroses behind all that strop and swagger. Just the other week, he gave a classic Prescottian performance on Newsnight – eyes blazing, jowls quivering – defending Gordon Brown against the PM’s would-be nemesis, Andrew Rawnsley. But to read about his crippling social awkwardness – an inability to enter a public room, for instance, without his wife going in first (“He gets very self-conscious, even now,” she says) – let alone the bulimia in such a big, macho fisticuffs fella, is as fascinating as Tony Soprano’s reliance on his shrink.

It was Pauline’s mother, interestingly, who first spotted her son-in-law’s odd behaviour around food. “Yes, my mum picked that up and said, ‘Keep any eye on him, Pauline, I think something’s wrong there.’” Had her mother come across bulimia before? “No, she just noticed little signs and she was very wise.”

It seems strange to me that Pauline hadn’t observed something herself, on his breath for instance. Anyway, she says, “He’s completely through that now.” His favourite dish of hers is lamb hotpot, “but in my fridge, I always say, ‘Look, you make your own choice here,’ because you can’t treat people like children, can you? There’s the naughty bits – and, I mean, I love my naughty bits, too – but there’s always loads of fruit at the bottom.”

(I ask her about her famous sandwiches – much commented on for their perfect crustless triangles. “Isn’t that funny? Do other people do big doorsteps or something? Shall I tell you who taught me? John did, because he used to be a waiter at sea and everything was done in style and, you know, even my boys do the most wonderful sandwiches. It’s good presentation.”)

Is she able to explain why her husband has these hang-ups? “I don’t really know, only John can answer that. He is quite a complex character, I suppose,” she says. “But I’m a great believer that these things stem from childhood. You know, he saw his father, Bert – a big philanderer – kissing a lady, when John was young, and he went to the police station and said, ‘Arrest my father,’ and I think it all stems from that.”

It was his mother, Phyllis, however, who told a journalist about Pauline’s baby, Paul, which is how the story got out. “Well, yes, that was upsetting. I wasn’t happy about it at all. And after all those years, yes, it was rather sad.’’ Had Phyllis lost it mentally? “No.” So she knew exactly what she was doing? “Oh, yeah.” What on earth was her motivation? “The sensationalism of it? It is strange, actually.”

But then, since it seems that her natural inclination is to be both fair and positive, Pauline lists Phyllis’s virtues: “She came from strong mining stock and was a brilliant woman and a brilliant mother. She liked to control and when I came on the scene she was not, you know, happy [particularly with an out-of-wedlock baby in tow]… But knowing all that was going on with the father, she did keep the whole family of five children together, and John was the head of that family.

“She was a very kind lady, too. I used to make my clothes, but she was a wonderful seamstress and used to make them for me, too. She worked at a mental hospital in Chester and not only did she teach the patients dress-making but she put on a fashion show for them with a catwalk and everything. She was a good mum, really, and I did tell John, ‘You weren’t very warm about your mum in the book.’”

Old habits die hard, and although, perhaps for the first time in the past four decades of public life, Pauline feels she can speak her own mind, she is still protective of her John. So when I ask her what she thought of him telling Tony Blair that the way the former PM paraded his deputy’s working-class credentials made him feel “like a performing seal”, her first response is, “How bloody stupid!” then, “Oh, I can’t really give a view on that.”

Who was on the phone more to her husband, Tony or Gordon, in Prescott’s role as a sort of marriage counsellor? “It was pretty even-stevens – it was, well, I knew quite a lot of what was going on then, but you don’t really say – but it was an interesting time, you know… to say the least.”

Like she says, looks are only skin-deep and I think her looks had distracted me from her qualities as a person. Pauline has none of the chippiness or awkwardness of her husband – who also emerges as a more three-dimensional human figure after talking to her – but is hugely appreciative of all the good things that have come her way. If he is a glass half empty, she is a glass half full, and that just might be the secret of their long marriage’s equilibrium.

She seems pretty convinced that her husband will go into the Lords – “They want him to go into the Lords and it’s common knowledge that he would like it.” So you will be Lady Prescott, how cool is that? “My God, yes! He’s leader of the Council of Europe, so he’ll still do that and he’s very much into the environment and works with Al Gore [her favourite world figure: “He is a very handsome man”] so that’s what he’ll do from the Lords when he steps down.”

Prescott used to joke that his wife didn’t need to be a Lady since she was already one, and I see what he means. She has a natural dignity and grace, with no hint of brashness. She reminded me of the actress Gina McKee, that same soft northern voice and manner, with the occasional glimpse of Alison Steadman (circa Abigail’s Party). She’s also fun, telling me how delighted she was to be told “by someone from gay liberation that I am a gay icon”.

She is having the time of her life, right now, and like “the sisters” and her sons, one wants to urge her, “Go for it, Pauline!”

“Do you know what? I’m getting very feisty in my old age,” she says. “It’s a different ball game because people know me for me now. I’ve never craved attention nor have I shunned the limelight. Parliament and so on, I just adored all that. And even now, I’m not thinking, ‘Right, where’s this going to take me?’ If things happen, they happen and, quite frankly, at my age – you know – I don’t need anything, do I? But I must say, I’m enjoying this.”

Fab.

* * *

Smile Though Your Heart is Breaking by Pauline Prescott, published by HarperCollins, is out now

Politicians

Mikhail Gorbachev: the man who changed the world

The Times September 5, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Mikhail Gorbachev is still a man who strides the global stage – and maintains a keen interest in domestic politics. He talks to Ginny Dougary about power, presidents, Putin and life after Raisa

mikhail gorbachev
Photo: Graham Wood

Mikhail Gorbachev may be pushing 80 but when he talks, people still listen, particularly (or, perhaps, exclusively) outside his own country, and that includes the 44th president of the United States. The first and last President of the former Soviet Union is telling me about his meeting with Barack Obama, during the latter’s extended honeymoon period, not so long ago, when he said: “‘I congratulate you because two months after the election your popularity was growing and your popularity is still growing.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Just you wait, it’ll go down.’” A gusty blast of a laugh. “And I liked him saying that.”

The man who was determined to modernise the USSR through glasnost and perestroika (the last time Russian words tripped off the tongue), which led to its collapse and transformed the world beyond, is now greatly in demand as a speaker in the United States. He remembers one particular lecture, three years ago during the Bush administration, when he was faced with the following question: “What would you recommend for America now that we are in a very difficult situation?” “I said, ‘Well, to give advice to other countries, particularly to Americans, would be wrong. It’s for you to sort out what you need to do.’ But nevertheless, they said, ‘What’s your advice?’

“And I said, ‘When we were putting an end to the Cold War, we said that the world needs to rethink old problems. We need to understand where we are. We need to start thinking about the fact that half the population of the world lives on one or two dollars a day. Sixty per cent of the ecosystems have been broken. The atmosphere has been polluted. Oceans and rivers have been polluted. If we just leave it as it is, if we just continue down this path, then this will end very badly. We were saying that every country needs to change.’

“I said to those Americans who were asking my advice, ‘You had this euphoria of victory, of the West winning the Cold War. You thought that you did not need any changes because everything was going so well for the West. But after the euphoria will come disappointment and you’re already seeing that it was a mistake to glory in that victory. So if you insist on me giving advice, I will certainly not give you a kind of menu or a timetable for change, but I do believe that what America needs is its own perestroika.’”

So are you saying that Obama is the new you? “Let me finish. Both me and my translator [Pavel Palazchenko, who has worked with Gorbachev for years, and attended the US-Soviet summit talks that led to the end of the Cold War] were amazed when that huge audience, about 10,000 people, gave me a standing ovation and I said to my translator, ‘There is something happening in America. Change will come to America.’ And the most important thing is that Obama identified that need for change. It’s the challenge that he felt and I really give him a lot of credit for that. I like him also because he’s very intelligent and very democratically minded – which, of course, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have firmness, because he does. He also has the will.”

Gorbachev may be our favourite Russian export but our desire to transform him into a cuddly international treasure – how stern can a man be, one might think, who tolerates his universal nickname “Gorby”? – are wide of the mark. He talks in a series of speeches, brooking no interruptions, which means our interview is peppered with impatient slap-downs: “I have not yet finished,” and “Let me say something first and then I’ll reply.”

It’s hard to know whether it is Gorbachev or his interpreter who is responsible for the occasional brusqueness of tone. At one point, when I am saying that if he wants to criticise the British as well as the Americans, go ahead, I have broad shoulders, his answer sounds quite rude: “So what? I’m sure you would find things to say to Russia so I am very frank to you…”

I ask him what has been his proudest moment and he says, “Pride is not really my feeling,” and then goes on at such length, taking in what seems to be the whole history of the 20th century, that I must have conveyed my feeling of despair. (Burying my head in my hands may have been the giveaway.) What is so frustrating is that, of all the notable figures I have interviewed, Gorbachev is the one who has done most to change the map of the world. I have so many questions but only a scant hour in which to put them. An attempt to sway him by saying he is a historical figure fails – “Don’t consign me to history” – but it does make him smile. Living history, I mean. “OK, if it’s living history, I accept that.” Later, he says: “You know, Chekhov said that one has to speak very briefly but…” You are, perhaps, more like Tolstoy, is my attempt at a Russian joke, which falls flat.

What is startling, from someone whose name is synonymous with attempting to effect far-reaching change in his own country, and who is still outspoken (although not enough for some) about its failings under Medvedev and Putin, is how angry Gorbachev feels about outsiders’ criticism. “The British, the Americans want us to be like them,” he says. “First of all, that shouldn’t be the demand, I guess, we never demanded others be like us. There should be competition and exchanges between different countries, but there are certainly certain universal values and that is freedom and democracy. We still have a way to go towards implementing those values and we can be quite critical in our own country about many things.

“We are seeing ourselves that there is still a lot to be done by us to achieve democracy. And so I say to Americans: ‘You want us to be like you but I can tell you, it took you 200 years to build your democracy yet you want us to do the same thing in 200 days.’ And I say, ‘Well, I know we are more talented than you are, but not as much as that.’ And they understand, they react to this.”

He says that Russians continue to be misunderstood, maybe wilfully so. “My first book as General Secretary was called Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, and its first sentence was, ‘We want to be understood.’ Even now, we want to be understood. And there are quite a few people for whom Russia is a hindrance, a problem, which is crazy.”

Can you be more specific? “Let me give you some facts because you may think it’s just words. During Yeltsin’s time, when he abandoned the evolutionary path of reform and used cowboy methods, shock therapy that ruined the country’s economy… Many people lost their jobs, and many people were not paid their wages or salary for months, sometimes years. During this time we had all those delegations of visitors coming to Russia and everyone applauded Yeltsin. I was watching this and I thought, ‘Well, how can that be?’ And I finally concluded that it was a kind of political activism at that time on the part of the people who actually enjoyed the fact that Russia was down.

“But you cannot put Russia down on its knees” – a thump on the table – “and hold it there because Russia will ultimately pull out. And it was that kind of attitude of the West towards Russia in the Nineties that changed the attitude of many Russians. The euphoria in favour of Europe and America disappeared when people saw that attitude, and it ruined the trust that existed. I think that was the most important thing.”

In late 1992, I travelled through Russia with a British businessman who had lost his own empire in controversial circumstances and was attempting to restore his millions in the new frontier. What was most striking was the sense of a country in transition, hungry to embrace change and enjoy the free-market benefits speculative Westerners seemed eager to offer – naturally, since there were profits to be made.

One of the business meetings took place in Brezhnev’s old shooting lodge, and in the guest book was an inscription in a babyish, perhaps drunken, scrawl to the host: “Thank you very much. You are a good man. This is me. Yeltsin. November 1991.” (The year he was elected President.) In 1993, a year after my trip, Yeltsin was impeached after relations between the President and parliament had collapsed. There was a ten-day conflict with the deadliest street fights in Moscow since 1917. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, Yeltsin offered a surprise resignation and announced Putin as his successor.

Gorbachev initially supported Putin, and still does apparently (he backed Russia’s role in last year’s war with Georgia, for instance), but this has not stopped his candid criticism at various points. In 2005, Pravda reported him commenting on a controversial reform (abolishing communist-era entitlements to benefits) that enraged pensioners: “Law-makers did not think about people, when they were discussing the law. Public organisations, science – everything has been left aside. In my opinion, such an approach to elderly people can evoke only indignation for normal people.”

Yet in 2007, he endorsed Putin as President in the parliamentary elections: “It is a fact that within Russia, Putin is supported by up to 80 per cent of the population. [When Gorbachev last ran for President in 1996, he won only 0.5 per cent of the vote.] For me that is a more persuasive argument as I live in Russia. He has brought stabilisation to Russia. Not everyone would have been able to cope with the kind of legacy that he inherited from Boris Yeltsin.”

This was the year that Gordon Brown expelled four Russian diplomats in response to Moscow’s refusal to allow the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy, the man suspected of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko – the former KGB officer who had accused the Russian secret services of staging various terrorism acts in order to bring Putin to power. The Russian foreign ministry described the action as “immoral” and “provocative”. Brown said he wouldn’t allow “lawlessness” to take a grip in London. It was the first time in 11 years that Russian officials had been thrown out of Britain and marked the biggest chill in relations since the end of the Cold War. Lugovoy, a businessman and politician who has always denied any involvement in the murder, remains in Russia where he enjoys immunity from prosecution.

In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and human rights activist, was shot dead in the lift of her apartment block. She had made her name reporting from Chechnya, and was a well-known critic of the conflict and Putin’s role in it. In January this year, her lawyer was assassinated. No one has been convicted of either murder.

Earlier this year, in a stinging rebuke, Gorbachev denounced Putin and his United Russia Party as “the party of bureaucrats and the worst version of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”. But why was he not more damning of Putin two years earlier? Was he, perhaps, fearful of what might happen to him or his family?

“Why should I be afraid? No. I can say that I understand how difficult things are for the President because I was President myself. I was in his shoes, in his skin and therefore I understand the situation better. And that’s why I supported Putin and still support him. On the other hand, on certain issues, I speak out very openly and directly. For example, I’ve been saying for some time that the election system needs to be changed. I have also been saying that there’s been a lot of talk about fighting corruption but there is no real fight against corruption.

“There are things for which the government should be criticised because we have seen these terrible tragedies when journalists have been killed, so we are entitled to speak openly and recently, yes, indeed, we have been speaking very strongly to the Government. Sometimes I feel that the Government itself is pained to understand that it cannot guarantee people’s safety and security. Many crimes of this kind have not been solved, and I have been saying that it is wrong that the killers have not been found. And many other people have been saying critical things as well.”

But nothing happens. “I wouldn’t say nothing – but it is certainly true that some of the highest profile crimes have not been solved. And I say that I doubt that everything possible has been done to solve those crimes.”

Change begins with ideas, he says, which are initially heresies: “What about Jesus Christ? I say that he was a precursor of idealists; a precursor of socialists.” Does he believe in Christianity? “As an idea, yes. The ideals of communism are similar to the ideals of Christianity.” He calls himself a social democrat who is “still committed to the ideas of socialism”.

What is curious is that in all Gorbachev’s speechifying, he neglects to take the opportunity to make one for his own party – the Independent Democratic Party of Russia – founded by himself and his billionaire friend, Alexander Lebedev (the new owner of London’s Evening Standard), in late September last year. The two Russians, between them, own 49 per cent of Novaya Gazeta, the independent (read anti-Putin) newspaper which employed the late Politkovskaya, one of four of the paper’s investigative journalists who have been killed. (Lebedev has offered $1 million – £600,000 – for information which would lead to the conviction of her assassins.) According to reports, the party had planned to register this summer and hold its founding congress this month.

Gorbachev attacks what he calls “the winners’ complex… the disease of the ruling classes, particularly the beneficiaries of the previous system, who I think are the most responsible for the global economic crisis”. At the summit in Paris marking the end of the Cold War, “We said that Europe should re-emphasise such issues as fighting poverty, such as the environment. We said that society should not be based on hyper-consumption. You know, all those yachts of rich people that fill the seas and the bays…”

Oligarchs? “Naturally,” he laughs. “They became so rich because they violated certain norms of morality and certain values. They often stopped at nothing and that’s why many of them find themselves in jail.”

His friend Lebedev, a former KGB spy who fell in love with London on a posting to the Russian Embassy, where he worked undercover until 1992, is certainly wealthy and influential enough to qualify as an oligarch. He bought the National Reserve Bank, which became one of the largest banks in Russia, and his company owns a third of Aeroflot. His estimated fortune (pre-crash) was $3.1 billion (£1.8 billion) and he maintains that it’s still around $2.5 billion (£1.5 billion). He is scathing about his fellow Russian oligarchs, saying: “They don’t read books. They don’t go to exhibitions. They think the only way to impress anyone is to buy a yacht.” (Something, he is proud to say, he has never owned.)

What Lebedev certainly knows how to do well is throw a swell party. He and his almost theatrically handsome 28-year-old London-based son, Evgeny, run the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation named after Gorbachev’s wife who died of leukaemia in 1999. The charity was set up in Britain in 2006 and has since raised almost £4 million to support children with cancer. In 2008, the foundation – as part of a decision to extend its programme beyond Russia – formed an agreement with Marie Curie Cancer Care in the UK.

Every year, the Lebedevs throw a fundraising gala with a decidedly A* guest list. The first bash was at Althorp House, Earl Spencer’s family pile. This year’s do was at Lebedev’s home, Stud House – where Lord Byron once lived – in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace.

The fourth annual Russian Midsummer Fantasy gala is an extravaganza of positively Tsarist splendour. The women all seem to be toweringly tall and stick-thin, and although Sophie Dahl (with fiancé Jamie Cullum) and Yasmin Le Bon attend, not all of them are supermodels. Sarah Brown and Tina Brown are there, David Walliams, Alex James, J. K. Rowling, David Hockney, Boris Johnson and Evening Standard editor Geordie Greig. It is one of Vanessa Redgrave’s first public appearances after the tragic death of her daughter, Natasha, but then her younger daughter, Joely, 44, is currently dating Evgeny Lebedev. Away from the house and the exotic Thirties spiegeltent, Ukrainian synchronised swimmers in retro red swimsuits and petal caps perform complicated patterns for hours in a natural pond, while deer graze in the grounds beyond.

Gorbachev, the guest of honour, seems totally at ease in this wham-glam company, walking slightly stiffly, supported by his pretty granddaughter, Anastasia. He smiles when we meet again and delights in greeting me, on more than one occasion, as his “torturer”. My American friend, a big Gorby fan, says that he has the charmer’s knack of making you feel totally special, if only for a few brief moments.

We don’t stay for the dinner (it costs £15,000 a table), but read about it in the social columns afterwards: J. K. Rowling and Peter Kay bopping, while DJ Mark Ronson spins; Chrissie Hynde’s acoustic set; Cossacks hoofing it to Run DMC, and the amusing detail that among the items in the silent auction is the Louis Vuitton bag “as modelled by Gorbachev” in that famous advertising campaign. The former Soviet leader is impervious to suggestions that the ads may have cheapened his legacy, pointing out that he also appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial because his foundation needed money, and would welcome more work in that line. The surprise highlight of the evening was Gorbachev taking to the stage to perform a song he used to sing to his late wife, dedicating it to Raisa on the tenth anniversary of her death.

A few days earlier, in the conference room of a discreetly luxurious West End hotel, where we conducted the interview, I had asked Gorbachev if he found his bereavement any easier to cope with as the years went by. “Well, time, of course, is doing its work… But still this was the most difficult, the hardest thing in my life and particularly because Raisa’s death came so unexpectedly.

“When a wife whom one loves so much passes away, this is irreplaceable. But I’m not totally lonely. I still have a daughter and two granddaughters and now a great-granddaughter, Sasha, so…” Perhaps it is the thought of being such a substantial paterfamilias that makes him laugh so violently.

Would Raisa have wanted him to marry again? He tells a story which is not immediately to the point, but charming nonetheless. “She liked that little joke about the different ages of a woman. You know, there is a little girl, a young girl, a young lady, a young woman… a young woman, a young woman… and then the old woman is dead.

“So when she would say, ‘I don’t want to be an old woman,’ I would say, ‘You will never be an old woman.’ She was so lively; her character was so lively. She had something in her of the nature of a princess. A princess from the countryside.” A long pause. “Sometimes it’s better to speak without thinking. So of course what happened was irreparable, and I have a feeling of guilt for her.”

It haunts you? “There is still some of that feeling because it was the drama of perestroika and of our life then… That was something ultimately that she was not able to bear. She was a very vulnerable person.”

When I express surprise, he corrects himself: “She was strong but she had to endure a great deal.” The coup in 1991, when hardliners placed Gorbachev and his family under house arrest in their dasha in Crimea, must have been horribly traumatic. As were the events which led to his forced resignation on Christmas Day, followed by the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union the next day.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to die,’ and then, ‘You know, of the two of us, it would be better if I die first.’ She said, ‘You’d marry,’ and I said, ‘How can you talk to me like this!’” More laughter. “‘What’s on your mind?’ And she said, ‘Well, I just mention it.’ And when I recall that, I feel that perhaps she had a premonition.”

When Raisa was in hospital, he continues, she received thousands of letters from people, “and that was a great consolation to her. But she said something that I have included in the book I am writing now, ‘Do I have to die in order for people to believe me?’”

What did she mean by that? “She meant that quite a few people were not happy about her and had been very critical of her and the position she took because she was different. I had always said to her, right from the beginning, ‘You should behave as yourself. Just as yourself.’” When I press him to explain more fully, Gorbachev says: “For that, you will have to read my book.”

When we started the interview, Gorbachev had remarked – almost as though it surprised himself – that he is older now than Brezhnev was when he died. So does he feel his age? “Yes, yes,” he sighs. And yet he continues to submit himself, aged 78, to a punishing schedule, flying around the globe, on his mission to right the wrongs of the world. “One feels the age and, yes, sometimes one doesn’t feel too well… The body actually ages faster than the soul.” How about the mind? “I think I’m in good shape there, no problems with that.”

It’s interesting that, as an atheist, he believes in the concept of a soul: “Only 7 per cent of the human being has been studied by science. I think it has been medically established that there is a soul, but this is something that science still doesn’t understand.”

I ask whether he also believes, in that case, that he is a spiritual person, and Palazchenko’s translation takes so long that I comment on it. “Spiritual has a different meaning in Russian,” he says. “So I had to explain [to Gorbachev] what you meant by ‘spiritual’.”

The Gorbachevs met when they were fellow students at Moscow State University – Raisa was studying philosophy; Mikhail, law. His family were peasants, working the land in the village of Privolnoye in the south of the Russian republic. He helped his father operate a combine harvester and in his CV boasts: “I am particularly proud of my ability to detect a fault in the combine instantly, just by the sound of it.” It was at university that he joined the Communist Party and, soon after, started his rise through its ranks. In 1985, he was elected General Secretary of the Party Central Committee, the top job, and began the process of democratisation.

When he talks about the couple’s early days together, it becomes clear both how unusual Raisa was and also the part she played – which was news to me – in shaping her husband’s desire for reform. “Let me tell you the history [of the rise of charity initiatives in Russia]. When Raisa first got involved in this, it was still in Soviet times. She visited a cancer section of a hospital for children, and young mothers rushed to her, some begged at her feet, and she came home really shocked. She was a very impressionable person and she said, ‘What can I do? I am a teacher, a professor, and I know very little about this.’ So she said, ‘You must help me. We cannot leave such pain and such pleas without an answer.’ And I think this is a test, by the way, of the spirituality that you asked about.

“If a person is indifferent to the problems of his fellow people, to children, to older people, then there is definitely a flaw in that person’s spirituality. But let’s not make this a seminar in sophistry. When Raisa took this initiative, to get involved in charity, to support hospitals and to support some cultural projects, the initial reaction in our society was that people didn’t understand. Now people understand that the state [alone cannot provide all the help] and that we need to help poorer families, and it is actually welcomed when such help is given.”

Gorbachev says that even though Stalin had been dead for a long time when he came to power, “much of the atmosphere that Stalin created still existed and people were afraid of talking to the Government”. Glasnost (transparency) came first, then perestroika (restructuring). “We said very directly, ‘Our people are free to speak their minds, free to write, free to assemble and discuss.’ We said, ‘This is the people’s right, this is in the constitution and this will be fulfilled.’ And what glasnost meant was that the entire society was set in motion. I really wanted to make people feel that they can actually achieve something, and they can get the Government’s attention – and as a result of protests [about pollution], we closed down more than 1,000 factories.”

What I want him to explain is what made him so unique. Where did his vision come from, and what gave him the strength of character to act on and implement it? But Gorbachev is unable to shed any light, other than to say that even as a young boy, he was always a leader, and that his greatest influences were his maternal grandfather (a veteran communist who narrowly escaped Stalin’s death squad when he was accused of Trotskyism), his father and, above all, Russian literature.

I had heard that Russians tend to be hyper-critical of the British, not helped by the Brown-Putin stand-off. Is that so? “I think in our society there is still the view that Britain is an open country and the land of opportunity. So I wouldn’t say that Russians rush to judgment about Britain. But you know what Bismarck once said, ‘It takes time for Russians to saddle their horses, but when they do, they move very fast.’”

He has been a visitor here, he says, maybe 20 or 30 times over the years. So which British Prime Minister has he most admired? “Well, in terms of the outcome of the results, certainly it was Margaret Thatcher. [Who, famously, said she liked him, adding: “We can do business together.”] But I also have a very high opinion of Tony Blair.”

And Gordon Brown? “I like him very much. He is very intelligent, and it seems to me that he was the person who actually alerted the world to the financial problems. But that’s not all. You know, he acts in a certain environment… There is something up above that creates that environment and in that environment, he has to implement his plans and his strategies.”

What on earth does that mean, “something up above”? Gorbachev laughs: “I’m speaking about this crisis. I think that one day we will understand what are the sources of the crisis that has now engulfed the whole world.”

So one last question. Why does he feel that David Cameron is not ready to be Prime Minister? “I didn’t say that. See, that happens. Someone quoted me even though I didn’t say that.” Well, let me ask the question and you can respond. What does he think? “No, the interview is over,” and Gorbachev and his interpreter think this is the best joke of all.

This November, 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down, the most potent symbol of the collapse of communism. Gorbachev has always said that his aim had been to fix the regime, not to be the instrument of its downfall. “I am a resolute opponent of the break-up of the Union. Personally, as a politician, I lost,” he has said. “But the idea that I conveyed and the project that I carried out, it played a huge role in the world and the country.”

In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in allowing the mostly peaceful revolutions that took place across the Eastern Bloc. His fellow Russians were not so impressed, summed up by the view of one minister: “We must remember this certainly was not the prize for economics.” Another view, from his supporter Lebedev is that: “He gave our people freedom but we just can’t learn how to use it.”

I would have liked to ask Gorbachev whether he felt there was something inherently tragic in the dramatic success of his democratisation leading to the destruction of the Union, which he also believed in passionately, but it seemed too complicated to put to him via his interpreter.

Perhaps he answered it, in any case, without knowing the question. I had asked him whether he considered that he had a romantic soul. He laughed again, something he did a lot, considering that I was his torturer. “I have not said that about myself, but it is a view that is common in Russia, where they call me ‘the Last Romantic’. There, they call me an idealist. And my reply is that it is the idealists who move the world.”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6816872.ece
http://www.ginnydougary.co.uk

Politicians

Who is David Cameron?

The Times May 16, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

The past year has been a momentous one for David Cameron. As Gordon Brown’s Government stumbles from crisis to crisis, Cameron has reaped the political reward, as his target narrows on No 10. Yet alongside this public ambition has been private grief as he suffered the devastating death of his eldest child, Ivan

David Cameron
Photo: Tom Stoddart

If David Cameron wants to survive to become the next prime minister, he should avoid being driven at all costs. We are hurtling through the narrow, winding country roads of West Oxfordshire, having left his constituency headquarters in Witney (Tory-blue carpet and chairs; wobbly round table; rough Cotswold stonewalls) a fraction behind schedule for the 20-minute journey to Chimney Meadows nature reserve, where Cameron is to deliver a speech.

He is still tanned from his holiday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh – “Yuh, Tony Blair territory” – and looks slimmer and, strangely, after all he has been through in recent weeks, even more fresh-faced and youthful than when we last met. “Really? I feel a lot older,” he grimaces when I tell him. He is definitely, however, more uptight, barking at the poor chauffeur: “Are you sure this is the right direction?”; “This isn’t the way I would have gone” every few minutes; continually worrying about running late. After our white-knuckle ride, Gabrielle Bertin, Cameron’s press officer, confides that her boss is always a bit of a nightmare passenger. Here is a man who hankers to be in the driver’s seat in more ways, clearly, than the big one.

The occasion, described to me by Cameron as “very birds and trees”, is attended by 100-odd local wildlife enthusiasts in green wellies, Barbours and fleeces; not all of them Tory voters. By the time he is called upon to speak, the leader-in-waiting has regained his customary composure. He starts with a little joke that this is the first time he has given a talk in a barn which means that there’s less risk – what with the fresh air and open doors – of his audience falling asleep.

The speech is an opportunity for him to underline his green commitment: “Some would say that in a recession we can’t afford to go green, but I would say quite the opposite… Some people find the greening of the Conservative Party rather peculiar but…”, and says that he wants to make it easier for local communities to take over disused land, in a move that would echo Thatcher’s “right to buy” homes policy.

He finishes by drawing on the theme of a Dr Seuss book, The Lorax, which is the Camerons’ current bedtime reading for their children, Nancy and Elwen. It is a fable of the dangers of destroying biodiversity: “The effect of deforestation, smog and pollution – gluppity-glupp and schloppity-schlopp to Dr Seuss – are all too familiar… The moral of the story is all in one word: ‘Unless’.” Cameron adopts a singsong voice: “‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, It’s not going to get better, it’s not.’”

It is six weeks since Ivan, the Camerons’ eldest child, died. David Cameron had agreed that we should meet to talk briefly about this sad event, before our drive to Chimney Meadows. It would be fair to say that we were both rather dreading the intrusion into such a private realm of loss. We had, however, spent months talking on and off for this profile, during which time I had met Ivan in the family’s London home, and the grieving father must remain a pragmatic politician.

First, we catch up on the big news of that week: McNastygate. I’m most interested in what he thinks the whole Damian McBride affair says about Gordon Brown’s character, but the question confounds him: “I don’t know; I’m not a psychoanalyst. I don’t think you can just say that this is a one-off problem. There is a pattern of behaviour but I profoundly believe politics doesn’t have to be like this.” Cue predictable guff on how much healthier the political culture would be if the Conservatives were in power.

I wonder which of the prevailing theories about Brown rings truest to Cameron: is the Prime Minister a Jekyll and Hyde character (donnish introvert alongside bruiser bullyboy) or someone who needs the likes of McBride because he doesn’t have the requisite toughness for that sort of gloves-off fight?

“I just don’t know the man well enough to answer the question,” he sighs. “But you choose the people you want for the skills they have and what you want them to do so… it’s like the scene in Casablanca, as Andrew Neil put it, when the barman says, ‘I’m shocked that people have been drinking in my bar.’ ”

Politics, he agrees, sometimes – quite often – means being unpleasant (as anyone who has witnessed recent Commons confrontations between Brown and Cameron will attest). “Yes, there’s rough and tumble; yes, there’s argument; yes, it can get very heated; yes, sometimes it does go into… um… what people’s motivations are…” And nasty? “Yes, but it’s a world apart from what’s been going on here, (a) because it’s all untrue, and (b) because it’s going after people’s wives. I felt really very angry about it because I thought, ‘How can these people say that about someone’s wife?’” (The leaked e-mails contained below-the-belt comments about George Osborne’s wife.)

Did it make Cameron want to punch him? (I meant McBride but Cameron clearly thought I was talking about Brown which makes his response even funnier.) “You want to get the sort of mud wrestling scene from D.H. Lawrence! No!” he laughs. “I just felt really angry and the point about me saying, ‘I want him to say sorry,’ was not a ploy to be clever. I just thought, ‘I bloody well want him to say sorry. I’m really angry about this.’

“And it’s no good saying he didn’t write the e-mails. This happened in his office in Downing Street, he’s the leader, he’s the head of the culture, so you have to say sorry. He did eventually, and good for him, quite right.”

Cameron, of course, has first-hand experience of spin; in his one break from politics, he was Michael Green’s director of corporate affairs at Carlton Communications from 1994 to 2001. I say that he seemed to be universally unpopular in that role and he erupts into laughter: “It was pretty impossible because I worked for someone whose view – particularly when you’re dealing with market-sensitive information – was that you should say very little. I was perennially known as saying, ‘No comment,’ to everyone about everything.”

The Carlton chapter in Francis Elliott and James Hanning’s (newly updated) unauthorised biography makes you sound a good deal more disagreeable than that. “It’s very bad,” he splutters. “It’s a long time since I read the book but it’s not right at all.” But all those quotes were attributable to journalists who wrote about what a s*** you were! “Butbutbutbutbut… [snorting with laughter]. I don’t accept that, I really don’t.”

What? David Cameron says, “I was not a s***”? “Of course I was not a… you know,” he says, hyper-alert to the possibility of providing the wrong sort of soundbite. “The point is there are a lot of people you could talk to who would say that I did the job very fairly and in a very honourable way.” (He plucks out one name and says, sounding slightly desperate, “I’m sure she would vouch for me.”)

So is there nothing you’ve done in your professional life that has made you ashamed of yourself? “Of course, I’m sure there are things that I’ve done that I shouldn’t have done,” he says. “But what Damian McBride did is just in a different world.”

We move on to Ivan. In our early meetings, I was struck by how often Cameron talked about his profoundly disabled first-born child. What was striking is that although I found Cameron to be frustratingly reticent in some ways, he always seemed utterly relaxed talking about Ivan’s condition – an extreme form of epilepsy and cerebral palsy – almost as though it were a relief to speak openly about what it is like to be a parent of a disabled child.

I had asked him whether, on hearing the news about the extent of his son’s disability, there had been a moment where he feared he might not love him because of it. “That’s a very deep, big question,” he replied. “But I never worried that I wouldn’t because when your first child is born, that’s an incredibly precious feeling that you have and you love him from the moment he pops out.”

We had been talking back then about his faith – which he described as “good, solid Church of England… sort of full of doubts and worries and concerns and I don’t think I’ve got a direct line to God! But if something goes wrong in life, I’m more inclined to try to be rational and sensible and practical…” – and, again, his thoughts led inexorably back to Ivan.

“I suppose with Ivan, on the one hand it does sort of shake your faith but on the other hand, I don’t know, in a rather strange way it also reaffirmed it.”

It is still very early days since the death of his boy and, of course, “It’s not a straight line where every day gets a little better. Some days, you think, well, this is getting a bit better, and other days you feel completely miserable and it’s not getting better at all.

“I try to think of… The fact is that he did have a lot of pain in his life and he did suffer a lot, and so I try to think of that because it makes me think that he’s in a better place – but you just can’t get over the fact that we miss him a lot, you know. That’s the really difficult thing.”

In one of the many, many pieces that have been written about Ivan, I was struck by the description of him being a presence in the room that pulled people, particularly children, towards him; almost as though his stillness radiated a sort of calmness which you wanted to be near. I felt it, to a small extent, myself. “I think because he couldn’t move, if he heard a new voice, his head would turn and he would look at you and you would just be drawn.” And he was beautiful. “Yesssss,” a sharp intake of breath; his eyes redden and so do mine. We’re going to find this… “Very difficult…”

Cameron pulls himself up. “The letters were amazing, I got 11,000 letters… I didn’t read every single one but I did read a huge amount. I read all the ones from people who had children like Ivan, because they were amazing stories, and all the ones from people who’d met him and what their impressions were and that was very touching to read.”

He and his wife Samantha watched Gordon Brown’s speech: “I thought it was very good and I wasn’t expecting it at all because, you know, I thought Parliament will carry on, as it were, but it was very touching that he and William Hague did what they did and said what they said.

“The Houses of Parliament are extraordinary in that one minute everyone is having a go at each other, and the next minute because of bereavement or an event it suddenly stops. It was odd watching television that night – the mood was very striking – but we were watching it because it was lovely seeing…” Cameron emits a piercingly grief-stricken laugh, “…you know, pictures of Ivan.”

I mention the lovely one of him and Ivan that was on the front of every newspaper and he says that someone did an incredible drawing of it and sent it to him: “Absolutely beautiful… a little pencil drawing, really the loveliest thing. I’m framing it and I’ve brought it down to Dean [his Oxfordshire home] to put it on the wall because it’s so lovely.”

The Camerons haven’t even thought about how to deal with their London home, with its basement converted specifically to cater to Ivan’s needs. When does life move on to deal with painful practicalities of that sort? “Very slowly. That expression – time and space – is very true. Because you do need time and you do need not to rush these things. There are all those sort of things which we haven’t changed yet and it will take a very long time to do that.”

Is it the case that Samantha is finding it particularly hard because of the bond – even a sort of cocoon – that mothers are said to have with severely disabled children? “The point is that it was not just because he was our first child that life evolved around him an enormous amount, but Samantha had arranged a life for him and care for him and everything for him so brilliantly and beautifully and that not being there any more is… an enormous vacuum… and that will take a very long time to come to terms with.”

Was there any moment when he thought that he didn’t want to be in this game any more, that there are more important things in life than politics?

“It was more like just the world stopped and nothing else mattered; it’s more like that. It doesn’t suddenly change everything you think but… it’s the only way I can describe it. This happened and suddenly the clock stopped,” he says, echoing Auden’s moving love poem of loss, “and the next few days and weeks were just very different to anything that had gone before and then, slowly, you emerge.”

He continues: “You’re quite hyperactive, too. Funerals are very cathartic things because the arrangements and everything are tremendously important because it helps you understand what’s happened and then afterwards you feel a bit low because… as I say, it’s not a straight line. It’s not a bit better every day – it just comes and goes.”

Do you think it’s made it harder for you because you’re so much in the public eye? “I don’t know, because I am what I am and what I do, and there’s nothing to compare it with.” He stops and thinks. “There are ups and downs. The positives are the letters I’ve had, and the extraordinary contact I’ve had with people has been very helpful – because it’s lovely to know that people are thinking about you, and it helps that other people who’ve been through the same thing write to you. But on the other hand, the fact that people do come up and say lovely things sometimes just sets you off again.”

It was only afterwards when I listened to the interview that I realised that Cameron had hardly mentioned Ivan’s name, as though to say it might make him fall apart.

The man behind the scenes

We had spent a very long day together at the beginning of January, travelling up by train to the unTory North East heartland – Stockton-on-Tees, Sunderland, Newcastle, Tynemouth, North Shields – from eight in the morning, not getting back to London till after midnight.

There were a number of train journeys, car rides, hanging unglamorously around Doncaster station in the dark and freezing cold (he had, imprudently, forgotten to bring a coat) for a delayed connection, and so on

– but, as many a sceptical interviewer before me has found, Cameron is good company, not at all arrogant or pompous, relaxed, with the sort of easy charm that can make you want to forget you’re being charmed.

This Cameron swears, likes a drink, sings Lindisfarne’s Fog on the Tyne in a bad Geordie accent as we approach Newcastle, and speaks refreshingly openly about other political figures, both in the UK and overseas – but then worries terribly that his off-the-record comments might somehow resurface. (He is a bit of a fretter, I think.) I have to reassure both him and Gabby Bertin – oh, about half a dozen times – that not a word of his indiscretions will see the light of day.

The next meeting was at his home – another early start – a week or so later, and it was clear that Cameron was as keen as me that I should catch a glimpse of him being a modern father with Samantha, creative director of pukka stationer Smythson, clearing up breakfast, getting their three children ready for school, before setting off to work.

When Cam’s Gang – the New Tory brat pack – was first written about in 2005, much was made of its members’ proximity to one another in fashionable Notting Hill, West London – a not altogether helpful (at least not to them) shorthand for a certain fast-living, trustafarian lifestyle. The Camerons’ home is not one of those gorgeous white stuccoed piles within walking distance of bijoux boutiques and foodie restaurants, but a rather more ordinary Edwardian house in an unremarkable street near tatty Latimer Road Tube station. Admittedly it did cost more than £1 million, which is not hard in London, and that was before its architect-designed, environmentally friendly makeover, but there’s very little to distinguish it – apart from, perhaps, a number of large nudes by Samantha propped against a wall – from any other metropolitan upper-middle class family home.

When I arrived, Samantha was sitting on the sofa with Ivan on her lap, putting on his socks, while David was perched in front of the computer watching clips of Ben 10 cartoons on YouTube with Nancy, 5, on one knee and Elwen, as the family call him, although he was christened Arthur, 3, on the other. Later the couple switched and David told me, as he carefully arranged his eldest son’s floppy limbs into his mechanised wheelchair, that he got a smile from Ivan earlier on when he kissed him on the back of the neck. With so little else to gauge how your child is feeling, one can see how a smile – particularly since they were rare – must have been cherishable indeed.

Cameron has been accused, from both within and without his party, of using his family, particularly Ivan, for political leverage. The Browns, for instance, also have a disabled child, Fraser, who has cystic fibrosis, but they have made the decision to keep their boys out of the public domain.

I don’t happen to feel that Cameron’s approach was wrong, even if there were an element of expediency about it. To see an extremely handicapped child cuddled up with the rest of the family – being cared for by a loving father, one who has his sights set on the most senior post in the land, in an unselfconscious way – must help to remove the stigma and fear around the disabled.

The Leader of the Opposition is used to hearing the criticisms and handles them with equanimity, explaining patiently when we first met: “For one thing, my family is very important and – as I’ve put it before – I’m asking people to do a big thing and make me Prime Minister and they have a right to look at you and what you’re like.

“But I also agree with people who say that you have to think about privacy and to me it’s a judgment you have to make, and sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong. And I’ve said this about Ivan: he’s my son and I love him and I’ve learnt a lot about disability through him and I do talk about him… [on the train, he proudly showed me a photograph of Ivan on his mobile phone, a beautiful pale face with thick black eyelashes and silky dark hair]… and if sometimes people say I talk about him too much, well, people have a perfect right to criticise me. I might sometimes get it wrong and if people want to say, ‘Oh, I don’t think you should’, fine. I’m very relaxed about it because it is a judgment you have to make all the time.”

Character study

By the time we spoke in Cameron’s office in Portcullis House, London, some weeks later, I was feeling rather too well disposed towards him for comfort. Still a suspicion lingered that the Prime Minister in waiting might not be quite as reasonable and compassionate as he seems. And how important is “niceness” anyway in a political leader – unless it’s part of the detoxification process, as Cameron doesn’t like to call it; convincing the voters that your party is no longer “the nasty party”.

Cameron had said to me on the train that, “Character is often more important than policy in some ways,” and in the absence of a strong ideology, it is his character and judgment that demand particular scrutiny. The appointment of Andy Coulson – the former editor of the News of the World who resigned when one of his reporters was caught tapping the Royal Family’s telephones – as the Tories’ communications supremo was thought by some to send out an odd message, especially given Cameron’s vocal anti-spin position.

I had a couple of niggling doubts about Cameron’s character before the Portcullis meeting, when I’d put in a few phone calls to contemporaries of his at Eton and those who knew him subsequently. The Old Etonian said that from what he could gather, Cameron had been “a bit of a bully, the type of boy who might try to stub out his fags on friends’ younger brothers”. When I repeated this, Cameron looked shocked and said, “That’s an appalling thing to say and also completely untrue.”

At his prep school, to which he was sent off to board at the age of 7, there was “teasing… which could become a bit cruel… But you all had a bit of that dumped on you… It wasn’t particularly bad… Sometimes it just goes over the top and has to be pulled back. How do you cope with it? I suppose it’s just one of the things that you have to sort of learn.”

During the period Cameron worked at the Conservative Research Department and beyond, he was described to me as a “toadying suck-up” to those above him and a “petty tyrant” to those below. Another contact added, “There were, of course, numerous stories of him behaving like that at Carlton.”

But what really irked me about Cameron when we did our interview in his office was the smoothness of his transition from regular human being into professional politician. Within seconds he’d started talking like a parody of himself on television: head tilted, a slight sheen on his baby’s-bottom cheek, the exaggerated tone of eminent reasonableness, and that curse of the politician when under the spotlight: the uninterruptible platitudinous flow.

It didn’t help that we had started talking about his attitude towards the importance of restoring family values to mend so-called (by Iain Duncan Smith) “broken Britain”. By family values, Cameron really means a conventional nuclear family with a mummy and a daddy, whom he seems to believe will be encouraged to stay together if his government pays them £20 a week as part of a married couple’s allowance. However much Cameron strives to dress this up differently, it does recall the last Tory era when the likes of Peter Lilley were blaming all the woes of society on teenage single mums.

Off he goes into speech mode: “Of course we should help every family and there should be benefits for single parents. Of course that’s true, but what I’m saying is let’s not ignore what is, I think, clear: that, on average, overall, looking right across the piece, children benefit from having Mum and Dad bring them up… You’re just trying to say, let’s have a tax system and a benefit system that at least sends a positive signal about commitment and staying together. Now of course nobody gets married for £20; I’m not saying that. But we shouldn’t have a system that actively encourages people to break up.”

There is an interesting schism here. If you look at what Cameron has said in his public speeches, there is something quite brave and bold and empathetic about his words. In his 2006 conference speech in Bournemouth, this is what he said about single parents: “Those of us who don’t live the life of a single parent, just try to imagine it for a moment. Trying to get a job… trying to hold down a job with an employer who isn’t understanding about the fact that you might have to disappear at a moment’s notice because there’s no one else in your child’s life and you are responsible.”

It was this same speech that demonstrated Cameron’s dramatic evolution from traditional (he was an enthusiastic early supporter of the homophobic Section 28) to modern Tory when he defined the importance of marriage thus: “And by the way, it means something whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man. That’s why we were right to support civil partnerships and I’m proud of that.”

In June last year, he reiterated this theme in a lecture for Relate – and was applauded for doing so by the chief executive, Claire Tyler. She is unswayed, however, by the thinking behind the £20 married couple’s tax break, believing it more important to target “properly funded services” at those who really need them.

So far, so right on. And, yet, when Cameron talks to me, he continually emphasises the benefits of the conventional mum and dad set-up. It’s as though, rationally (or pragmatically), he knows that the right thing to do is to adopt a more inclusive approach but at a gut level remains unconvinced. The explanation for this, I think, is part of the Dave/David Cameron conundrum – the way in which he is a throwback to a much earlier, pre-Thatcher Tory age, while striving to be his party’s most radical modern transformer. One of his friends has described him brilliantly as “Alec Douglas-Home goes to the Glastonbury Festival”.

Thus “Dave” employs teenage lingo like “bigging up” and “whatever” even when addressing an audience of ancient, tweedy Torygraph readers, although he doesn’t fall into Blair’s trap of modifying his accent, wears his colourful Converse trainers and gets up Baroness Thatcher’s nose for not wearing a suit and tie. David is rather stiff-upper-lip and feels uncomfortable being drawn into any navel-gazing. “Dave” knows his Killers songs, and the references in his speeches are not Shakespeare and Byron but television shows and films – a post-modern Tory, if you like – although it tends to be old-style action stuff such as The Guns of Navarone (he’s seen Where Eagles Dare 17 times) rather than, say, Pulp Fiction. David has a sort of noblesse oblige attitude to the have-nots in society that harks back to Harold Macmillan; when I say this he nods and points to a far wall of the room: “There’s a picture of him over there.”

Family values

Cameron is a bastard from way back – something he tells me on the train. His lineage can be traced to William IV (1765-1837) and his long-term mistress, the actress Dorothea Jordan, who had ten illegitimate children. Samantha goes back even further, to the first Duke of St Albans, one of two illegitimate sons by Nell Gwynne and Charles II.

His own family background, unlike that of his wife, seems to have been conventionally settled and down-to-earth. His father, Ian, sounds admirable: a man who, despite being born with badly deformed legs (he has now had both amputated and is blind in one eye), never let his disability stop him doing anything he wanted in life – from playing tennis to securing the hand of the well-connected Mary Mount who, at 19, judging from an early photograph of her in a ball dress, was something of a bobbydazzler.

I suspect that David’s emphasis on the importance of marriage and a stable family has been inherited from his father, who apparently had a wretched time as a child when his own parents divorced. Samantha’s parents, Sir Reginald Sheffield – former owner of the 300-acre estate of Normanby Hall, outside Scunthorpe – and Annabel Jones, divorced amicably in the early Seventies. She became Viscountess Astor when she married William Astor a few years later.

But let’s return to that interview in Portcullis House, where Cameron’s inner politician had the effect of unleashing my inner Paxman, prompting him to say, “You’re meant to be interviewing me, not attacking me…” Then, “Actually, I’m enjoying this.”

To my complaint that he was so much more irritating in politician mode, Cameron said, not unreasonably, “Well, I am a politician, for Christ’s sake, what do you expect?” At one point, hilariously, he and his personable press secretary, Bertin, who was sitting in with her own tape recorder, started applauding my technique; Cameron: “You’re just trying to get stuff out of me; it’s a very clever tactic.”

What neither of them seemed to understand was that my bad temper was absolutely genuine. From the moment Cameron donned his politician’s mask, everything that came out of his mouth sounded phoney. He trotted out his favourite soundbite several times: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state,” which is annoying on so many different levels that it’s hard to know where to start.

It’s a blatantly tricksy device to distance himself from the Thatcher era, when her line “There’s no such thing as society” became synonymous with uncompassionate Conservatism. But the rest of that line, which was rarely quoted from her interview in Woman’s Own, was, “There are individual men and women, and there are families.” And so while pretending to turn his back on nasty, selfish old Thatcherism, he is actually reconfirming her belief that it is up to individuals to sort out social problems, and not the responsibility of government.

“Broken Britain” is another maddening slogan which panders to the worst sort of Daily Fear prejudices, taking a few black spots and violent crimes to paint a distorted picture of widespread and irrevocable breakdown which is, surely, unrecognisable for the most part to most people.

Cameron’s response to this, when I say that there is much evidence that the British are plenty caring and compassionate without needing any guidance from the Conservative Party, is, “I’m not saying that every part of our country is in a broken state… My constituency is a wonderful part of the world where there is a very strong society and people do look after and out for each other.”

What I believe Cameron really thinks, but feels it would be too unpolitical to emphasise, is that profound social problems are almost universally linked to profound economic problems. He does actually address this himself, saying that society is too unequal and his real concern is the gap between the bottom and the middle, and that “part of what my whole leadership of this party has been about is reconnecting the Conservative Party with its heritage of caring about inequality, poverty, the causes of poverty and the two nations of a country that…” a nod to me, “in some parts is broken.”

So, I put to him, when he keeps linking divorce or the lack of fathers to the collapse of society, wouldn’t it be more honest to acknowledge that where this makes a particular impact is on those who are already struggling to survive. After all, he must know plenty of people – his wife, for one – whose new extended families, post divorce, have successfully reconfigured into perfectly happy and functional tribes.

“It’s much easier to get on if you have the resources to do so,” he agrees. “So if you’re saying, ‘Does relationship breakdown particularly disadvantage people in less well-off communities?’, the answer is probably yes.”

Part of Cameron’s charm is to use self-deprecation whenever possible, which is also useful for warding off an unwelcome line of inquiry. He seems to find it particularly difficult to respond to questions that attempt to delve, which leads to more combative banter. So he will say that he is “boringly” uncomplicated and straightforward, and I say, “So no hidden depths, only shallows?”

He does admit to having been in the shadow of his older brother, Alexander, three years his senior, a barrister and “probably” a Conservative voter – unlike his elder sister, Tania, “who was always a Labour voter… I don’t know whether I’ve swung her; I’m working on it.” As for his younger sister, Clare, through whom he met Samantha, he has no idea what she votes. Alexander, he says, was always better at sport than him, very popular, and a “brilliant actor. He was in every school play – he’s a really, really good actor.”

He also has a fear of failure which he finds hard to explain: “I don’t know… I just don’t know what I feel. I hate letting people down. I hate failing.” Perhaps if you have a flaw it is that you don’t care to scrutinise yourself too much? “I try to scrutinise if I’ve got something wrong. I try to go back and think, well, why? And sometimes that can be something that’s part of your make-up that you failed. It is something that you have to ask yourself. When you let people down, you have to go back and say, ‘Well, why did I do that? Where did I go wrong? How was I… I don’t know, whether… was I being insensitive or…?’ So I can do a bit of self-analysis, I hope.”

This has such a personal tinge, I wonder whether he and Samantha argue much. “Yes, of course we argue. Not absolutely throwing-the-furniture arguments, and we try to never go to bed on an argument… try to make it up before you sleep. But, yeah, relationships are very good for discovering about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses.”

When Cameron was telling me about his Eton days, where he was a self-confessed late developer, he made a point of saying how much he enjoyed spending time in the art department. “I just sort of quite liked trying out different things – printing and silk-screening and so on.” He says that he only got a C at O level, “but was quite proud because

I did it on my own, outside the curriculum, because I really enjoyed it”. What does Samantha think of your efforts? “Terrible. She’s the artist and I’m not.”

When I ask him whether he had girlfriends as a young man, he says: “Lots.” Any serious relationships before Samantha? “Yes, but none I’m going to particularly tell you about.” Cameron could have picked any number of conventional Sloaney Tory girls to be his mate – he has a certain plumped-up Rupert Brooke appeal and is bright, although not dazzlingly witty, comes from good stock and so on.

I wonder, given that interest of his in art, and the slightly wistful way he talks about his brother’s brilliance on the stage, whether his attraction to Samantha was his own small form of rebellion. For all that is made of his wife’s aristocratic background, we also know that she chose not to conform entirely to its expected norms. As an art student in Bristol, for instance, where one might have expected her to live in well-heeled Clifton, she picked Montpelier and St Paul’s – which had been the centre for the race riots during the Eighties. Much has been made of her friendship with the trip-hop artist Tricky, her dolphin tattoo, and so on. But she also seems to have had some sort of grit in her personality that impressed Cameron then – enough for him to travel from London to Bristol every weekend, and be ragged mercilessly for being a weird young Tory – and still does.

What does Cameron think? “It’s a good theory but I’m not sure,” he says. “Something just clicked and it got better. When you really love someone, you can’t always explain why – you just do.

“Now, you know, she is a very hardworking career woman with a great job and big responsibilities which she loves and she’s incredibly organised and brilliantly efficient, but there’s still the bohemian lurking inside.”

When I visited the Camerons’ home, three months or so ago now, I could not help but be impressed by the way they seemed to deal, with great fortitude and grace, with the daily vicissitudes of coping with a very disabled child. I asked him then – since I gather it’s what some of his closest friends believe – whether there have been two factors in his life that have been the making of him. First, Samantha: “She’s been a good influence on me, so that’s definitely true. What’s the other?” Ivan? “Yes, I’m sure he’s had a big effect. I mean, I hope that had neither of these things happened, I wouldn’t have been a truly awful person, but I think you have to add it all up – a bit of nature, a bit of nurture, a bit of circumstance, that’s what makes us what we are.”

Where Cameron has a real Achilles’ heel is his hang-up about the privilege of his background. Another of his slick slogans is “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re going”. This may be intended to reassure those who have been born without the advantages Cameron has enjoyed that he wants to create a meritocratic society in which they, too, can flourish. But, in my dealings with him, what is really noticeable is how he wants to distance himself from his own wealth and how often he “bigs up”, as he might put it, the way his party has recruited people from very different backgrounds to his own. At times, he and his associates sound like the posh girl Jarvis Cocker sends up in the blistering Common People.

I wanted to know when he started caring about the poor. Did he ever come across poor people growing up? “Yes, of course.” When and how? “Well, in my home life, where I lived, you were very aware of the country you were in.”

Where in your home life? “I’m trying to think…” Did you know any poor people? “Yes, of course. People who are less well off than me, yes of course.” Where did you meet them? You didn’t meet them at Eton, did you?

“No, but at home.” How did you meet them at home? “I don’t want to disinter my entire childhood and who I played with and what it was like…”

He knew as well as I did that this wasn’t really a satisfactory response and so, a week later, sent me a longish e-mail attempting to make a link between his views now and how those seeds might first have been sewn.

“Here’s what I think. I was brought up in a stable and prosperous family. But we were always aware – and made aware – of just how fortunate we were. Mum was a magistrate for some 30 years and very plugged in to the community. We’d talk a lot about what she did and in many ways she embodied that sense of giving something back and public service that I believe in. Of course, the schools I went to were quite exclusive, but we weren’t cut off from the rest of the world and had quite a free country childhood in a busy and socially mixed village.”

He went on to say that he’d done some social work at school, visiting an old lady and doing her shopping, but that his view of social responsibility – a bit like his view of politics – “didn’t leap fully formed… in some cathartic moment… It just emerged as I got older… For me a really big part of wanting to be, and being, an MP is the social work. I love it and still do now with everything else going on. Some might see this as rather an old-fashioned view of public service – and I accept it can sound a bit patrician, but it’s what I think.”

I only get one flash of that Mr Nasty streak in Mr Nice when I raise the question of the Camerons’ various properties. We had been talking about his bewilderment about the depth of dislike that some people in the Labour party have towards the Conservatives: “Where I think Conservatives tend to feel Labour are misguided and wrong, there are some people in the Labour Party who just think the Tories are awful and evil, which is ridiculous and wrong.”

In my attempt to explain why they might have these feelings – I confess to shuddering whenever I see that photograph of young David and Boris in their Bullingdon Club regalia – I mention the four houses: “The four properties thing is rubbish. Touching that you believe everything you read in the newspapers!” You patronising git, I exclaim.

“I don’t mean it like that, but…” So how many properties do you own? “I own a house in North Kensington which you’ve been to and my house in the constituency in Oxfordshire and that is, as far as I know, all I have.”

A house in Cornwall? “No, that is, Samantha used to have a timeshare in South Devon but she doesn’t any more.” And there isn’t a fourth? “I don’t think so – not that I can think of.” Please don’t say, “Not that I can think of.” “You might be… Samantha owns a field in Scunthorpe but she doesn’t own a house…”

The rest of the interview was punctuated with Cameron’s nagging anxiety about how this exchange was going to make him sound: “I was wondering how that will come across as a soundbite”; “‘Not that I can think of’ makes me sound… I am really worried about that…”; “I am still thinking about this house thing”; and his parting shot was: “Do not make me sound like a prat for not knowing how many houses I’ve got.”

At the end of our interminable day all those months ago in the North East – visits to factories, including Nissan, which had just laid off 1,200 workers (on Cameron’s walkabout, he came across as a paternalistic factory owner in the Lawrentian mould, which bewildered the remaining employees), a college where unemployed adults were offered retraining courses, a meeting of the party faithful (a scattering of spiky-haired youths among the tweed-and-pearls set), a Cameron Direct, where the public get to ask the would-be Prime Minister any questions, public or personal – Cameron himself seemed a little vanquished by the ceaseless grind of it all. As we sat in the train – first class, but still pretty grim, with its glowering lights and sweating paninis – he wondered what the day had achieved.

In an effort to cheer him up, I said that, come what may, he has achieved something, has he not, by bringing a party back from the wilderness and making it, for the first time in years, seem electable. In some ways, Blair – to whom he once said he was the heir – had it easier because getting rid of Clause Four was such a symbolic gesture of change. I asked Cameron if the former PM had been an inspiration: “I wouldn’t put him down as one of the people who inspired me, no,” he said, but I’m not sure I believe him. “I do think that his success in transforming and modernising his party was impressive and what he did was an important achievement for the country.

“Clause Four was totemistic and it was a great totem for him to have. I haven’t had anything like that but I like to think that all the changes I’ve made to the party and policy and modernisation – the attitude towards people’s sexuality and life choices, more diversity – does accumulatively present something exciting. But in the end it will be up to the voters to decide.”

It’s clear that for Cameron, it’s not enough to make his party electable; what matters to him is getting elected. And now, more than ever, as Gordon Brown lurches from crisis to crisis, it seems that the voters are inclining towards the devil they don’t know rather than the one they think they do. Cameron appears to have learnt a lesson from all those Dave-ish action films he loves: who dares wins.

Politicians

Tony Blair on Gaza, Catholicism, Iraq and Cherie

The Times, January 31, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Since leaving office 19 months ago, Tony Blair has rebuilt a life almost as frantic and globetrotting as the one he lived in Downing Street. Amid criticism of his role in the Middle East peace process, Ginny Dougary and photographer Nick Danziger join the former Prime Minister on the road to discuss Gaza, Catholicism, doubt, Iraq, money and Cherie

Tony Blair
Photo: Nick Danziger

It’s an exhausting business interviewing Tony Blair. For a start, everyone has an opinion about him and feels the need to express it, usually with some force. Cab drivers, handymen and the like – certainly in the UK – call him all sorts of unprintable names. Their main complaint is Iraq, as is everyone else’s, but they also blame him for the spend-spend-spend culture which in their opinion has landed us in the mess we’re in now.

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Move from the hectoring to the chattering classes and the arguments against him become even more vociferous. The general impression, however unfair, is that he has singlehandedly failed to bring peace to the Middle East, has achieved nothing in his role there as special envoy, earns far too much money, owns too many houses, and swans around the world raking in the loot for consultancies and speeches, probably at the taxpayers’ expense.

This anti-Blair hostility could not be more different to the reception I witness him receive in Israel and, indeed, more surprisingly, Palestine – such as it is – where he is hugged, kissed, implored to pose for innumerable photos and sign autographs. All of this is before the outbreak of hostilities in Gaza. When I ask him what it feels like to be so love-bombed, he mutters, and it is hard to read the expression on his face: “Well, someone’s got to love me.” One of his bodyguards tells me that these pop-star scenes happen wherever “the Boss” travels in the world, except for one country. But even here, Blair says, it’s better than it was.

His staff – there are 70 of them around the globe – are all young and dynamic and fiercely bright. They seem to do everything – think, talk, move – at three times the speed of normal human beings. Blair’s team in Rwanda, one of two charity-funded African projects, whose brief is to assist President Kagame in modernising his country, is particularly peppy. Then there is Blair himself, who has positively bionic energy levels and sometimes gets a kick out of other people’s failure to keep up. He doesn’t like it much, not surprisingly, when I teasingly (but truthfully) say that, in this way, he reminds me of Jeffrey Archer.

Blair has always struck me as a man in a hurry, only now he seems to be in a race almost against himself. In one of our interviews, I ask him the childlike question: does he want to save the world? (This was also before Gordon Brown inadvertently revealed his own Superman aspirations.) Blair, who quite likes the simplicity of such questions, laughs and replies: “I wouldn’t be in politics unless I thought there was a specific purpose of making the world a better place. So the childish answer to the childish question is, ‘Yes.’” He goes on to say something that would have been rather unpolitic to express when he was Prime Minister: “I don’t actually like the business of politics at all. Some people like the political interplay of working it all out. Even though – although I say it myself – I can do the political campaigning pretty well, I never actually enjoyed it. I’m far more interested in the problem; in solving the problem.”

Those problems take on tragic proportions a month after our trip, when Hamas fails to renew the six-month ceasefire and sends more rockets into Israel, with devastating repercussions. Blair was at home in the country with his family over Christmas but, he tells me, “I was on the phone to the Arabs, the Americans and the Israelis the whole time.” He returned to the Middle East on January 2 and says, when he phones me later from Abu Dhabi, that he has been on four or five separate visits to the region in a fortnight.

I ask him whether he is surprised by what has happened, since the previous month he had been cautiously optimistic about progress, but he says: “No. I’ve been saying for some time that what was needed was a completely different strategy. What has happened has been very shocking and very sad – the scenes of carnage – but that is war, I’m afraid, and war is horrible. But although it may sound absurd, on one level, to talk about the possibility of peace, we have got to get that process right back on track.”

That process should be helped immeasurably by President Obama’s early appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as full-time envoy in the Middle East. Mitchell and Blair go back a long way, having worked closely together on brokering the historic peace deal in Northern Ireland, and when I meet our former PM for a final time as we go to press, it is clear from the tenor of his conversation that he believes this will strengthen rather than sideline his position: “First of all, it’s obviously good for me because we’ve worked together so closely, but also because I think he’s a very sensible, wise, but also tough person. And in relation to Gaza, we will have a better chance of getting a strategy there that offers people the possibility of rejoining the West Bank on the right terms.”

During our five days together in mid-November, and in several meetings subsequently, there is ample opportunity to observe the former PM at close quarters – and we speak often, in short, snatched bursts and longer one-to-one sessions. Although he is always relaxed – as he seems, indeed, in all the sessions that I am able to witness with the heads of state of the various countries on our trip – it is only when he has a chance to unwind, without constant interruptions, that you glimpse his humanity unmasked by that slightly all-too-ready actorish fluency.

Blair’s schedule is as lunatic, if not more so, than when he was in office, but he’s a different man to the one we were accustomed to seeing in the final stretch of his tenure. The look of bruised defiance and exhaustion which shadowed his eyes has been replaced with that old bright blue sparkle of optimistic certainty. He seems happy.

There is something about him that makes me think of a man caught in the grip of a postponed midlife crisis, in a positive as well as a disconcerting sense. He has the glow of the newly-in-love; in love with the world and, for the most part, the feeling is reciprocated.

There is also something of a grand folie – however important the work and the seriousness of his approach – about the Herculean scale of the task he has set himself: sorting out the Middle East, Africa, climate change, his sports foundation, his faith foundation, “making a case for faith as a force for good in the world”. And in order to be able to do this work pro bono (as well as keep up his hefty mortgage payments and make good his debts), he needs to generate an enormous income – estimated at £12 million since he left office. He’s achieved this by giving speeches (Blair is said to be the highest-paid speaker in the world, earning a reported $250,000 for a 90-minute talk), a teaching stint at Yale (on faith and globalisation), as well as delivering what he describes, with an almost embarrassed ironic flourish, as “my memoirs”. All of which might help to explain why, at 55, he’s in such a hurry.

When I ask Blair how often he manages to see his wife and son Leo, now 8, he replies: “At the moment, not nearly as much as I should. I know…” Honestly, Tony, I scold him, do you want your marriage to fail? “No, I don’t!” An easy laugh. “There’s clearly got to be a major recalibration.” Is Cherie not saying to you, “Hey!” More laughter: “Yes, she is.” Don’t you miss her? “Of course I miss her!” I say that he’s always seemed to go at things at a breakneck speed, but now there seems to be an added urgency to his frenetic pace. “Well, it is partly true,” he concedes, “but it’s also because I’m building a new life. When we left [Downing Street], all I had was a mobile phone and Vic and Catherine [his old staffers] and even they weren’t getting paid.

“Eighteen months on, we’ve got 70-odd people around the world employed in various guises, and offices in the centre of London, and my two foundations established. So I’m starting, like, a whole new enterprise. But I wouldn’t be happy any other way.”

If there’s one, somewhat irreverent, lingering snapshot that exemplifies Tony Blair’s time management, it’s of him walking past my seat on the James Bond-ish Gulfstream IV – all cream leather upholstery and burnished gold accoutrements – distractedly undressing on the way to the loo, white linen shirt out, flies undone, although he flatly denies the latter when I later point it out.

His body language is interesting. Although recent photographs reveal a slackening of that resolute jaw line, Blair still manages to retain a movie-star glamour. But when he is tired or off-guard, his left foot has a tendency to turn inwards which gives him an oddly vulnerable, pigeon-toed gait. Sitting behind him on the plane, with his socks runkled down to reveal a stretch of bare ankle, this was particularly pronounced, and as he scribbled and scratched away revising a chapter of his memoirs, he resembled a schoolboy swotting away at his homework.

All the hours in the gym have paid off – the Blairs have installed one in their London home – and our former PM now has a positively streamlined physique. He holds himself occasionally like someone who has recently shed a lot of weight; with a mixture of pride but because he is temperamentally disinclined towards strutting, also a slightly conflicting awkwardness.

I am surprised by an occasional theatrical tendency: he calls his female staffers “darling” and, by day two, I, too, have become one of his darlings. I also catch him using the c-word to the outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert (the punchline of a jokey anecdote) and he reveals that what I had apparently mistaken for flashes of intolerance are what his son Leo refers to as “a Daddy moment”, when he “zones out… which drives Cherie mad”.

There is a new sense of weightlessness at a deeper level, as well. Unshackled from the burden of office, Blair should be free to express himself in whatever way he pleases, but he is still feeling his way in this regard. It’s an intriguing time to capture him; the wings are definitely unfurled but he hasn’t quite got the confidence yet to take flight. I still feel the intervening presence of Alastair Campbell admonishing him that, “We don’t do God!” when I try to get him to talk about his conversion to Catholicism, for instance.

Still, he does eventually talk in a far less buttoned-up way about various subjects that were off-limits in the past – from what attracted him to Cherie to his doubts and deep anxieties over Iraq and Dr David Kelly’s untimely death, his own background and what formed him, and so on. We spend a great deal of time, inevitably, discussing the seeming intractability of the Middle Eastern conflict and his view of the new world order.

It’s important to remember, when reading the criticisms of Blair not making an impact on the peace process, particularly in light of the past weeks’ warfare, that his remit as Quartet’s special Middle East envoy is to work for the Palestinians on law and order, strengthening its security capability and developing its economy, to prepare them for statehood. “It isn’t to do the political negotiation,” he says. “However the whole thing is so intermingled and the one thing I never have a problem with is talking about politics with anyone.”

Our first full day together starts with a breakfast meeting with Ehud Olmert. When Blair introduces us, Olmert wraps his guest in a bear hug, strokes his neck and declares, “I love this guy!” TB then has short sessions with all the key players: Benjamin Netanyahu (former Israeli Prime Minister, chairman of the opposition, and hardliner; tipped to be next PM); Tzipi Livni (foreign minister, and acting Prime Minister); Lt General Ashkenazi (Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces); and Ehud Barak (Defence Minister).

What does Blair hope to achieve by such brief encounters: is it just a general bonding exercise to facilitate better communications? “Particularly at this moment in time, when you’re working up to an Israeli election and a new President of the United States, it’s about working out where people really are, what it is they’re hoping for and what are the prospects of them being serious about negotiation for peace,” he says. “And, actually, today has been good in the sense that I’ve met all the key Israeli players and all of them are saying at least – and I think meaning – that they want to continue with the process of negotiation, and that they understand the need to make the changes to help the Palestinians do it.”

This was just six weeks before the outbreak of war. When I later ask Blair about the Israeli action, he says, “The Israelis did not want to go in at this point in time, but it was Hamas who did not renew the truce and it was Hamas who started firing rockets.”

Is it right to think that the key to moving ahead is to get both sides – and, crucially, Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist – to concede to the two-state solution and then to build on the precise terms from that base? “That is one thing, but if I have made any contribution to this in the last year in terms of strategy, it is an understanding that that in itself is not enough. The difficult thing is that what each side says about the other is true,” Blair says. “The Israelis have a genuine security problem and the Palestinians have a genuine problem with the Israeli occupation, and those two things are linked, so unless you find a way to work out that problem you’ll never get a political negotiation to succeed.”

There are useful parallels, here, that can be drawn from the long, frustrating years of negotiating the peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland – which once seemed as impossible to resolve as the Middle East conflict does now. “In the end, we got the IRA to a minimum point – and the minimum point was an acceptance that a united Ireland could only be achieved by exclusively peaceful means. Some people would say the sad thing about Northern Ireland was that it took a state of exhaustion on both sides for them to eventually agree, but I think it’s more that the IRA came to an understanding that, just as the British couldn’t beat them militarily, they couldn’t beat the British.”

When will you feel real frustration if you don’t see real progress? “We won’t get a new Israeli government probably until March – so probably this time next year [November 2009]. But in the meantime, there’s lots you can do.”

The next day offers an opportunity to witness what Blair means. We head off in convoy through the arid, stubbled landscape, pale ochre earth dotted with olive and almond trees, the homes looking more ramshackle and poorer as we approach Ramallah, six miles north of Jerusalem, the unofficial capital of the Palestinian Authority.

Blair is to address the leaders of the new security force, as part of an initiative he has been working on with the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, and the US generals Jim Jones and Keith Dayton. The atmosphere is sombre, even uneasy, and Blair is going to have to work hard to convince his audience that he really is on their side.

As he takes to the stage, Blair opens with the greeting of “Salaam alaykum” (“Peace be upon you”) and a few of the men smile as they reply, “Alaykum as-salaam” (“And upon you be peace”). It’s an extraordinary speech, with no notes, and demonstrates our former PM at his most heartfelt, engaging best.

After explaining his role in Quartet (a grouping of the UN, EU, Russian Federation and the US set up to encourage the Middle East peace process, for which Blair acts – unpaid, he says – as special envoy), he talks about his work over the past year and how well he knows “the problems, the challenges and, indeed, the injustices that the Palestinian people face”. He highlights the importance of people being able to live freely in their own land but notes that, “A state is not just about a homeland, it is not just a map; a state is also a frame of mind,” and draws on the role he played in Northern Ireland, establishing an agreement and an authority and rule of law that was recognised by all the people, not just some of the people.

“There will be many challenges ahead, not least the occupation – but I know you have the will and determination to take your place in the community of independent nations… and I want to say to you that whatever we can do to help, we will… and that our desire in the international community is that bit by bit the occupation will be lifted, and that our aim is to support you as you build your state.”

After respectful but unecstatic applause, he is asked: “Why didn’t this happen when you were in power, Your Excellency?” which gets a big laugh. Blair joins in and pulls one of his Rory Bremner gee-whiz facial shrugs: “I knew I was going to get some interesting questions! Actually, I was interested in Palestine but I had quite a lot of law and order problems in my own country,” which gets another laugh, and the mood of the audience shifts towards him. “It was my aspiration as Prime Minister [to address the Palestinian predicament] but now it’s my mission.”

As more questions are asked, Blair rattles off the funds that have been raised to illustrate the level of support worldwide and addresses the humanitarian suffering in Gaza. He mentions his talks with the Egyptians in Sharm el-Sheikh, whose leaders are acting as go-betweens with Hamas, as well as his communications with Barack Obama, “who has assured me personally that the issues here will be a priority right from the beginning of his administration”. By now, his suit jacket is undone, his eyes are wide with conviction and the hand gestures are multiplying. After many more questions, he concludes: “We have got to be the people here whose hearts are up and that is the only way forward.” Afterwards, there are amazing scenes as Blair is surrounded by the men who looked so leaden and impassive when he arrived. They all want to shake his hand, and everyone wants to be photographed with their heads cocked towards his. He grins and grins; his teeth clenching and unclenching.

Later we reconvene for another interview back in the American Colony hotel, Blair’s apparently luxurious digs, an oasis of slightly faded splendour surrounded by potholed, derelict streets. Before we return to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it seems worth revisiting how Blair’s views have developed towards the region from his early days as Prime Minister. It is clear, at least, that he wasn’t doing some sort of PR spin when he told the Palestinians that he was always interested in their plight.

In 2002, for instance, Blair was at odds with George Bush over the Middle East – despite being called his poodle – and distanced himself from the US President’s call for Arafat to be ousted, saying: “It’s for the Palestinians to elect their own leaders. We have got to negotiate with whoever is elected by the Palestinians.” Blair was criticised for his pro-Arab stance after urging Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to continue peace talks after suicide bombings in Tel Aviv. In 2003-4, the Israelis under Sharon withdrew from Gaza; Israeli settlers who refused to budge were forcibly removed by Israeli soldiers and their homes were demolished. In 2006, Hamas won its surprise victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The following year, Fatah was driven out of Gaza by Hamas.

Blair’s take on his initial distancing from Bush is, “What happened really was this: Bill Clinton tried heroically to get an agreement, couldn’t get one and then came the intifada [September 2000], which is the most important thing. It’s important to emphasise that because I hadn’t quite appreciated the degree to which the intifada altered everything.

“Therefore I understand why, when George Bush came in, he thought there wasn’t much point. However, the fact is that you were always going to have to return to the peace process at some point, and my basic view about these situations is that you never fail to grip them. You grip them the whole time.

“The bigger point,” he continues, “is that in 2004, when Sharon withdrew from Gaza – which was extraordinary – there were only two people who welcomed it at the time: Bush and me. And because it was done unilaterally, everyone else, basically, condemned it.

“It was an interesting example of the degree to which I was often pinned between a view from America that was not always expressed in a way that I would express it, but actually had some point to it – namely, that there is a real threat and we do have to be serious about this – and the rest of the international community who, at that time, almost didn’t want to acknowledge the threat.

“It was a middle ground on which I was standing, which was fairly lonely for most of the time.”

Last July, Blair was to have visited Gaza but the trip was curtailed at the last minute because the Israeli security service had received “detailed and credible” intelligence that there was to be a planned assassination attempt on his life by a militant organisation.

After the three-week war, I ask him again whether he will reconsider visiting Gaza and he says, with some steel in his voice, “I will go into Gaza now because it’s terribly important that the community there knows that the international community cares. I would have gone in before, but when you are with staff, you have to think about the safety of the people who guard you, let alone mine, and the intelligence was completely credible, I’m afraid.”

Given that he criticised Bush for trying to remove Arafat back in 2002 – I repeat his quote, “We have got to negotiate with whoever is elected by the Palestinians” – does that mean he changed his view when Hamas was elected?

“Erm… certainly my basic predisposition is that in a situation like this you talk to everybody,” but he repeats the Quartet position that there can be no talks, official or unofficial, with Hamas until they renounce violence and recognise Israel. “I have always thought that there is a distinction between the difficulty of negotiating with Hamas as part of the peace process about the two-state solution if they won’t accept one of the states, and talking to Hamas as the de facto power in Gaza.”

Could I say, perhaps, then, that I suspect that you have spoken to Hamas in an unofficial capacity and you could give a Francis Urquhart-type response?

“Er… er…” Blair smiles. Is it tricky? “It is tricky, yes.” OK, I’ll just smile back at you then.

When Blair talks about America as not expressing views in the way that he would necessarily express them, I take it he is referring to Dubya’s “Let’s go get those bad guys” cowboy rhetoric and the neocons’ comic-book melodrama of the “Axis of Evil”. Although Blair is too sophisticated to use this lingo, he does seem to see the world in pretty black and white terms. Unlike David Miliband, who believes there is a series of un-unified, quite independent armed struggles, Blair’s view is that it is a parabola of implacable hostility.

As he tells me: “I think we still have our eyes closed to the nature of what is going on and I see a complete link between what is going on in Palestine with what is going on in Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia – and this is one fight, basically. Terrorism is now a very powerful weapon of war and conflict.”

So I ask him another childlike question: does he believe in good and evil? “I do believe in good and bad, yes, good and evil, I suppose,” he says. “Obviously, I believe they [the terrorists] are bad and I think our basic values system is good. But from a practical, political point of view, it’s more sensible to see it as a struggle about modernity and globalisation. Fundamentally, I think theirs is a reaction against the modern world, which is why their attitudes to women and to how people live and work are so backward.”

We revisit this battle between good and evil when we are in Rwanda. It is my first time in an African country and the photographer, Nick Danziger, who has travelled widely in the region, points out its eerie silence in comparison to any of the other countries we have visited. As we drive through the deep valleys flanked by emerald mountains, there is a hushed solemnity about the people we pass – including prisoners from the genocide carrying long trunks of wood, still rebuilding the homes they had destroyed – and I am struck by the fanciful notion that the majestic landscape itself is still in mourning.

On the plane journey, I ask Blair if his Tigger-like optimism is ever dented by Eeyore-ish gloom. Does he ever descend into depression? He says that, of course, he has his dark moments. When we talk in the hotel, I ask him about this in the context of the genocide: does he sometimes despair about our endless capacity for brutality and bloodshed?

“Yuh, absolutely,” he says, and talks about his visit to the genocide museum in Rwanda. “What is fascinating about it is that you see the extraordinary capacity to do evil that humankind has, but there are also stories of people who sheltered people, who gave their own lives to other people, who did the most selfless things. And so I deal with the possibility of hope in the sense that I am convinced that people, given the right circumstances, want to live peacefully with each other. I am personally convinced of that.”

Those who cannot forgive Blair for Iraq – and there are plenty of them, not counting the extremists – say that he is responsible for atrocities of his own. That there is nothing he can say now or do to justify the actions he took and the subsequent loss of lives. I ask him whether he believes that history will vindicate him over that decision to invade, and there is a big pause before his weary answer:

“I don’t know. Nobody knows. So there’s no point in answering it in the end.” Are you ever haunted by it? “I’m not haunted by it, but of course I reflect on it, and am troubled by it, and feel a great sense of responsibility for it. Of course I do.”

Blair has experienced the extremes of being both the most loved and subsequently most hated Labour Prime Minister since the Second World War. I wonder what such a dramatic fall from grace feels like. “It’s not nice particularly to have people distrusting your motives or saying you’ve lied about things, but the most difficult thing in any set of circumstances is the sense of responsibility for people who have given their lives and fallen – the soldiers and, indeed, the civilians.

“If I didn’t feel that, there really would be something wrong with me, and there is not a single day of my life when I do not reflect upon it…” his voice goes very quiet, as though he had retreated into his own private thoughts, “…many times. And that’s as it should be.” But after another moment of silence, he bucks up: “On the other hand, you have to take the decision – and I look at the Middle East now and I think, well, if Saddam and his two sons were still running Iraq, how many other people would have died and would the region be more stable?”

I can still remember the moment the former PM first entered my radar; it was back in 1994 when John Smith was leader of the Opposition, and this young Labour MP appeared on Question Time, blue eyes blazing, fiercely articulate, firing on all cylinders. Significantly, perhaps, I can’t recall anything he said but was struck by him having a weirdly Thatcher-like aura of conviction and moral certainty.

For all Blair’s achievements, it is that unshakeable belief in the rightness of his views that has bothered me ever since. Back in London, I ask him if he ever suffers from doubt. “Do I ever suffer from doubt?” he repeats. “Who doesn’t suffer from doubt? Of course I suffer from doubt.” Do you ask yourself whether you have done the right thing? “Of course!” But never about Iraq? “Of course. You ask that question the whole time. You’d be weird if you didn’t ask that question.”

Is your conscience clear over the death of Kelly? “Absolutely. That was utterly tragic but, you know, we did put ourselves through six months of the most intensive inquiry that any government has ever submitted itself to.” Was that one of your dark moments? “Yeah. Yeah… because I felt very, very sorry for him and his family. It was a terrible time.”

Although most of our interviews focus on knotty issues, there are lighter moments; while Blair enjoys locking horns and being challenged, he is also quite playful. On the plane we talk about Cherie’s book and I tease him about her disclosure about Leo’s conception in Balmoral. I ask him to repeat his response, since it had tickled me, on the record: “Yes, ‘Shock horror! Married politician has sex with wife!’ It’s like everything to do with Cherie… people go over the top. I don’t know why but they’ve got a thing about her.”

I wonder whether he remembers what it was precisely that attracted him to Cherie when they met as young lawyers all those years ago. There is another longish pause, and then, “Yeah, she was a mixture of obviously very smart and serious and knew far more about the law than I did, but she had quite a feminine, almost giggly side to her as well. So there was a combination that I really liked of someone who was both smart and fun.

“I don’t think I could have settled down and lived with anybody I didn’t respect in terms of the mind and a capable human being and all the rest of it. No, yuhhhhh, we had a very good time…” he smiles.

It is noticeable how often Blair mentions the people he admires in terms of their braininess. He says that his wife definitely has the better brain: “Cherie’s just really clever. She got the top first at the bar exams and was streets ahead of me in brain power. But although she is more confident intellectually than me, I think I might be more confident than her in other ways. She’s got a certain insecurity as a result of her background. In one sense, I had quite a difficult childhood because of all the illness there was [his father had a stroke at 40, which robbed him of his speech for three years; shortly after, his sister was hospitalised for two years with a form of rheumatoid arthritis] but, actually, it was a very settled childhood in terms of my family.”

When we talk about Clinton, Blair wants to point out something about the former US President that he believes gets overlooked: “The thing that is most remarkable about him – and he has many remarkable qualities – is his intellect. The quality of his intellect is extraordinary.” In what way exactly? “His ability to grasp an issue, then mould and remould and explain it – it tends to get eclipsed by the fact that he is also a tremendous politician and so, because he expresses himself in very simple and direct ways because he is a great communicator, people miss the intellect. I think Obama has something of the same quality, actually. I think he’s got a high-grade intellect.”

How can he explain the conundrum of George Bush; just how dumb or smart is he? Blair becomes uncomfortable, his eyes darting away. “Um… Well, people say that they want a politician who just speaks his mind, and then he speaks his mind and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t want that – we want someone who speaks like we expect a politician to speak.’ So I think that’s a problem for him.”

When we speak on the phone after Bush has presented Blair with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his support in the War on Terror, I ask him whether it is slightly awkward for him to have that relationship reinforced at a time when the outgoing President is so unpopular around the world.

“Firstly, I am not a fairweather friend,” Blair says. “And also it is the greatest civilian honour that can be awarded. I’m not a great one for honours but it was very kind of him and I was proud to accept it on behalf of all the people who took military action.” He then reiterates the comments he made in our interview in London: “I think that people will eventually understand the nature of the decisions he took at an extremely difficult time. The fact of the matter is that decisions like those made after 9/11 are really, really tough. And I think that people will find this out as we get into the Obama presidency, because the expectations change but the problems don’t and the problems are tough.”

Blair is confident that he will enjoy a good working relationship with the new American President. They have met half a dozen times since their first encounter, when Obama was on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “He was introduced to me then,” Blair recalls, “as someone who was very clever and a great prospect for the future; it was always obvious that he had something different about him.”

Prior to the inauguration, it was Obama’s speech on race that particularly struck a chord with Blair. “I found that very, very moving. I think that was when I understood that he had real political depth and imagination because it was not an ordinary speech. It showed a complete understanding of why people might feel as they feel but that actually it is time to move on. The thing he does really brilliantly is to explain why certain sentiments are inconsistent with the future and can be put to one side.

“Prejudice, certainly, but also that he understands that very partisan politics doesn’t really work any more and doesn’t meet either the needs of the time or the mood of the time.”

Isn’t that a bit like your philosophy, I ask, thinking how human it is to find someone especially brilliant if their approach seems to mirror your own? On the evening of Obama’s inauguration, at least one American pundit compared the euphoric mood in the United States to that of Britain in 1997. “Yuh, I think there is a new generation of political leaders who find the very traditional pigeonholing rather redundant, actually. Who have undergone this strange experience – certainly for me, but I think in a sense for Obama, too – which is growing up with a Left politics that was the politics of ideology, and then as we’ve grown to political maturity and taken positions of power, we find that it’s the Right that’s got ideology. Over time, the Centre Left became quite practical and the Right suddenly got ideology which I think still dogs it today.”

Although Blair is in a new mood of openness, there are limits, as I find when I try to get him to talk about his conversion to Catholicism – which is almost on a par with his response when I ask him whether he has, like Jimmy Carter, ever “committed adultery in his heart”. (“Now, Ginny, this is one place we’re really not going to go… That’s private! There are some human questions which it’s better not to answer.”)

But before we deal with matters of the spirit, I need to address the more worldly concerns of mammon. We know that Blair has never had a problem with champagne socialism and he reiterates his view that, “It would be disastrous if the Labour Party ever went back to the days when they had a problem with people who are wealthy supporting them.”

As for his own considerable earning power, he does not feel uncomfortable, he says, because, “I left office with a lot of debt, and I’ve got a big operation to support, and I do a lot of stuff pro bono and it’s not coming out of public funds.” He does not, he says, have a property portfolio: “I’ve got a house in London and a house in the country, and I’m probably not alone in that regard. It’s true that I have a place in the constituency [Sedgefield], but that is now the centre for my sports foundation.

“I suppose people disapprove of the country residence because it seems to be rather grand, if not grandiose. “They mistake the pavilion for the stately home which gets photographed but is not, in fact, the place we live in. I mean, it’s a very nice house but it’s not the stately home! Anyway, to be honest, I’m very happy with it, so I don’t feel guilty about having it. Sorry, but it’s as simple as that really.” Have you still got the Bristol flats? “They’re either sold or in the process of being sold… yuh.” How can you not know! “I do actually, but I don’t really want to talk about it because you get a whole load of ridiculous stuff out of it each time.” Have you still got mortgages? “Of course, I’ve got mortgages and I also bought at… [A big, rueful laugh.] You can almost spot where the housing market is by seeing what I do and doing the opposite. So, yes, I am being affected by the credit crunch.”

In Rwanda, when I asked whether he found his faith a solace, he said, “Yes, I do, but I find it more of a strength than anything else. But my view of faith is not a very exclusive or narrow one. I think what people find difficult nowadays is to reconcile faith sometimes with very strict interpretations of doctrine of organised religion. But I think people can understand faith a lot more easily, and a level of spiritual values.” All of this was delivered with a great deal of swallowing and mumbling into his chest.

But what was it about Catholicism that had persuaded him to convert? First, he seems to suggest that his conversion was really a pragmatic matter to formalise him tagging along to church with the rest of the family. I understand why he couldn’t have “come out”, so to speak, as a Catholic when he was Prime Minister, as he says: “If I hadn’t been Prime Minister, I would have done this several years before” – he tells me he had been attending Mass for seven years – “but it would have caused the most extraordinary rigmarole. There would have been no end to the speculation.” But that doesn’t explain his reticence now.

Back in London, in the snowy-carpeted Hempel-esque plush of the Belgravia office, we return to this and I say that he sounded rather glib about the whole business. Can he try harder to explain? After some flailing around, he says, with a struggle: “Look, the thing that motivates and drives me is my religious faith. I am a member of the Catholic Church but you would misunderstand me if it became defined in terms of specific rituals or acts. It is about values and beliefs; it’s about God and humanity.”

As we go to press, there is a prevailing mood of excitement as well as anxiety as we watch every move of the newly inaugurated American President for signs of how the world is going to reshape. A spokesman from Mahmoud Abbas’s office claims that Obama has spoken to the Palestinian leader before any other world leaders. The Israelis declared a unilateral ceasefire; joined by Hamas for a seven-day period only. Blair makes it clear to me that he feels his hands have been tied by his role with Quartet, not helped by “the US administration being at its very tail end and Israeli politics being in a state of paralysis since the middle of last year because of all the allegations [corruption charges against Olmert which precipitated his resignation].

“Although we did achieve things in the last year, it was obviously frustrating and I was on a steep learning curve. It took us ten years to deliver peace to Northern Ireland – so, of course, you can’t deliver peace in a situation as complex and as difficult as the Middle East overnight. That’s not gonna happen, but I think that the bitterness and grief of the last few weeks will fade eventually and, at last,” says Tony Blair, who, like someone else we know, chooses to be audacious about hope rather than resigned to despair, “we have now got the possibility of a quantum leap forward.”

Politicians, Women

I asked her whether she felt immortal. No, she answered

The Times – December 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

The last time I communicated with Benazir Bhutto was via e-mail in October after the first attempt on her life when she returned to Pakistan to fight the free elections which General Musharraf had promised.

She escaped unscathed on that occasion, although hundreds of her supporters did not. I wrote to Benazir (or Bibi as she preferred to be known informally) scarcely knowing whether the message of support would even reach her amid such turmoil, let alone expecting a reply – and such a swift one at that.

“Thanks a million for writing to me,” she had typed. “It’s been quite terrible. Hope u [sic] come back and we visit again here.”

I’m not sure whether “here” was Dubai, where we had met on the first occasion, or London (the location of our second meeting, this summer, when she held a sort of salon of old and new friends in a safe house in the West End); or, indeed, Pakistan which I had hoped to revisit at some point in the future with Benazir back in power. The extraordinary thing is not what she wrote, but that she had found the time and had the courtesy to do it.

Our friendly relations were not neccessarily expected after our four-hour interview at her home in exile in Dubai in the spring. Of course, I had admired and respected her in advance of meeting her and was riveted by the part she could play in shaping Pakistan’s future at such a critical moment in its troubled history.

Although the corruption charges that plagued her were not insignificant they seemed far less crucial than the political impact she could make on a country that was at the forefront of her mind throughout all the long years of exile; a country to which her family has dedicated the lives of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who founded and led the Pakistan People’s Party before passing the mantle on to his daughter, two of her brothers and now Benazir herself.

We spent four hours together, just long enough for me to experience a potted version of the Benazir Bhutto package. She did have a tendency – not unknown among politicians – to go into oratorical mode, and once she had embarked on a certain line there was no stopping her.

This did not bother me as Pakistan’s history – and the Bhutto dynasty’s part in it – is so dramatic. Also since almost every terrorist attack that has taken place around the world leads back in some way to Pakistan, what she had to say about dealing with the extremist tendency could hardly be more important. She did come across as haughty on occasion, but what I liked about her was that you could point this out, and she was big enough to pause and think about why this should be.

Over lunch, Benazir made a rather astonishing remark about my weight saying: “You know, I am envious of the way you have let yourself go.”

As an interviewer, that comment was a godsend since it allowed me later to go on to ask her all sorts of impertinent questions about her own complicated relationship with food.

Her two older teenage children, a boy and a girl, were present at the time, and I think they found their mama rather embarassing – but, then, what’s new about that where teenagers are concerned? Her older daughter told me that she had written a birthday rap for her mother and I longed to hear it.

What I remember most was asking the children whether they had any interest in politics and being met by a fairly typical adolescent shrug; the difference being that the Bhutto family back then, and still now, is not a typical family.

Benazir, herself, for instance, did not want the heavy mantle of responsibility to be passed on to her by her father. I wrote in that piece something that was prophetic: “Bhutto represents everything the fundamentalists hate – a powerful, highly educated woman operating in a man’s world, seemingly unafraid to voice her independent views and, indeed, seemingly unafraid of anything, including the very real possibility that one day someone might succeed in killing her because of who she is . . . Perhaps it is her sense of destiny – the daughter, rather than her brothers, groomed from such an early age to be the political heir to her father, despite her initial reluctance – which explains her equanimity in the face of death.”

After the interview – which was by no means uncritical – was published, Benazir sent me an e-mail that could hardly have been more gracious. She thanked me for taking the time to visit Dubai and was sorry for her lunchtime indiscretions.

“I am also writing to apologise for remarks I may have made inadvertantly which were insensitive,” she wrote. “Please accept the apology.”

A few months later we met again in London. Her old mates were there from the University of Oxford, including Alan Duncan, the Tory MP, and the writer Victoria Schofield, a close friend who has been at her side through so many tragedies, and an American author, Ron Suskind, who was working on a book about terrorism. Her sister, Sunny, was there along with Benazir’s youngest, sweet-faced daughter, Asifa.

We ate samosas and cucumber sandwiches, and talked about terrorism, and Duncan told her how he could effect an introduction with David Miliband, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, although I hardly felt Benazir needed any help on that count.

She looked younger and lighter, and freer, than when we last met – her hair flowing freely, wearing hardly any make-up and dressed in an almost hippyish kameez, lime-green and flame-orange in colour. She was, as I remember it, walking barefoot.

Benazir had survived many attempts on her life. She told me that she never discussed her travel arrangements because: “I think the threat very much remains because my politics can disturb not only the military dictatorship in Pakistan, but it has a fallout on al-Qaeda and a fallout on the Taleban.”

I asked her whether she felt immortal. “No,” she had replied. “I know death comes.

“My young brothers I have buried . . . and I have been to the homes of people who have been hanged and people who were shot in the street, so, no, I don’t feel there’s anything like immortality.”

Politicians

The torchbearer

The Times – September 29, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Norman Tebbit discusses Cameron, loss and multiculturalism

Lord Tebbit brought up the white rabbit as we scuttled down corridor after dimly lit corridor in the gentlemen’s club late afternoon hush of the House of Lords. It is the women we pass – of a certain age, two of them in wheelchairs – who greeted him with tremendous warmth. Later, over tea – as formal and English, with the possibility of triangular cucumber sandwiches and oozy cakes, as tea at the Savoy – he tells me that one of the smiling Baronesses had been a real toughie, an ultimate Tebbitian compliment, as the former head of intelligence in one of the trickier countries in the African continent. He is quite the man for a flourish, verbal and otherwise, opening the door for a younger Baroness with a courtly hand gesture; Baroness Amos returns the favour with a rather cool look.

Close up, he has striking, slightly surprising eyes – flecked with blue and grey and brown – parchment skin and a dry, thin-lipped smile. In that museum setting, in his loose pinstriped suit, stooped and limping on one side – a legacy of the horrific Brighton bombing all those years ago, fronds of white hair flapping under his bald pate, he reminds me suddenly and disrespectfully, with his lolloping gait, of Riff Raff, the sinister retainer in The Rocky Horror Show. But let’s blame him for these far-fetched analogies, since Tebbit himself sometimes feels that he is in Alice in Wonderland as he finds himself lost in the labyrinthine warrens of the Lords – even though it is 15 years since he became Baron Tebbit of Chingford.

The man variously dubbed the Chingford Skinhead, “a semi-house-trained polecat” and Count Dracula is disappointingly un-sinister in person: quietly spoken, courteous, exuding an almost Zen-like calm. The views he espoused on the dangers of multiculturalism, which seemed so offensive and had every bien-pensant liberal (including me) branding him a racist, are now part of the mainstream debate, with intellectuals such as David Goodhart, editor of Prospect, and Trevor Phillips, head of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, entering the fray. Phillips’s change of heart over multiculturalism is of particular significance since he once embraced it so enthusiastically, and accused Goodhart of being a “liberal Powellite”. Now Phillips fears that Britain is “sleepwalking towards segregation” and writes: “How we manage the deep differences emerging in our society is a debate we must have… no amount of lecturing from comfortable middle-class liberals will brush away the anxiety felt in many of our towns and cities… the many millions of every race, faith and culture for whom the frictions of diversity are much more evident than its benefits.”

Indeed, so urgent is this debate that Lord Tebbit and Phillips – hardly the most natural bedfellows (Phillips was once moved to ask him, “Would it upset you if I came to live next door to you?”) – recently met for lunch to discuss these very issues: “And at the end, Trevor said, ‘How is it that we used to be at a diametric difference and now we are very much agreeing?’ and I said, ‘Ah, I think the difference is that you’ve understood that I wasn’t talking about whether you’re black or white [Phillips is black], I was talking about the cultures of this country, and you and I share the same culture. You and I are now beginning to see, and I won’t say who saw it first…’” Tebbit pauses for wry effect, “‘that some of the other cultures are a threat to you as well as to me – that we’re both in the same boat.’ And I’m very happy to be in the same boat as Trevor, but I’m cautious about what I say about that because I don’t want to make his life difficult in managing his constituencies, so to speak.”

Lord Tebbit would like to consider himself as colour-blind as someone who is actually blind, such as David Blunkett, whom he refers to thus: “I like David Blunkett – we’re quite good friends although I think he was a fool in his personal life. But someone like David is vulnerable and I think it’s very sad what happened to him.

“But, anyway, being blind, David does not know when he meets someone whether they’re black, yellow, green or candy-striped. He assesses them on what they say, how they react and things like that. I’d like to think I do the same. Does this mean that I would like to live in Brixton? No, I wouldn’t – because the culture and the way of living in Brixton is not one that appeals to me.”

He goes into one of his favourite analogies comparing humans with dogs: “Humans are pack animals and we prefer – as kids do – to be in a pack with other dogs, so to speak, like us. And I do prefer that. Now does that mean that I discriminate against people? No. I’ve got a lot of very good, close Jewish friends, for instance. In fact, I got into a business venture with some Jewish friends where I was known as the statutory gentile because I was the only one who wasn’t a Jew. So that’s no problem to me.”

One of his neighbours in West Sussex “whom I’m really quite fond of” is an airline pilot – as Lord Tebbit was – and he “also happens to be black. Now I’m not interested in the guy because he’s black, I’m interested in the fact that he’s an airline pilot so we’ve got an enormous amount in common.” He recently shared a table with said neighbour and his wife on the occasion of his wife Margaret Tebbit’s birthday, when the two couples bumped into each other at a local restaurant… “And, yes, he is black,” he says again, “so there’s no element of that [racial prejudice] at all.”

While we are on this subject of colour blindness, he points out that the Tebbits have kept in touch with one of Margaret’s carers from long years ago – his wife was paralysed by the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984 – and she is a Pakistani-born Muslim. “So, you know, when people talk to me about some of these things, well, yes, I didn’t have to go and stay with a Muslim family, I actually had one living in the house.”

Lord Tebbit is very clear that the problem is not multi-ethnic, “which is fine, that’s no problem”, but multicultural – which is quite a different matter. “I’ve been saying for years – and been criticised very severely for it – that multicultural societies don’t work and what makes me cross is that for so long if anyone did discuss this issue, they were accused of being racist,” he says.

“A multi-ethnic society can work as long as it is mono-cultural – where it is accepted that all the ways in which we behave, the law, the whole structure, are based on Christian-Judaeo rules and those are the rules of the game. Of course, you can still build your own place of worship and observe your own practices and things like that, as long as it is recognised that the society in which you are living is based on one set of rules. Because if you have two cultures within one geographical place, then sooner or later it is highly likely that one culture will want to spread and push the other out.

“What makes me cross is that people always assume you’re only talking from one direction and yet I’ve said and written many, many times that if you are a young Muslim and reasonably devout and you live in a number of our cities, particularly in the North, and on a Friday night you see the culture you’re being asked to integrate into – fornicating, urinating, drunken behaviour – well, there’s nothing there to pull you in, is there? That’s the great sadness of it. A good Muslim is going to say, ‘Perhaps we should be out there trying to do something about these savages.’ So one of the things that we have to do is clean up our own act.”

Don’t you think now that your line about the cricket test was rather unhelpful? “No, not at all. Ask Nasser Hussain whether he thought it was unhelpful. He was Indian-born and jeered at and booed by Asians born in this country when he was playing as the captain of England. Now, I think they should have enjoyed the fact that they were living in this country where, on sheer merit, there’s this guy who’s the captain of the England cricket team, and it was shameful the way they treated him.

“What I said was that if you want to know how well integrated people are, it’s the cricket test. Look to see which side they’re cheering for. Are they cheering for the country to which they have come for a better life or are they cheering the country from which they’ve come? Are they looking forward or are they looking back? Are they a branch of Pakistan in England or are they…”

Oh, honestly, Norman, surely you can enjoy all sorts of aspects of life in England and still support your old Pakistani team without being viewed as a traitor? What a dreary and monotone world it would be, for instance, if we all ate the same food, dressed alike and read from the same set text. “I was putting it sharply,” he admits. “But I was saying, ‘How deeply are you into this country?’”

We are sitting, as the evening light falls, in a narrow annexe-like room – just large enough for two chairs and a table. As he struggled to find the light, Tebbit growled: “Come into the dark, my dear.” He does like his little jokes but he’s still very much the hardliner, despite the mildness of his delivery, with his concerns about discipline and his belief in corporal punishment and hanging. When we talk about Patrick Magee, the IRA member who planted the bomb that crushed Margaret Tebbit’s life and shrunk her husband’s, Lord Tebbit says, “Of course, I’d like him to be hanged.” Do you still believe in hanging, generally, I ask. “Oh, yes,” he says, adding with a ghost of a smile, “not generally – hahahahaha – only for bad people.”

The photographs of McGuinness and Paisley, newly chummed up and appearing to delight in a private joke, made him feel “cynical”, and he thinks it likely that there will be a consensual move towards a united Ireland. “You know, we could have had peace in Europe if we had elected Halifax rather than Churchill. We could have made peace with Germany and they could have carried on incinerating Jews and everyone would have been at peace, wouldn’t they?

“What I would regret is the fact that people whose first choice would have been to remain in the United Kingdom had been put in a position where that choice was looking shabby [he mutters here about being governed by convicted terrorists] to the extent that they would prefer to leave, but if that was their view and that was the best thing for them, then so be it. It’s not the outcome I would have hoped for, but we very often don’t get the outcome we hope for.”

Although Lord Tebbit does go to church – “Because the rector’s a nice man and it’s a peaceful place and causes me to think about certain issues” – when I ask him whether he’s a Christian, he says: “I find that a very difficult question but I doubt that I’m a Christian because some of the things that I’m asked to believe are not very believable.” He says that, on the whole, he is of a forgiving nature but there are exceptions and he certainly cannot forgive Magee for what he did. He was not happy with the BBC for allowing the former terrorist to appear on a radio programme even though Magee said he was “deeply sorry” for the bombing. “Deeply sorry for what?” he says in a scathing tone. “He has never offered a hint of acknowledgment that what he did was wrong. It’s all very well to say, ‘Sorry, mate,’ and then push somebody over again.

“If he came forward and said, ‘I realise that what I did was utterly, utterly wrong. I am sincerely sorry for what I did and now I want to make public the machinery of the gang I was in and who was giving the orders, and who was my boss, because I want to see them all brought to justice,’ yeah. Oh, yeah, that would be different because then I would decide that he had truly repented. But there’s no evidence of that whatsoever.” Would it have provoked strong feelings in him if the two men had come face to face? “No more than if I had to shoot a mad dog,” he says. “You know, I wouldn’t want to shoot a dog but if a dog is dangerous then I would shoot him.”

It is clear that Lord Tebbit is uncomfortable discussing his own injuries, which still cause him pain all these years on. He was left with very little skin on his left side from his shoulder to his ankle, “oozing blood as though I had been sandpapered”, and a gaping hole over his hip and lower abdomen: “Several inches of muscle and flesh had been simply torn away and part of the top of my pelvis had been sliced down too, and a main nerve was severed leaving me without sensation in part of my leg.” Part of his hip was removed to prepare for the skin-grafting operations, which did not take well and had to be repeated. All of this I gleaned from his autobiography, Upwardly Mobile, since he is more forthcoming there than in person, his voice sinking to a whisper when I ask him about his aches and pains. He allows that, “I have injuries to my hip which mean I can’t work in the garden and things like that [he and his wife were keen gardeners]. Sometimes you don’t notice it, you live with it. After all, all of us as we get older [he is 76] get more pain of one kind or another.”

I ask him whether his and Margaret’s predicament gets any easier with time, and he answers a stark, “No.” She does have use of her left hand but it’s extremely limited: “She can just about, with a bit of help, brush her teeth. But she can’t eat or cut anything with a knife and writing is a bit of a problem and after all these years… And, by the way, she’s going to give me a terrible bollocking in a minute because I should have been home by now.”

Does it wear on the nerves, I press on. “It doesn’t enhance life, hah.” Is she still an authoritative woman? “She tells me what to do,” he says, with a smile which is hard to read.

Even those who would prefer not to find a kind word to say about Lord Tebbit are struck by his fortitude in dealing with his difficulties at home, and this was years before the Brighton bombing. He wrote movingly in his autobiography about the reality of bringing up three small children, while working, when his wife was absent during spells of post-partum psychosis. “Even now the memory of seeing her personality disintegrating [shortly after the birth of their last baby] is more painful than any other experience I have undergone. It is hard to describe one’s emotions at seeing the person with whom one has been so close becoming a stranger.”

As a single parent, combining the father and mother roles, he wrote: “I began to understand how a mother, stressed beyond belief, could batter a child.” Now he says: “When you think of the extraordinary thing of carrying a child for nine months and then suddenly in 20 minutes – whoosh! But it’s not quite ‘whoosh!’ because then you’re feeding it and looking after it. I mean, one’s metabolism has got to reorganise itself pretty well, hasn’t it? What is remarkable is that people don’t go potty every time they have a baby.”

Lord Tebbit was a surprisingly modern father (apart from his tendency to deliver the odd sharp smack) – surprising to me but not to him – changing nappies and cooking and helping in the household long before it became a necessity. “As a long-haul airline pilot – when I was away for three weeks and then at home for the same time – my wife was multitasking when I was away and it seemed to be perfectly proper and sensible that when I was back I would do my bit in the same way. I could change a nappy with the best of them.”

His children were not over-impressed by his cooking skills then but perhaps they are less dismissive now. The flat Tebbit monotone is suddenly enlivened when he describes preparing a pheasant casserole, assembled the morning of a dinner party, stewed with apples and a good slug of Calvados. His mother, the daughter of a butcher, taught him to skin a rabbit as a boy and one of his great septuagenerian pleasures is “shooting a bird, skinning it, cooking it and eating it”. He is even working on a Norman Tebbit how to cook game recipe book, as well as a history of Britain’s wars – “All 61 of them!” he exclaims – since 1945.

I wonder whether Margaret ever blames her husband for her disability. “She’d better not,” he chuckles grimly. “I think we both just live with it as it is.” He worries about what will happen to her when he’s gone, although she will be well provided for: “She’s not silly and she can look after herself pretty well and I know that the children would fill the gap, but she would have to deal on her own with all the problems of staff and things like that.” And it would be someone else’s vigil – one Lord Tebbit has kept these long decades – to do the twice-nightly turning of her body to prevent bedsores.

“I don’t rail against it any more,” he says, “it just doesn’t get any easier. It’s the difficulties of travel and the… almost the impossibility of doing anything off the cuff, you know. If I thought about it, I suppose I would feel sad but I don’t let myself because otherwise it’s unbearable. I don’t go down that path.”

In their old devil-may-care days, the Tebbits would just turn up at Heathrow, check the availability of flights and board the plane – usually to somewhere in France – pick up a car and “bog off with our Michelin guide and that was that. But you can’t do that in our situation, which means you become very unadventurous.”

Lord Tebbit’s main complaint about David Cameron – and he has a few – is that he has not experienced enough variety of the different ways of the world. But doesn’t he think that coping with a disabled child has given Cameron a different sort of insight? “Oh yes, that’s certainly so. The emotional side of having a child whose maximum potential is limited is a difficult thing to accept and live with, of course. But then you sit down and you say, ‘Well, how can I do the best for this child?’ That’s one thing if you’re a bus driver, it’s another thing if you’re a wealthy man. I am very conscious of the fact that looking after my wife costs £70,000 to £80,000 a year of pre-taxed income. Now how many people, who have got a disabled husband or wife or child, can afford that sort of money? Very few.”

At a “State of Britain” speech he gave in May, he dealt a swift swipe to Cameron’s leadership saying: “My own party has now re-branded itself as the party to implement New Labour policies more effectively. God knows there is a need of a party to do that, but I thought it was the Labour Party.” When I ask him to name the Tories’ biggest political asset (Lord Tebbit is still routinely referred to in headlines as the ‘last big Tory beast’), he laughs and says “Very interesting question.” Because you feel there isn’t anyone? “I think we lack somebody of the standing of Margaret.”

After Lady Thatcher’s recent visit to 10 Downing Street, I asked Lord Tebbit what he made of it. “It seemed to me that it was Gordon Brown at his very best… a wonderful mixture of his courtesy and his political nous,” he said down the phone. “After all, Cameron described himself as the ‘heir to Blair’; it’s only natural that Brown should make himself the ‘heir to Thatcher’. It’s the perfect response, isn’t it?

“I’m quite sure that Margaret Thatcher knew exactly what she was doing. She’s first too well-mannered to rebuff the Prime Minister and second, of course, the present Conservative leadership has been at great pains to distance himself from her – and she is, after all, a woman!”

He has no problem with the Old Etonians in the Shadow Cabinet: “It doesn’t matter to me if the guy’s the right guy, whether he was educated at home by his mother, went to a comprehensive or went to Eton. That is not a problem for me and never has been. But what a lot of people will suggest is that they don’t know how the other half lives. David and his colleagues – the very clever young men they have in Central Office these days – are very intellectually clever but they have no experience of the world whatsoever. He [Cameron] has spent much of his time in the Conservative Party and as a public relations guy. Well, it’s not the experience of most people in the streets. That’s the real attack and that’s damaging to him, I think.” Do you like him? “I don’t really know him.” His main beef about Cameron’s stand on the grammar school issue, as someone who directly benefited from that system, is that, “If the argument is that creaming off kids into the grammar schools is bad, then it must be bad to allow people to cream their kids off into private schools, too. My view is that selective education is so good that it should be available for everybody who can benefit from it, regardless of whether they can afford it.”

Where Lord Tebbit sympathises with Cameron is over his “Hug a hoody” speech: “In which, by the way, he didn’t say, ‘Hug a hoody’ any more than I said, ‘On yer bike!’ or Jim Callaghan said, ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ We’ve all got saddled with those.” As he talks about what the New Tory leader was getting at, the Old Tory standard-bearer sounds like a politician of quite a different order. “I think he’s absolutely right to say, ‘You can’t solve this problem of poor social standards by just going at the kid.’ You’ve got to say, ‘Why is he doing that?’ What are the problems with the way they’ve been brought up and their schools and their families and things like that.” You’re beginning to sound quite liberal. “Not necessarily, because I think you also have to be quite tough about it.” Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime? “Well, that was a proper quote and unfortunately he [Blair] has been neither.”

He is withering about Tony Blair and, at last, one catches glimpses of the rabid Tebbit of yesteryear but, it must be said, even here his views sound more mainstream than they once did – his position on Iraq, for example, is now a fairly standard anti-Blair critique. “I don’t think there’s any politician who has done more damage to this country than Blair,” he continues. “He has defiled every institution of government and there is now no part of government – the police, the courts, the Army, the civil service – which runs as efficiently as it did before he came into office.”

For Gordon Brown, on the other hand, Lord Tebbit has nothing but praise: “I think he is a clever man and I have a very considerable regard for him. Yes, much more than for Tony in many ways.” Why? “First of all, I think that he’s not as tacky as Tony. I can’t see him feathering his own nest in the rather awful way in which the Blairs have done. The proverbial holidays in Tuscany with dubious people, shall we say?” Berlusconi? “Yes. [Did Tebbit object, one wonders, when his leader hung out with the likes of Pinochet?] But, no, not poor Cliff Richard who’s flattered or thinks it’s the thing he ought to do. But it’s not in my view quite ‘kosher’. Now I don’t see Gordon doing that. I think he’s still too much a son of the Manse… a principled man in his personal conduct.”

I wonder, with all this talk of actual prime ministers, whether Lord Tebbit feels shortchanged by fortune. There were other factors (he did seem to fall out of favour with Thatcher) but does he feel that he never fulfilled his potential because he withdrew to spend more time at home? “I think that if I’d stood in 1990 when Margaret was brought down, that I would probably have made it [to Prime Minister]. But I wasn’t a political failure because I decided not to continue. Now that may have been a good or a bad decision but it wasn’t a political failure. I could have gone on but perhaps I would have ballsed it up and… you just don’t know, do you?”

Was he, like some of his other Tory confrères, a little bit in love with Thatcher? “No, heheheheh. Not my type. I thought she was a remarkable politician and enormously courageous and very straightforward to work for because she was so secure in her ideas. If you turned on the telly in the morning and something had happened, in Margaret’s government – unlike Blair’s – you wouldn’t have to wonder what she made of it because there was a framework. But of course we had our rows [over British Leyland, for instance].”

They still see one another. “Some days she’s on good form and some days she’s not. She can lose her place, so to speak. Sometimes she just finds it difficult to remember what’s going on that day… all the things that have happened today.” A Socialist friend of mine recalled a dinner at Chequers years ago when his hostess, Margaret Thatcher, fed Margaret Tebbit and he was struck by how kindly and unselfconsciously she performed that task.

This is a fascinating time to catch Norman Tebbit. While he is so out of step with the desperate modernising attempts of his own party, at least some of his views seem so much less outlandish than they once did. In common with almost every journalist who has met him – of differing political and racial complexions – I, too, found him a great deal more personable than I expected, with no hint, for example, of the homophobic ranter of yesteryear. He could not have been more patient and willing to engage in most issues I put to him, however combative my line of questioning. But witnessing how easily he slipped into conversation with the photographer and his assistant (both male), I sensed that he probably prefers the company of men to women. He says, when I ask him about this (his autobiography is full of roistering incidents, as a young man, involving rather yobbish behaviour under the influence of drink): “There’s a time and a place for everything – mixed company over a dinner table and things like that – but, yes, I do enjoy my time with the lads, always have done.” So do you think you’re still a bit of a lad in a way? “I’m not sure about that,” a final gallows laugh. “Perhaps a retired lad.”

Celebrities, Politicians

Al Gore – he’s hot

The Times – July 6 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Once derided as a wooden politician, Al Gore is the man of the moment. On the eve of his series of ‘save the planet’ Live Earth rock concerts, Ginny Dougary finds him warm, witty, passionate and attractive

Al Gore
Photo: Brett Wilson

The Goracle – also known in Washington these days as “Al Gore: rock star” – clears his throat and starts singing the lines from a Bob Dylan song quietly and unselfconsciously: “ ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’ . . . it’s a lovely lyric. He’s written so many great ones . . . like ‘He not busy being born is busy dying’.” The former Vice-President of the United States may be joining the likes of Madonna and the Pussy-cat Dolls on stage at Wembley’s Live Earth concert tomorrow but his vocalising – as far as I know – will be restricted to challenging each and every member of the audience to make a pledge right now to do his or her bit to save the planet.

The rock-star epithet – awarded by The Washington Post – is partly a reference to his involvement in the Live Earth concerts: a massive event spanning seven continents and involving 150 acts, with a global reach of two billion people. But it’s also an acknowledgment of Al Gore’s new charisma (not a word that would ever have been applied to him when he was in mainstream politics), where his name – as a leading, Oscar-winning environmental campaigner – is now a big draw and standing ovations are the norm.

Why, he even looks a bit like a rock star, all in black from his sharply tailored jacket, nipping in his barrel chest, to his cowboy boots: a far cry from the bland Ivy League uniform of chinos and loafers.

The singing came after one of several concerted attempts on my part to establish the definitive response to the question that we all want answered: will Al Gore run for the presidency in 2008? Last week’s poll, conducted in the key state of New Hampshire, showed that Democrats would prefer Gore to any of the declared contenders (Hillary Clinton, the forerunner, would be forced into second place by 6 percentage points) even though he has yet to enter the race.

If you really want to make the crucial difference to affect climate change, isn’t it imperative that you run for the presidency? “Hmmm.” Because even if you don’t care to, and you like your life more now than you did before . . . “Hmmm.” For every person you reach with these concerts and your slideshow lectures and film ( An Inconvenient Truth), the one individual who really has the power to make dramatic changes is the President of the United States … “Hmmm.” And now is your time! And anyway, didn’t you make a sort of promise to your father on his deathbed that you would “always do right”? “Hahahaha.”

This is a hollow, slightly embarrassed, laugh but as the interview progresses the laughter becomes increasingly genuine, until by the end of our brief encounter any trace of the old “wooden” Gore has been replaced by an appealing combination of cool, wry humour and bursts of passion.

Much has been made of the Goracle’s increased heft – and not just politically – in these so-called “wilderness years”, but while he may be fleshier (much continues to be made of the loss of his movie-star jawline), he also radiates the sense of being comfortable in his skin, and that is undeniably attractive.

“It’s a fair point that no position in the world has as much potential for bringing about change as that of President of the US. But I ran for president twice, and [‘eee-arnd’, he says with a southern twang] I have now launched a different kind of campaign” – his delivery slow and measured – “aimed at raising awareness and giving knowledge of the solutions to the climate crisis all round the world. While it’s true that I haven’t ruled out the possibility of running at some point in the future, the reason I don’t expect to is that I’ve fallen out of love with politics.”

What an arresting phrase, spoken with all the disenchantment of a disappointed lover – “fallen out of love with politics”, from a man who was groomed from birth by his Democrat senator father, Al Sr, for the highest office in the land. He knows that there is still anger, and not just among the Democrats, that he didn’t somehow fight harder to prevent the final outcome of that messy election in 2000 which resulted in the Bush Administration, the non-signing of the Kyoto treaty and the war in Iraq.

“I’ve seen the limitations of politics when public opinion will not support the kind of dramatic change that’s really necessary,” Gore continues. “I’ve seen that at first hand. And focusing on changing public opinion at the grassroots level feels like the right thing for me to be doing.”

For someone who is pushing 60 you’re talking very much like a young person, if I may say so. We are always hearing that the young are disaffected with the main political parties but are much more likely to respond to single issues – do you agree?

After his mini-warble, Gore says: “I feel,” (it is striking how often he uses “feel” rather than “think”) that this climate crisis is far and away the most serious challenge we’ve ever faced, and it’s a challenge first and foremost to the moral imagination. We have never in the past confronted anything like this; never had this radically new relationship to the planet.

“We’ve quadrupled population in less than 100 years. We’re using routinely technologies that are a thousandfold more powerful than those our grandparents had available to them, and we’re now the bull in the china shop. And becoming conscious of what we’re doing worldwide about how to stop putting all this global-warming pollution into the air is really the most urgent challenge we have to face.”

I watched An Inconvenient Truth with my family the evening before meeting Gore, and was struck by what an impact it made on us all, regardless of our generation. It’s a film that forces viewers, whatever their experiences, to join the dots together.

As Gore says, while we watch diagrams of the edges of continent after continent submerged in water – the sure result of all this catastrophic melting – it is hard not to shift straight from denial to despair. But optimism is crucial, and not misplaced: “We have everything we need [to tackle this] save political will,” he says, “and in America political will is a renewable energy.”

Gore was a lone voice in American politics to speak out against the Iraq invasion, which he opposed from the outset (Hillary Clinton voted for the war in the Senate, although she now says that she was misled by the Bush Administration). “There’s no longer any dispute about the fact that the Iraq war was a horrible mistake,” he says.

Unlike, famously, Bush or Clinton, Gore has first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war because he volunteered for Vietnam out of a sense of duty, despite his public opposition to it. He didn’t serve his full two years but saw and recorded enough as a military reporter to feel the need to enrol in divinity school for a year on his return: “It was a way of – ahhh – searching in an organised way for answers to some of the questions that I confronted when I faced what seemed to a young man to be a moral dilemma about going to Vietnam. But in any case,” he clears his throat again, “I’ve always been a person of faith.”

He calls himself a Christian but he also meditates in times of stress: “I don’t often talk about this,” he says hesitantly, “but I believe in a very personal definition of what I think the Creator of the Universe is – that God is a moving force in the world – but I don’t think everything is predetermined in any way, and I think that what we do matters and the choices we make matter, and I think it’s up to us to try our best to make better choices.”

He sees no signs of Bush making better choices, but surely we can’t afford to dismiss the possibility that he might. “Well, it’s true and I have to admit to you – however – that I have recently begun to fear that I am – ah – losing my objectivity where Bush is concerned.” This is said with an hilarious deadpan expression. “Yaiiirs, and Cheney, too, I must say.” But on the positive side: “Congress has already acted. I have gone to Capitol Hill and testified before the House and the Senate, and they are now moving. So we can have some new laws even before Bush leaves office.”

Can I draw an analogy between you and Gordon Brown? “Of course,” Gore says in his amiable way: he might just be the politest person I’ve ever interviewed. “You mean, Number Twos who become Number One?” he asks mock-archly. Oh, are you hinting . . . “Well, he made it and I didn’t.” There’s still time. “Hahahahaha, yes, I’m a young man – 59 is the new 49!”

The point I want to make is that with both Brown and Gore (when he was in office) there is an unhelpful schism between their private (witty, charming, relaxed) and public (dour: Brown; wooden: Gore) selves. Does Gore agree? “I used to be described that way but I haven’t been in a long time,” he says. “I think that people see [Brown] very differently now that he is Prime Minister.” Even so soon? “Yes, I do. I think you’ve seen an almost instant change in the way that people perceive him. Perhaps it’s influenced by his excellent handling of this terror threat, but there is some evidence that he is experiencing a surge in the polls. Part of that comes from people seeing him as Prime Minister and not as Number Two. I think that does colour people’s perceptions.”

Do you think it’s true that you seem far more engaged and passionate as an environmental campaigner than when you were running for President? “The perceptions of candidates are affected by the lens that we all use when we look at candidates – and when one is not a candidate there is a different lens,” he says. “But it’s true as well. Even though I was inspired when I was holding political office to address the climate crisis [he has campaigned on this issue for 30 years], there is a kind of luxury in being able to focus single-mindedly on one issue out of the entire panoply, and the opportunity to focus on it intensely might not be as possible for someone holding office.”

Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, made an arresting comparison between Gore and Clinton’s respective personalities: “In private Gore is what Clinton is like in public. And in public he’s like Clinton in private. When he’s not in front of a microphone, Gore is witty, urbane, informal, empathetic and often subtle, displaying attributes that Clinton reserves for the stage.”

It may sound cheeky, but do you think that Clinton is so charismatic that your lustre was eclipsed by his? “Hmmm, hmmm – well, I never saw it that way. I thought we were an excellent team. I think he’s uncommonly talented as a politician, much as Tony Blair was uncommonly talented, and I think that both Gordon Brown and I have a different set of talents – and someone who is Number Two and in waiting, if you will, is inevitably seen in a different way.”

America, soon to be overtaken by China, is the largest source of global-warming pollution in the world. What will it take to make Americans wake up and believe that global warming is real before it’s too late?

“Well, Sir Winston Churchill said – I’m sure you know the quote – ‘The American people generally do the right thing . . . after first exhausting every available alternative’. And I think we have exhausted the alternatives and we’re now just about ready to do the right thing on climate.”

Lest we feel smug about “those dumb Americans” – and in answer to Bob Geldof’s complaint that tomorrow’s event is just another enormous pop concert and “we’re all f*****g concious of global warming” – it turns out that we’re not as smart as we think we are. Gore points out: “Did you see this morning’s major new MORI poll which shows that in the UK, 56 per cent of the people are notaware that there is a scientific concensus that global warming is caused by human actitivities?” We know from the smoking ban that the unthinkable can become the thinkable overnight. But: “The first establishment of the national consensus on smoking was in 1964,” Gore points out, “and it’s taken that long to convince enough people, one by one, of the need for the new laws on smoking. But we don’t have 40 years left to make enough changes on this issue one by one – so that’s the reason for these mass events like Live Earth worldwide, to speed up that process.

“There’s an old African proverb that says ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together’. We have to go far – quickly. And this is just the beginning of a three-year massive campaign.”

Gore doesn’t like to call himself an eco-warrior (“it sounds a bit hubristic and militaristic, doesn’t it?”) but he is gathering forces – Al’s army – in his battle to save the planet. He has already trained 1,300 people to give his slide show, attended by 200 people at an event in Cambridge University (including, rather surprisingly, Sir Alex Ferguson). Then there’s Australia, and India at the end of the year, China next, and Africa – “whatever it takes to persuade enough people to reach that critical mass, that’s what we have to do. So let’s get on with it, that’s my feeling.”

Our time is almost up. I have one final question. Gore has said that he has learnt a lot in the past six years. “Having been through some of the experiences I’ve been through, I can confirm the old cliché that we often learn the most from [a little, rueful laugh] the most painful experiences.”

Could you be more specific? “It’s hard to be. But letting go of . . . Kris Kristofferson wrote a line that Janis Joplin sang: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose . . .’” Yes, I think I see. So do you feel free now? “Yes,” Al Gore says. “I do.”

Politicians, Women

Destiny’s daughter

The Times – April 28 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Benazir Bhutto’s life has been a rollercoaster of high political drama, acute personal loss, early triumph followed by downfall and charges of corruption. Ginny Dougary meets her in exile in Dubai, as she plans her return to power in Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto
Photo: Mark Harrison

The story of Benazir Bhutto is dramatic enough on paper but becomes almost fantastic in person. Her pampered-princess start in life, raised at her father’s knee in the ancestral estate on heady tales of the Bhutto family’s political dynasty; her education at Harvard and Oxford, where she was president of the Oxford Union; her heartbreaking return to Pakistan when she was unable to save her beloved father – despite intense international pressure – from being hanged in 1979 by General Zia’s military dictatorship, whose coup had toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s democratic government. Her subsequent years of solitary confinement, as the new leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (the mantle passed on to her by Bhutto Sr, who founded the socialist party in 1967), in the squalid, inhumane conditions she had last seen her father calmly endure; the isolation of house arrest with virtually no visits or phone calls; her escape to Britain in 1984, campaigning in exile against the injustices of the Zia regime, and triumphant return to Pakistan two years later, where she was greeted by a staggering one million supporters and elected prime minister at the age of 35, in 1988, the youngest person and first woman to hold that position in any modern Muslim nation.

Within two years, her government was controversially dismissed by the military-backed president and an election called, in which the PPP (in a democratic alliance) was defeated. In 1993, she was re-elected, only to be dismissed once again three years later by another president on the grounds of mismanagement and corruption. Since 1999, Bhutto has been in exile in London and, latterly, Dubai, where she was reunited with her colourful husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was released from prison in Pakistan in November 2004, having spent eight years awaiting trial on corruption and murder charges.

Two years earlier, the present president, General Pervez Musharraf, who continues to remain head of the military – seemingly impervious to widespread public criticism of his dual role – introduced a new amendment to Pakistan’s constitution, banning prime ministers from holding office for more than two terms. This should disqualify Bhutto from ever resuming that position and also her old rival, Nawaz Sharif. But in Pakistan, anything can happen, and Bhutto is planning to return to her country – regardless of the numerous corruption charges which she and her family still face (as well as the couple’s separate, ongoing money-laundering case in Switzerland) – to fight the allegedly free and democratic elections which have been promised by the end of this year. As she says, her own life has mirrored the history of Pakistan and that is why, at such a pivotal time in the West, it is both fascinating and important to hear what Benazir Bhutto has to say.

The four hours spent in her home in Dubai are a rollercoaster of copious laughter and floods of tears, noncommittal cautiousness and breathtaking openness, plain-speaking to the point of impertinence and insinuating charm, high-handed loftiness and affectionate intimacy. Bhutto is the most extraordinary woman who says the most extraordinary things, veering wildly between self-aggrandisement and a knowing, sometimes humorous, recognition of how she can come across.

Although she declines to name names – saying that “it’s better not to give the impression that you’re trying to fire political shots over somebody else’s shoulder” – it is clear that there have been high-level discussions behind the scenes in Washington, where Bhutto is frequently invited to give speeches, and perhaps the UK. There continues to be widespread speculation in the press about the possibility of a deal being struck between Musharraf’s “people” and Bhutto’s party. Her response to these reports is that although “there have been ‘back-channel’ contacts with Musharraf for some time, they have not led to any understanding. And so all this talk of an ‘understanding’ I find very confusing.” It is also confusing that while Bhutto does not shirk from criticising Musharraf at every opportunity, she also makes it clear in this interview that she would be prepared to work alongside him as long as certain conditions were met.

In her riveting autobiography Daughter of the East, published in 1988 and recently reissued with a new preface and conclusion, she tells us that her father advised her never to lay all her cards on the table. Although there may have been a time when she found it difficult to stick to his advice – “I always lay my cards on the table” she maintained – I certainly find it difficult to pin her down on her current political agenda. It requires an exhausting degree of Paxmanesque persistence, repeatedly asking the same question, to elicit this response on the possibility of a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance: “You have asked me an important question and I want to give you my answer, since my followers will read this and they haven’t heard me speak like this before,” Bhutto finally allows. “Firstly, I plan to go back to Pakistan by the end of this year whether Mr Musharraf would like it or whether he would not like it. And I believe that the [corruption] cases must all be dropped, which categorically has not happened. Not one single case has been dropped and you will please note that between my mother, my father-in-law and myself there are about 20 charges or more. And what I feel and my party feels is that for more than a decade these charges have been used to hobble the opposition… to undermine my leadership and the PPP, and they should be dropped because none of them has been proven, and if they’re not dropped then it creates an unbalance as we enter the elections of 2007. And we feel outraged that government funds have been used on a politically motivated investigation that has borne no fruit over ten years.

“But I also believe there are other important issues for the people of Pakistan to consider, which is would Musharraf continue to keep his uniform? And would there be a balance of power between the president and the prime minister, because at the moment we have shadow-boxing, where the prime minister is technically the head of the government but the substantive decisions are taken by the presidency or the military.” The current state of play, she goes on to say, is that General Musharraf’s ruling party has said that “they can rig the election so there’s no need for free elections or a future parliament headed by the PPP… Which is why it’s premature to talk about working alongside General Musharraf at this stage, although in the past we have worked jointly on certain issues such as the Women’s Bill.

“At the same time, I want you to know that we are also partners with Mr Nawaz Sharif [in exile after he was deposed by Musharraf’s military coup] in something called the charter for the restoration of democracy, so we are talking about a new democratic process in which the people of Pakistan are allowed to choose their leader and put together a coalition. And for that we are calling for a robust international monitoring team to ensure that these elections are fair and free because obviously if they’re not, the ruling party will still be in the driver’s seat and the creeping Talebanisation of Pakistan will continue.”

Bhutto does not rule out the possibility that she might become prime minister again: “If the people vote for my party [she remains chairperson of the PPP, which received the highest number of votes in the last parliamentary election in 2002] and parliament elects me as prime minister, it would be an honour for me to take up that role and General Musharraf would be there as president, so I think that a good working relationship between him and me would be a necessity for Pakistan.” What a pragmatist she must be. “Yes, I would have the choice of either respecting the will of the people and making it a success or being short-sighted and putting my personal feelings about past events ahead of the national interest, and what I want more than anything is for Pakistan to prosper as we make a transition to democracy,” she says.

I put a number of questions to Senator Tariq Azim Khan, the Federal Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, to establish the Pakistan Government’s position. He was affable and helpful on the telephone and sent me his answers, as requested, in writing. Yes, he wrote, there are a number of cases still pending in various courts in Pakistan against Ms Bhutto and her husband, Mr Zadari – and these cases (almost all 10 to 11 years old) have not been dropped. No, it is highly unlikely that she will be arrested upon arrival in Pakistan. She will nevertheless have to apply for bail in the cases where she has been convicted while abroad. And, lastly, for Ms Bhutto to become the prime minister for the third time, the constitution will have to be amended and this will require a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Pakistan has been ruled by the military for so many years since it came into being in 1947, that I wonder whether democracy will ever have a chance to flourish. “Democracy can work in Pakistan if the West stops upholding military dictatorships through their financial and political support,” Bhutto says. “Our tragedy has been that the military has been able to exploit the West’s strategic interest in Afghanistan for almost two decades.” And you and your party would like that support? “Of course, we need that economic assistance and diplomatic support and we didn’t have it.” Do you think there is any likelihood of you ever getting it? “Pakistan is a critical country,” she says.

Musharraf is undeniably under siege at the moment, which has grave implications beyond his own country. There have been violent protests against his dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on the flimsiest of grounds, provoking fears that the government is attempting to muzzle the independence of the judiciary, and newspapers such as Dawn – set up by the lawyer and founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah – have been alerting the international media community about unacceptable levels of government control.

Meanwhile in the same capital, ostensibly the very stronghold of government power, we witness the strange spectacle of stick-waving, burkha-clad schoolgirls – like a fundamentalist version of St Trinian’s – kidnapping suspected brothel-keeping madames (an elderly woman, her daughter, daughter-in-law and six-month-old granddaughter), and then the police officers themselves who came to release the captives. But the more one reads about this incident, the more alarming it becomes. In Feburary, 3,000 of these female students from the hardline Jamia Hafsa madrassa connected to the Lal Masjid mosque, occupied the only children’s library in Islamabad, where they remain, saying that any action to remove them will be met with violence. The black-shrouded girls have also been seen in the company of male students carrying Kalashnikov rifles. During their protests, the students chant the names of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader.

The headquarters of Pakistan’s intelligence security agency – the ISI – are close to the mosque and it has been reported that several of its members are regulars there. Some believe that there are rogue elements within the agency who have strong ties with al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Ever since Musharraf chose to back America’s War on Terror, there have been calls in the mosque for his death.

Even to those of us in the West who are not nuanced in the labyrinthine historical intricacies of the politics of Pakistan, there is a growing concern that what happens so many miles away has the potential to make a devastating impact on our own lives. Dutiful English-born boys, often from blameless Muslim families, continue to travel to Pakistan – some already radicalised but not all – to one or other madrassas, emerging from those religious schools with a hatred of their parents’ adopted country, and we are all too aware of where that can lead.

It was my understanding that Musharraf’s inability to control the Taleban-controlled Waziristan – on the Pakistan border of Afghanistan – was an inevitable source of disquiet for his American backers and likely to make them at the very least question his leadership qualities. Benazir Bhutto’s response to a recent treaty which had been negotiated was: “My party would not have allowed the Taleban to become such a huge force that they would need to sign a peace treaty.” What the West wants to avoid at all costs is the possibility of the fundamentalists seizing power. And according to Bhutto, who is, of course, hardly an impartial observer, Musharraf, far from being weak, is strategically catering to the extremists in order to convince the US that unless they continue to back him their worst fears will be realised. Does Bhutto know whether Musharraf is anxious about losing US backing? “The indications are that he is confident that he has the support of the White House and that because of the situation arising with Iran’s stand-off with the West he feels that he will continue to be a key ally,” she says. “In fact, as far as General Musharraf is concerned, I think he feels that he’s got the West in his hands.” A provocative remark fully intended, one feels, to pack a well-aimed punch.

Bhutto believes that the PPP is feared by the current powers that be because “my party has a modern agenda, speaks for the ordinary Pakistanis and has grass-roots support,” she says. “And they dislike me because I’m a woman and because my father was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And they have a hatred for the Bhutto family, stemming from the fact that my father was able to defeat them in the elections – and the only political party that has defeated this army slate or generals’ slate in my father’s time and my time has been the PPP.”

When she was first elected in 1988, there wasn’t an awareness of what was really happening in the madrassas – “But by the time I became prime minister for the second time in 1993, Pakistan was on the brink of being declared a terrorist state and my government worked very closely with the international community to reform the madrassas and restore law and order.” None of this was painless, she says, “there was bloodshed in the streets of Karachi [which was flooded with Afghan refugees in the Eighties and Nineties, and there were terrible scenes of political and sectarian violence] and I can’t tell you how awful it was getting daily reports of 30 people killed and 20 people killed, but I ended the army operation there after one year, and in the second year the raids went down and I remember how happy I was when I got my first report of ‘zero deaths’. These militant terrorists hold whole cities and towns and villages hostage, and it’s not easy confronting them.”

Bhutto represents everything the fundamentalists hate – a powerful, highly-educated woman operating in a man’s world, seemingly unafraid to voice her independent views and, indeed, seemingly unafraid of anything, including the very real possibility that one day someone might succeed in killing her because of who she is. Her father brought her up to believe in their Islamic faith’s certainty that life and death are in God’s hands. Perhaps it is also her sense of destiny – the daughter, rather than her brothers, groomed from such an early age to be the political heir to her father, despite her initial reluctance – which explains her equanimity in the face of death. “My father always would say, ‘My daughter will go into politics… My daughter will become prime minister’, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I would say, ‘No, Papa, I will never go into politics.’ As I’ve said before, this is not the life I chose; it chose me,” she says. “But I accepted the responsibility and I’ve never wavered in my commitment.” Does this unshakable certainty make it easier for her to accept whatever happens to her? “Yes, in a way, because I don’t fear death. I remember my last meeting with my father when he told me, ‘You know, tonight when I will be killed, my mother and my father will be waiting for me.’ It makes me weepy,” she says, as her eyes fill up, “but I don’t think it can happen unless God wants it to happen because so many people have tried to kill me.

“Let me tell you, the World Trade Center was attacked twice, although most people only remember the second one. But the first time, in 1993, it was Ramzi Yousef and the second attack was by [his uncle] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has confessed and is in American custody, and both these men tried to kill me and failed. So they succeeded with the World Trade towers but they didn’t succeed with me.” This is quite a bravura statement, despite its matter-of-fact delivery. But then she does have an occasional tendency to express herself in hyperbolic terms, which makes her sound rather grandiose. In the new preface of her autobiography, she compares herself – in the context of her drawn-out reluctance to get married – to Elizabeth I, “who had also endured imprisonment and remained single”.

When we discuss her initiative to privatise the public sector in Pakistan, inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s policies (an unusual role model for a socialist, particularly one whose father introduced nationalisation to his country), she makes a point of saying: “Very few people realise that it was my government [in 1988-90] that was the catalyst for the privatisation of South Asia… And now when you look at socialism, it is redefined even in the Scandinavian countries and in England. But I redefined socialism. I was simply doing what other socialists were going to do – and ten years before Tony Blair.”

At one point, I try unsuccessfully to draw Bhutto out on her social life at Harvard and Oxford, where she cut such a glamorous figure in her racy yellow sports car, and she explains why this whole area is so difficult for her to discuss: “When I returned to Pakistan, I was held on a pedestal. I was neither man nor woman. I was regarded as a saint.”

Bhutto may be to some a somewhat tarnished saint by now, her reputation sullied by the corruption charges, of which the most damaging is the ongoing court case in Switzerland, (“Oh, they’ve gone on endlessly,” she sighs), regardless of the eventual outcome. But she is still a force to be reckoned with, as witnessed by the febrile speculation over her comeback. She maintains that had her government remained in power, most of the world’s terrorist tragedies would not have occurred – since the trail so often leads back to Pakistan.

“I really do think that there is at least some degree of causality that most major terrorist attacks took place when the extremists did not have to deal with a democratic Pakistani government, when they operated without check and oversight,” she writes in the new conclusion to her book. “I believe that if my government had not been destabilised in Pakistan in 1996, the Taleban could not have allowed Osama bin Laden to set up base in Afghanistan, openly recruit and train young men from all over the Muslim world and declare war on America in 1998.”

Bhutto knows that in returning to her homeland, she may be arrested or killed the moment she steps off the plane. This is why she is still careful not to discuss her travel arrangements: “I feel very jittery even if my best friend asks me when I’m leaving… I think the threat very much remains because my politics can disturb not only the military dictatorship in Pakistan, but it has a fall-out on al-Qaeda and a fall-out on the Taleban.” Do all these thwarted attempts on her life make Bhutto feel weirdly immortal? “No,” she says. “I know death comes. I’ve seen too much death, young death. My young brothers I have buried and my security guard who was like a brother to me was brutally gunned down, two years ago. I’ve been to the homes of people who have been hanged and people who were shot in the street so, no, I don’t feel that there’s anything like immortality.”

As we sit in Bhutto’s study talking about death and torture and mayhem, servants come and go bearing cups of green tea fragrant with cardamom. She is dressed up for the photographs in a dazzling emerald-green shalwar kameez, with matching power-shouldered blazer, and her hair is free of the white headscarf she dons in public. When I ask her whether she has expensive jewellery on, she laughs prettily: “Yes, I do. I confess.” There are sapphires and pearl rings, all presents from her husband, as well as a socking great man’s watch – “I like big watches… All the better to see you with, my dear” – the face packed with oversize diamonds. The cheapest ring, a simple metal band, was a gift from a follower intended to ward off evil omens.

Her mother, Nusrat, marooned in her lonely descent into Alzheimer’s, is somewhere in the house; the only sign of her existence is an empty wheelchair behind the sweeping staircase. Bhutto mentions her often, and it is clear that this once stunning Iranian beauty has left as much of an imprint on her daughter as the father. Over lunch – I am served curry while our hostess abstemiously sticks to broth and tinned tuna – Bhutto surprisingly tells me that she is envious of the way I have let myself go. “My mother was always telling me that if I ever got fat, my husband would leave me for a younger woman,” she says. A Pakistani friend of mine told me that in her country, this direct way of speaking is considered quite normal among upper-class society women and is not meant unkindly.

When she was a little girl, Bhutto’s father used to say: “Well, if Nehru’s daughter can become prime minister of India, my daughter can become prime minister of Pakistan.” He was always telling her about women leaders, and that was where her radicalisation began: “Of course, I come from a region that has produced women leaders, and so he would talk to me about Indira Gandhi and Mrs Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, Golda Meir and also Joan of Arc.” These were remote figures for her as a girl and it was Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, which Bhutto was in England to witness, that really inspired her.

At Harvard, she joined the protests against the Vietnam War and read all the feminist bibles: “I was certainly emboldened by their writing because at that time at college there was still a debate between those women who wanted to get married and those of us who wanted to have careers.” When I ask her whether she calls herself a feminist, she looks uncomfortable: “I consider myself a defender of women’s rights, yes.” You don’t like the label? “Well, feminist has connotations of people burning their – ah – underwear in the streets.” So did you burn your bra? “No, I never did,” she smiles, “and that [bra] is another inappropriate word not used by good Muslim women!” It is at times like this that you catch a glimpse of what fun Bhutto can be, when she goes “off-message” and is distracted from the pressing concerns of her political future. She says that some of the best years of her life were at university: “Because I was free and in a different culture and the shops had all nice things and it was a different world, but that world ended when I returned to Pakistan in 1977.”

Bhutto, like most people, is full of contradictions. For all her intelligence and determination, she definitely has her fragile side. You don’t expect such a fierce spirit to quote Dale Carnegie as a fount of wisdom or to say that she reads self-help books “to try to cope with stress and anxiety”. In her library, the different categories denoted by hand-written paper stickers, four shelves are devoted to self-help, with titles such as Women Who Love Too Much, Self Help for Your Nerves, Secrets about Men that Every Woman Should Know and The Art of Being a Lady.

This last book could have been penned by her mother. While Benazir’s father was preparing her to be a political leader, Nusrat was instructing her daughter on how to dress for success. “She was very strict about exercising and her weight, and was always telling us that we had to groom ourselves properly and be neat, tidy and smart,” Bhutto says. She still remembers the time when she was 13 and her mother, speaking to her relatives in Persian, complained “‘Oh, Benazir has got so fat’ in such a disappointed way that I at once redoubled my efforts to get thin.” But it was years later, when she was already being half-starved in prison, that she became anorexic.

Now that Bhutto is 53, she finds herself tempted to relax about her appearance, the grooming and the nails. It’s not in her nature to worry about such things and she doesn’t like it, but it’s become a discipline – and she’s always on one diet or another. She talks about food like an addict, with her love for Ben & Jerry’s caramel fudge ice-cream, chocolate cake and meringues: “I eat for comfort. If I want to reward myself, I eat. If I’m unhappy, I eat. I love my food. It’s the one thing that doesn’t complain to me or nag me or cause me any immediate unhappiness.” Sometimes she fantasises about what it would be like to have a different life: “It would be so nice to have the luxury just to laze. So nice not to have to always get up and get dressed for some occasion. Always having to move from here to there, where everything is scheduled and even having lunch with my kids on their Easter break has to be slotted in. Maybe one day…”

It’s hard to know what part Bhutto’s husband would play in this fantasy life. I asked Benazir whether they were separated, as he has been living in New York since 2005, but she denies any rift, saying that he needs to be there for medical reasons (hypertension, diabetes, a heart attack) and she flies out to visit him at least once a month. In the past, Bhutto has conceded – and it has been put to her so very often – that her husband has been a political liability, with his nickname of Mr 10 Per Cent and his role as his wife’s investment minister. But she also says that she is a human being as well as a politician and so, unlike Tessa Jowell, whatever the fall-out, she continues to stand by her man. Perhaps as a Muslim woman in the political spotlight, it is useful to have a husband in tow – however problematic he may be – but I catch a glimpse of genuine affection when she describes his arrival at their home in Dubai, after his last eight-year incarceration.

“You know, out of the 19 years that we have been married, he has spent 11½ in prison,” she says. “And although we were all excited and the children had put out lights and balloons, I was obviously a little apprehensive about getting to know him again. It had been such a long period of time and life is all about shared experiences and I was wondering whether he was the same person I knew.…” And…? I ask expectantly. “And I was very happy to see that he came in with the same jaunty smile,” she says, and for a moment she looks quite different, and almost youthful, with her flushed cheeks and bright expression.

Bhutto’s mother was always trying to line her up with “good husband” material, who would be dutiful and not cause her any problems. When she was finally ready to submit herself to an arranged marriage – as distinct from a forced marriage against the woman’s will – what appealed to her about Zardari was that he seemed to be his own man, unafraid to stand up to her but confident enough in himself, presumably unusual in a Muslim man, to take a supporting role to his wife.

Was there ever a moment when she fell in love with her husband? “What is falling in love and what is love? You know, I love my husband and he loves me,” she says. “I liked his humour and his looks. I liked the sense he gave me of protection and I Iiked the respect he gave me, OK?” Her husband cut new ground, she says, because people weren’t used to a male spouse or having to deal with spouses who had a life or personality or income of their own. There were difficulties at first and lots of heated discussions. “He never imagined that I was going to get elected as prime minister [particularly since she was pregnant with their first child, who was born days before his mother went on to win the elections] although he was about the only person who didn’t,” she says. “He found it very difficult to cope with initially… the adulation, the scrutiny, the phone surveillance and lack of privacy. Now he’s got used to it.”

Although the received opinion is that it is Benazir whose standing has been besmirched by her husband’s perceived wheeler-dealing, it is also true that he has suffered because of her career. This may explain why she falls apart, quite shockingly, when she recalls the time that her husband was tortured in prison – his neck slit, his tongue cut – and almost killed. “It is so awful when in your own country you cannot get justice,” she is gulping with grief. “He nearly died and only narrowly survived and I didn’t know what to do to save his life.”

I find myself asking her, rather clinically, why she still gets so emotional. It seems odd, although not necessarily unappealing, that she isn’t harder after everything she and her family have endured. “What upsets me is that I almost lost my husband,” she says, blowing her nose loudly. “And also I was brought up to believe that human beings are good, which is why it shocks me to the core when I see human beings behaving badly.” This is the self-help devotee speaking, rather than the tough political pragmatist. The man she calls her new partner in democracy, Nawaz Sharif, was prime minister when her husband was tortured and almost died, and was also responsible for initiating the corruption charges that the couple have been fighting ever since. And it was General Musharraf who Bhutto turned to then, to intercede on her husband’s behalf.

Benazir is running late in her scheduled, slotted life. She goes to refresh her make-up for our photograph session, leaving me to chat to a group of men who have been waiting patiently to see her. They are all political exiles and Bhutto supporters – a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer and a property developer – and they are polite but nervous. I pass the time reading an interview in Newsweek with Ali Saleem, the son of a retired army officer, and a bisexual transvestite who has a weekly television chat show which is cult viewing in Pakistan. When Benazir reappears, her face now caked in chalky white foundation and a gash of lipstick, I point out the passage where Saleem says that he has modelled himself on her. She asks the serious, suited men whether they think this is a good thing, and it’s hard to know whether she’s being playful or not. It is a suitably bizarre ending to an unforgettable meeting. It was her father who chose to call his first-born daughter Benazir, which means “without comparison”. I think he would feel that she is living up to his name.

* * *

Daughter of the East by Benazir Bhutto, published by Simon & Schuster, is available from Times BooksDirect for £11.69 (RRP £12.99), free p&p, on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Politicians

Happy days

THE TIMES – June 28, 2006
– Ginny Dougary

Times2 finds that Lord Healey, the political giant who now lives for painting, music, poetry and his family, still retains his sense of mischief

It wasn’t until the end of an hour or so with the Labour Party’s elder statesman — “Elder, certainly,” was his response, when I asked whether that’s how he saw himself — that I was emboldened to serenade Lord Healey thus: “Remember my interview with Denis Healey/ When he came over all touchy-feely/ Saying ‘What a shame, no time for rumpy-pumpy’/ Which made me laugh/ Which made him grumpy . . .”  “Very nice. Thank you, dear,” he said, clearing his throat.

This was from a song I wrote for the Petronella Wyatt character in last year’s Soho showcase of David Blunkett The Musical. She earned her role as one of the dramatis personae because of her own rumpy-pumpy relations with Boris Johnson — part of the Sextator quartet subplot — but the lines were inspired by her coquettish copy as a famously flirtatious interviewer at The Daily Telegraph. Her charms clearly brought out Lord Healey’s inner goat back then (the rumpy-pumpy line was allegedly his parting shot to Petsy), but now he is not entirely sure whether Petronella is Woodrow’s widow or daughter.

The mental filing cabinet may not be as orderly as it once was — his memory started fading at 75, he says, from the vantage point of an 88-year-old — but Lord Healey’s entrances as well as his exits remain as frisky as ever. After asking me to pose for a photograph — a request that he has put to several interviewers in recent years, the female ones at any rate — he growls “Take your clothes off” into my tape recorder. This would have been more startling if I hadn’t read about the opening gambit before. It’s rather touching, really, that he still bothers to make the effort.

While he is often described as “the best prime minster we never had” and sometimes as “the man who saved the Labour Party” (when he fought the bitter battle against Tony Benn in 1981, narrowly defeating him to become deputy leader to Michael Foot), Healey seems to be a figure who is compelling nowadays more because of the success of his long and fruitful marriage to his writer wife, Edna, than for his impact on the political landscape of half a century of postwar Britain (the history of which is covered in his exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, 1989 memoir The Time of My Life, which has been recently reissued with a new afterword).

We talk in one of the spacious, light-flooded reception rooms of the Healey residence in the village of Alfriston, which sits substantially at the top of a winding drive and looks over the Sussex Downs. We have had several short telephone conversations over the preceding weeks, prompted by Lord Healey’s concern that we have the right date and time. When I arrive he is at the door, looking a little anxious and a little relieved, the robust frame and jowly good looks of his much-photographed middle age now somewhat etiolated. But he stands unbowed and is dressed partly youthfully in trainers (not Converse, thankfully) and a slightly eccentric, sort of Ian Fleming Out of Africa short-sleeved safari jacket. The killer eyebrows still bristle luxuriantly but the eyes beneath them burn less brilliantly.

Healey’s manner during the interview could hardly be sweeter but he also seems a bit distracted, partly because he is quite deaf; many of my questions (I have a booming voice) are met with a polite but quaint “Pardon?”.

Behind the table at which we sit, covered with albums of Healey snaps of friends and family, is a giant black and white photograph of Edna. She looks so young and somehow questing, standing in snow at the foot of an icy cave. The expression on her face is entrancing. I have the sense of her watching protectively over the proceedings as though she were no longer here when, in fact, she is sitting in the next room working away at her own writing. I am thinking that only a public figure so conspicuously happily married as her husband could afford to make such concupiscent verbal flourishes towards women journalists.

Since l’affaire Prescott is still very much in the air when we speak, I ask Healey what he makes of it: “Well, it’s a shame but that’s life, isn’t it? I mean, I like Pauline. I like John. And I’m very sad for Pauline, but if you’ve fallen in love with someone, that’s that — isn’t it?”

You’ve always said that it’s in the nature of political life that there’s enormous temptation to go astray. “Well, you tend to be separated too often from your wife, especially — thank God, it never was in my case — if she lives in a constituency 200 miles away.”

People get lonely? “They do, and they tend in the end to have affairs with their secretaries, don’t they?” But you were never tempted? “No, never. Never.”

I had always thought that it was Healey who had upbraided his fellow politicians for lacking “hinterland” — meaning that they had no other interests beyond politics and were therefore lacking as well-rounded human beings — so I’m surprised to discover in the memoir that it was Edna who first identified it as a flaw, in relation specifically to Margaret Thatcher. Lord Healey, at any rate, has always had hinterland in spades with his various passions for music, poetry and painting. He wrote in The Time of My Life: “Some of my friends complain that . . . I have far too much hinterland. My wife and family have always meant more to me than the House of Commons . . . nothing is more dangerous than the politician who uses politics as a surrogate for an unsatisfactory personal life.”

Among his favourite poets are Emily Dickinson, Yeats and Eliot — and he is devoted to Virginia Woolf, his “literary idol”.

Healey is living history. He read Aldous Huxley’s books “when they came out”; he became close to Leonard Woolf after Virginia died, when they worked together for the international bureau of the Fabian Society — Leonard as chairman and Denis as secretary.

At Balliol College, Oxford, where Healey left his parents in Bradford to read Mods and Greats (classical Greek and Latin literature, writing prose and verse in both languages; ancient history and philosophy, and some later philosophers up to Kant); he was inspired to write his own poetry to his girlfriend at home, Pat. This is highly romantic and emotionally charged stuff, fuelled with the longing of distance and desire:

“Dim slid the Wharfe at Christmas, as we walked/ Swimming through green soft grains of misted night,/ Under an arched immobile wave of darkness talked/ About our love, and sipped the old delight.”

Four days later: “Today your letter came; hope turned about,/ Saw me lie heaving, with a thousand tongues/ Sang love and freedom, snapped the circling bars,/ Bounded exultant in a dazzling dance,/ Covered the sky, and made the whistling stars/ Shiver with joy at its new brilliance.”

These lines were from poems that Healey wrote as an undergraduate in 1938; the first and last time he committed his feelings to verse. It seems a shame that he didn’t persevere, since however derivative they may seem stylistically they also surely show considerable promise. It is also interesting that he has held on to them through the decades, particularly for someone who affects to care so little about how he is viewed when he is gone.

He writes in his book about what has motivated him politically with an eloquence that seems somewhat spent in person (“I’m not so interested in politics now,” he tells me): “I am a socialist who believes that the Labour Party offers the best hope for Britain’s future. More than 37 years in Parliament, and 30 on Labour’s front bench, have left me with few illusions. I do not believe that I or my colleagues are perfect; nor have I ever believed in the perfectibility of man. But my faith in the moral values that socialism represents, and in those who try to put them into practice, however imperfectly, remains undiminished.”

Tony Blair has become too imperfect for Healey to bear: “He did very well in his early years but in the past two years it has been one disaster after another [Healey remains an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq], finishing — well, not finished yet, unfortunately — with cash for peerages.”

He is very pro Gordon Brown and believes that he will succeed Blair in the next election: “I think he’s the best chancellor we’ve ever had, including me” (Healey held the position from 1974 to 1979 and has described it as “a lonely . . . five-year ordeal”).

He has said “a thousand times” that a date for this succession should be announced, although he doesn’t believe in formal time limits being set: “If parties have any sense they get rid of a leader if he’s no longer acting sensibly, and that’s what’s happening to Labour.”

Does he believe that Blair wants to have his place in history? “I’m sure he would like one.” Does Healey have the same wish for himself? “Bugger history, as far as I’m concerned.”

He does have an occasionally earthy turn of phrase. I ask whether he has ever felt embarassed by his tendency to weep, something that he inherited from his father. (He was once so moved by his own playing of a Mozart sonata that he broke down completely after the first two bars — which was captured, expletives and all, by the television cameras.) “Oh no. Sod ’em,” he says, stoutly. “Or Gomorrah, if you prefer that.”

His father was always much more open with his tech students than at home, “but I was very keen on my mother, that was the great thing,” he says, “and I think, on the whole, ‘Oedipus schmoedipus’.”

Healey says that he wishes he had become leader of his party (he lost the leadership contest to Michael Foot in 1980). He says now, for the first time that I could find, that he wanted the top job: “I would have liked to be prime minister — and, you know, run the country. But in my time I was never keen because I always felt that if you were prime minister it was being something rather than doing something.”

So what has made you change your mind? “Because I now think that Britain’s role in foreign policy — which is my passion — is very limited, whereas we were one of the great powers after the war.”

Looking back on his long career, he says that he is most proud of his handling — as defence secretary — of the war in Indonesia “with fewer deaths than on a Bank Holiday weekend on the roads in Britain, because I wouldn’t allow the RAF to drop a single bomb. The Americans, at the same time, tried to win the war in Vietnam by bombing and they caused millions of casualties and they lost. And I’m also proud of refusing to allow us to get involved in Vietnam, because Wilson was tempted and I said ‘Absolutely not’.”

On terrorism, he says that it tends to be in countries that are poor (although there are exceptions — the middle-class Baader-Meinhof and Red Brigades in the Seventies come to mind): “If you don’t have the ballot you use bullets and, you know, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Robin Hood was a terrorist.”

He is gloomy about the future: “I’m always worried that terrorists may explode a nuclear weapon in a port like San Francisco or New York or London or Liverpool and then literally millions could be killed.”

He is least proud of supporting arms to South Africa: “The more I think about it, the more ludicrous that was.”

Would he say that in politics you can’t always tell the whole truth all the time? “Well, this is obviously the case,” he says. “Your job is to do what is needed and what you want to do — which is a question of your values — and you have to be able to win power and then hold on to it, which can be a nasty business.”

I wonder whether he was ever responsible for being “economical with the actualité” (as Alan Clark once put it). I do find a couple of instances — back in the mists of time — where Healey has suggested this.

But he never, he says, did anything as serious as misleading his country in order to take it to war. He has attacked Blair on this front (over the unsubstantiated existence of WMD): “But I don’t remember doing anything like that. Not telling a lie like that. That’s an absolute lie.” But then he wonders whether Blair convinced himself that it was true.

He speaks mostly generously about his fellow politicians on both sides. David Cameron is the first proper Tory leader the party has had for a long time: “He is, of course, a Tory Blairite, isn’t he?” Charles Kennedy: “I don’t think he had enough personality really to do well. He didn’t have strong charisma but I think Ming will develop it and will probably do quite well in the end.”

Even Tony Benn is “enormously improved. He’s much less aggressive than he once was. We get on very well nowadays and we used to be deadly enemies, as you know.”

Margaret Thatcher: “I see her once or twice a year, usually at the Buckingham Palace garden party, and we get on quite well. I feel very sorry for her because nobody in Britain gives a damn what she thinks or says about anything. She only has influence now really in Japan and Russia. Even in America she no longer has the influence she once had. Denis’s death was a great blow to her — and she has no interest outside politics, you see.”

How does he feel now that Edna is more in the limelight, with her books, than him? “I love it,” he says. “I’m her bag carrier.”

He also loves seeing all his children and grandchildren and proudly shows me their photographs. He once said that Edna had taught him to love people, too: “It’s true, and I find that now I’m older I am more interested in people — and I understand them more, too, of course. If I sit opposite someone on a bus I can think now about what they’re like.”

There are some sadnesses. At the end of every day, he and Edna would walk up the slope behind their house to sit on their bench and gaze upon their four acres, with the Downs stretching beyond, and remind themselves how lucky they were. But that ritual is a thing of the past. Both Edna’s hips have been replaced in recent years and now her knees have started to go, so she walks with difficulty, leaning on two sticks. Does it get her down? “I don’t think so but she can’t go for long walks with me any more and so I don’t either because I don’t like walking on my own,” Healey says, a little forlornly.

I talk to Edna while her husband orders me a taxi, and find her so captivating — with her lovely eyes and keen mind, as well as an indefinable quality of goodness — that I feel Denis must be a very lucky man, indeed.

I asked Healey if there was anything he particularly wanted to do before he dies. Nothing new, he said: “I just want to go on reading my favourite poetry and listening to my favourite music, and so on.”

As a young man he had suffered from depression for a short time, something that his son Tim had also been engulfed by: “It’s what Yeats called ‘the ignominy of boyhood’ changing into man. It’s always a difficult period. I remember very much, one evening, thinking: ‘Gosh, you know, this is the first time I’ve been happy for a year.’ It wasn’t that I was unhappy, I just wasn’t particularly happy. And now, you know, I’m happy all the time.”

* * *

HEALEY’S PROGRESS

1917: Born in Kent. Grew up in Yorkshire

1940-45: Served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa and Italy, reaching the rank of major. Mentioned in dispatches

1952: Became an MP

1964: Became Secretary of State for Defence

1974: Became Chancellor of the Exchequer

1980: Lost leadership contest to Michael Foot; became deputy leader

1992: Entered the House of Lords

Politicians, Travel & Adventure, Women

The labours of Cherie

TIMES SATURDAY MAGAZINE – May 13, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Photographs – Jenny Matthews

For all her achievements as Cherie Booth QC, Cherie Blair has had a rocky ride at No 10. Ginny Dougary joined her on last month’s tour of Pakistan and Afghanistan to gain a remarkable close-up view of the PM’s spouse in action.

Cherie Blair

The period of our travels with Mrs B, wife of The Boss – as the couple at No 10 are known by their staff – began with admonishments from one of her advisers that I was not under any circumstances to write “fluffily” about Cherie’s clothes, and ended back in England with Hairgate, the front-page disclosures that the Labour Party had paid £7,700 to Cherie’s hairdresser – the bill for a month of styling her locks – during last year’s general election campaign.

In between the warning and what felt like its fulfilment, a photographer, Jenny Matthews, and I had spent a week more or less “embedded” with Cherie and her entourage in Pakistan – where the Prime Minister’s wife had been invited as a guest of the Government, in her own right as patron of Breast Cancer Care – and Afghanistan, meeting the most remarkable women, from the loftiest to the lowest echelons of their societies.

My first sighting of Mrs B was one that has somehow stuck through all the other images of her more buffed public persona, perhaps because it was more “real”. She emerged from the plane, as we touched down at dawn in Islamabad, uncoiffed, no make-up, sleepy, casually dressed. She may be an ambitious woman with a formidable brain, and a pronounced drive to change the world for the better – a consequence of both her unpampered upbringing and her faith – but the ability I witnessed in her to connect with people from the most humble backgrounds, is to do with her humanity and natural warmth.

Watching her at close quarters, over a prolonged period, I sometimes caught a glimpse of her as a young girl – when she walked from a stage to her seat, with her modest, unshowy deportment; an occasional suggestion of lack of confidence in her general mien. I had come across her daughter, Kathryn, years ago, in a different context, and was struck by something similar in the way that they carried themselves.

Throughout the trip, Cherie was at pains to point out to the women she met that the fight for equal rights was something that was still being fought in her own country. This was partly a diplomatic move, an attempt to minimise the gulf of difference and maximise mu­t­uality, but also because it happens to be true. While it would be almost grotesquely absurd to equate the deprivations of most Western women with the barbarisms that are meted out to some women in Pakistan – honour killings, burnings and the like – it is still undeniably the case that certain prominent women are filtered through a particular prism. At one point in our journey, I asked Cherie whether it irk­ed her that a woman’s image is so pivotal to the way her actions are perceived. “You don’t have to worry about lipstick in the law,” was Cherie Booth, QC, bencher of Lincoln’s Inn, and founder of Matrix Chambers’ response.

At the end of our time together, when we sat down to a formal interview, I asked her how she felt about her depiction as a greedy, freebie-chasing, slightly loopy – here, she chuckled – creepily alternative, Lady Macbeth figure. “Lady Macbeth!” she chuckled more. “Is there anyone else evil we can identify me with? Look, in the end, you’ve spent a week with me. You can make up your own mind whe­th­er you think I’m a completely Loopy-Lou, freebie-loving person. But I am here with a serious purpose, actually, and because I think that if we can try and do something to make a difference, we should.”

THE LADIES WHO LUNCH
We arrive for the lunch in the President’s house, through security and into various spectacularly high-domed rooms, and thence into the banqueting hall. It is the start of a dizzying jerk between different realities, only a helicopter or convoy drive away: from opulent palaces, hallucinogenic flower displays, and fragrant ladies who mostly have their heads uncovered, to refuges, tented schools, widows, orphans, the stench of dung and poverty, scorched earth.

At the central table, Cherie is seated between Mrs Musharraf, the wife of the President, and Mrs Aziz, wife of the Prime Minister, and patron of the Breast Cancer (Pink Ribbon) Campaign in Pakistan. Other tables are filled with an impressive array of female academics, lawyers and campaigners. It is this sort of dual hosting of Mrs B’s trips that is so often a matter of political delicacy: when does Cherie Booth become Cherie Blair? But the statistics that we are to hear again and again override the temptation to speculate about any such tensions.

Pakistan has the highest rate of mortalities from breast cancer of any Asian country; statistics show that 35 per cent of women suffer from breast cancer. It is shocking, is it not? – as Cherie is to say in one of her many speeches – that more than 50 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Pakistan don’t even report for treatment. And it is shocking – is it not? – that so many women die from the disease without even passing through the health system.

There are all sorts of reasons why women from a predominantly Muslim country would not feel free to check their own breasts – or have their husbands, or anyone else, check them for them. But beyond the cultural obstacles, there is also the question of lack of funds, a shortage of female health workers, general ignorance and, until now, a lack of will to do anything about the problem. I was told that a “proper” word for breasts doesn’t even exist in Urdu; only demeaning slang.

Cherie’s personal connection with breast cancer – and most activists have one – is that her aunt Audrey, who played a significant role in her niece’s upbringing, died of the disease aged 52, having spent years in denial about the lump she had found. As the Patron of Breast Cancer Care points out, even in our own country it is relatively recent that the stigma and secrecy around the disease has lifted.

THE UNACCOUNTABLES
Off by helicopter to “Aashiana”, a Persian word meaning nest, a temporary government-funded refuge for widows, orphans and women made destitute by the earthquake that claimed 87,000 lives. The figures produced in a random survey by the Population Council and UNICEF of vulnerable people in earthquake-affected areas suggest that there are 6,047 orphans, 1,724 widows and destitute women, 4,686 disabled. This refuge on 50 acres has the capacity to care for just 1,500 of them.

We go into a room where 15-year-old boys and girls in neat blue cotton sit in front of a dozen computers. Mrs B makes a beeline for one of the girls and asks her to explain what she is doing. “I use the computer a lot,” she explains, always offering an example from her own life to try to put the other person at ease. But this is not just small talk. Over a curry lunch in a restaurant the next day, the most relaxed event of the week since it was spontaneous, she tells me what a lovely job she did on Euan’s history dissertation, designing and laying out the pages on her computer at midnight. She laughs when I accuse her of being a techie. “Do you not know about my great skills at IT? I was the first chairman of the Bar’s IT committee. I’m very proud of that. And I enjoy playing with my Powerpoints. Are you not impressed by them?” Most mornings Cherie was up at 7am, writing her speeches and working on their presentation.

As we move into other buildings, where the children are younger, the distress is more evident. There are two small rooms, with space for no more than a double bed in each, in which 16 of the unaccompanied infants sleep huddled together. Cherie moves right in and sits among them and when a little boy starts wailing at the sight of all the towering strangers, she takes him on to her lap and comforts him. He doesn’t let go of her hand for the rest of the tour.

We move on to meet the widows, who tell their harrowing stories. A number of them have lost their sight since the earthquake devastated their lives, as though they have been struck blind not dumb by what they have witnessed. One woman weeps inconsolably and her tears flow throughout the meeting. Her whole family was wiped out by the earthquake and she cannot forgive herself since it was she who persuaded her brother to visit her with his children. She was out in the fields working while at home were her two daughters, two sons, her grandchildren, nephews and nieces and brother… all of them lost. There is a look of real distress on Cherie’s face as the interpreter recounts this, and she reaches out to hold the woman’s hand. “Tell her it’s not her fault, can you?” She asks each woman what she wants – to stay in the refuge or go back to what’s left of their villages, are they being trained, and so on. When I comment on how much she en­gages with everyone she meets, she puts it down to the women in her family: “My mother and my grand­mother were always very interested in people and what made them tick – endlessly fascinated by life.”

PINK RIBBON DINNER
We arrive at the Prime Minister’s house for pre-dinner drinks and a meeting of various health ministers, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, the Pakistan High Commissioner in London – a well-respected figure who was in New York during 9/11 and is said to have played a pivotal role in influencing the Pakistan Government’s subsequent decision to work with the United States – and various other political figures.

The hum of noise from a connecting room becomes louder, and we walk in to meet diplomats, senators, heads of NGOs, police officers, a general, two commercial pilots, two fighter pilots in their early twenties, the governor of the Central Bank… all women. As Cherie says in her speech, she would be hard-pushed to present such an impressive roll-call in London… “I’m sure this means that your society will be on the up and up.”

Around my table are some faces that I recognise from the first lunch. Zarine Aziz is the president of the First Women Bank. Why is it, she asks, that Western journalists perpetuate the myth that all wom­en in Pakistan are dumb and downtrodden? Why, when there have always been strong women of influence. Benazir Bhutto? Oh, long before her, Zarine waves her hand dismissively. The other wom­en agree that they feel misrepresented by our media. Look at the part Fatima Jinnah played, the sister of the founder of Pakistan in 1947, they say. The new quota that was introduced in 2003 of women councillors at local level was 33 per cent, which translates into 30,000 new women councillors. In the National Assembly, 60 women are assured places out of a total of 342 MPs.

We troop downstairs for a fashion-cum-culture show. It’s been a long day and it’s now around 11pm but Cherie is still looking perky and smiley in the front row. The models are well-known local actors, all doe eyes and Bollywood strained sincerity. There’s a wildly exuberant twist on the Raj – a handsome young man is dressed, frankly absurdly, in puce britches, turquoise waistcoat and lime cravat, with some sort of codpiece device. He fixes Cherie with a devastating smoulder, and when she gives him a distinctly bawdy look back, he is so flabbergasted, he breaks out laughing. This, no doubt, would be considered evidence by some of Mrs B’s vulgar streak, but it does lighten proceedings. When we tease her about her flirtatious behaviour, she gamely joins in. As she says to one of the women we meet in a less glam­­orous setting a day or so later, “Everyone’s entitled to a bit of fun.”

WOMEN AT WORK
Although Cherie’s main brief in Pakistan is to raise awareness of breast cancer, as a guest of the Government she is also expected to make appearances at other events. This raises the question that exercises her critics, namely, where does her role as Ms Cherie Booth blend into that of Mrs Cherie Blair. Although she has undeniably achieved a great deal in her own right as Cherie Booth QC, would she really have had the red-carpet treatment (as well as the first-class plane tickets), were she not the wife of the Prime Minister?

Left to her own devices, my guess is that she would have chosen to spend more time in Pakistan seeking out the company of ordinary women – “a horrible phrase”, she says, but we know what she means – and less high-society hobnobbing. It’s where she certainly seems most comfortable. This is partly to do with what she once referred to as “the little bit of grit” in her faith, particularly in its social teaching, which is part of its enduring appeal to her – and one of the reasons why she wanted to raise her children as Catholics. When I asked her to explain this, she said: “It’s not quite the same these days where everyone seems to be Catholic as far as I can see… but certainly when I was growing up, to be a Catholic was something that meant you were not part of the Establishment. And so, being from a fairly humble family myself, and knowing that my children are having a pretty privileged life, I don’t want them to be simply part of the Establishment.”

The next morning’s seminar is on women’s entrepreneurship and development. In front of the LokVirsa cultural centre are many stalls covered with all manner of different handicrafts. Gifts are thrust upon her at every stall – “What a lovely doll, thank you. Wherever I go in the world, I always bring back a doll for my daughter”; “It’s a dear little camel. My son Leo will love it”; “All these bangles, really?”

Cherie says she can’t claim to be an entrepreneur herself but “I’m a mother and a working woman – a barrister specialising in human rights – apart from being the wife of a prime minister… I feel passionately that equality for women is an end in itself but the advancement of women helps everyone… women hold up half the sky… It’s a long journey ahead but the longest journeys start with the smallest steps. And remember, you’re not just helping yourself, you’re helping everyone. Thank you.”

We set off to view room after room of artefacts. It’s a chaotic gallop, Cherie attempting to say something meaningful about each tableau as the crowd pushes her relentlessly on, the heat, the confusion, and then we’re out and running to get into our car so we can make it to the airport to catch a plane to a destination that is so top secret no one has yet mentioned its name.

KABUL
We were able to have our informal lunch in a restaurant the previous day because our flight was cancelled due to inclement weather. So today we board the UN plane which makes two journeys a day to Kabul. Cherie is reading a book on Catholicism. That evening she has a private service with the papal nuncio, to which we are invited to participate. But none of us non-believers feels that it would be quite right to sit in. One of her advisers stresses several times that Cherie would have preferred to go to a public service – but it seems clear that her hosts would have considered this too much of a security risk.

We are greeted at the airport by a number of armoured tanks and a great many men with rifles. Our first stop is the Al Fatah School in the old Russian quarter – one of the largest girls’ schools in Kabul with 8,000 pupils, from the age of 7 to 18, and in some cases, 21. In the staffroom, Cherie asks the director what she most needs for the school. The list ranges from the optimistic – a science lab – to the more achievable volleyballs and basketballs, which Cherie commits to sending. On a table, there are books provided by the British Council: Sherlock Holmes, Around the World in 80 Days and Hard Times.

Throughout the years of the Taleban, the director continued to teach: “We met secretly and if we had been caught, our men would have been punished – not us. But we put up resistance and we never gave up. In the Taleban years, there were no desks or chairs but the girls would bring the bed clothes from their homes and sit on the ice so that they could learn.”

We walk past empty, abandoned rooms filled with blocks of cement and rubbish and into a room where two girls are sitting at a table and reading – one a copy of the Koran, the other a comic with pictures of movie stars. For all her rallying cries of “Remember – girls can do anything”, it was this vivid illustration of the limited range of options available to them which really seemed to depress Cherie when we talked about the visit afterwards.

Into the playground – or, at least, open ground since there doesn’t seem to be any equipment for play – Cherie links arms with the director, a wide-faced, indomitable woman with a simple manner, and wishes her luck. “It’s very important what you’re doing,” she says, looking at her face intently. “And you’re a very brave woman to have worked through the years of the Taleban.”

Later that day, Cherie arrives from a private meeting with Pres­ident Karzai, on whom there has been a recent assassination attempt – since when his wife, Dr Zenat Karzai, who was trained as a gynaecologist, has been a virtual prisoner in her own home. The discussion around the table of human rights commissioners and lawyers is fascinating – like watching history unfurl. The main thrust seems to be that there is little confidence in the government, the police are seen as corrupt oppressors, torture in prisons is still going on, the legal system is a bad joke… and landlords and warlords are ruling rural communities.

We are whisked off to the compound of the President’s palace to a lunch hosted by Dr Zenat Karzai and attended by various women MPs who have been elected as part of Afghanistan’s new quota system. Mrs Karzai is youthful-looking, with an air of sweet sorrowfulness. While woman after woman around the table speaks in an urgent torrent of words, she remains silent. The MPs are telling us how the men wouldn’t even acknowledge them during their first days in parliament, only instructing them to sit behind them. But the women insisted that they were their equals and would sit where they pleased. Now the men speak quite freely to them and seem to take their presence for granted. An MP says that it was funny to see one of the fiercest warlords – famous for his legend “To kill you is easy” – flanked by women.

LAHORE
For the first time, Cherie is looking tired, drained and slightly ratty. But then by now, everyone in the party is beginning to feel the strain. She hardly meets my eye and I wonder whether there’s trouble brewing back home. We arrive in Lahore to a military band playing Strang­ers in the Night, more dignitaries, more bouquets of flowers, more smiling for the cameras. There’s a “quiet” lunch at the home of an old friend from the Bar, with a convoy of a dozen vehicles, including an ambulance and two armoured trucks of the Special Comman­do team with their snazzy black ELITE T-shirts (Cherie thinks these should be ad­opted by her blokes from Special Branch), road blocks, marksmen on the roofs.

After another day of visits and speechmaking, that evening there is another – very swanky (£100 a ticket) – Pink Ribbon fashion show and dinner, hosted by the Governor of the Punjab. The buzz around the tables is that her breast-awareness campaign is making an impact. One woman says she has heard the word “breast” men­t­ioned on television for the first time in living history. Another says the Governor doesn’t seem to be able to stop saying the word. People are moved by the humanity of her speech and by how natural she is.

The next day we’re on to the launch of a pro bono legal project, which has been the initiative of yet another amazingly effective twentysomething, a solicitor trained in London, Mahnaz Malik. Its main imperative, Malik says, is to tackle the problem of the thousands of innocent children who are being jailed – sometimes for years without trial – and forced to share cells with adult criminals. The families of these children have no access to legal assistance.

Cherie gives a good and clever talk, with her trusty Powerpoint, illustrating that the quality of justice is not strained – and stressing the crucial role the judiciary can play in improving society – while managing to avoid offending her hosts. “People say that human rights is a Western construct foisted on others. But that’s not true. Equality, dignity, respect and justice are as much an integral part of the Islamic tradition.”

THE EARTHQUAKE ZONE
It’s our last day and we’re off in helicopters again, this time to the North West Frontier. Looking down on the hills and valleys, with the houses dotted so few and far between, does make you question what impact all those high-powered, reforming women can have on the vulnerable, uneducated women who live in these remote communities. We land first in Chakothi, which is a transit point close to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. When Dr Lodhi acts as interpreter for the villagers who have been asked what they need most of all – after water, hospitals and schools, it is always (this delivered with her knowing smile) “…oh yes, and freedom for Kashmir”.

The security is fiercer here – army, police, it is hard to tell the difference – men with guns, anyway, shoving us into the back of Jeeps, grab on to a bar if you can, hurry hurry hurry. Since the earthquake, there have been landslides, which means the road is usually closed. It’s difficult to get materials in to rebuild the school which is still being housed in tents. Cherie arrives, rose petals are thrown over her head and a garland of red, pink and white roses is placed around her neck.

Into the first tent which smells of animal dung. She asks the little girls, “What are you doing? Reading? Do you like reading? Shall we do the alphabet? That’s excellent [e x c e l l e n t, they spell out in a chant] and so clever [c – l – e – v – e – r].”

Cherie is taken to meet the parents of the children – the mothers sitting together in one area; the fathers in another. We are circled, in this stricken valley, by the lovely green embrace of mountains which are capped in snow in the distance. The women see that the guest of honour is really interested in what they have to say, and one by one they rise from their seats until she is surrounded. Cherie tells them it is their right to speak out – which makes the women smile – and that she will keep an eye on the rebuilding of their school, and that she’s happy “to see that the men are so docile. I’m sure they give you no trouble.” The men, one cannot help noticing, are not smiling.

Our final destination is Balakot, the area which was devastated by the earthquake, and the last tent we visit is the Adult Literacy Centre. We squeeze into the packed space, and sit crosslegged on the floor with the women who have been learning reading, writing and arithmetic… two hours a day, for 180 hours. The test is for a woman to be able to read a newspaper without assistance. Cherie asks if she can see their work. A woman, who was illiterate three months ago, inches her finger across the column of a newspaper article – voicing the words as she goes. What would she like to do now that she can read? The woman says she wants to learn English.

Another mother says that she is able to help her children with their homework, since she has completed her course. Cherie asks her age – which is 35 – and then tells her she is 51 since “it’s only fair to tell her mine, too”, Another woman gets up to do some simple sums on the blackboard. Cherie suggests that she adds her age to the 35-year-old’s. Painfully slowly, taking her time as though her life depended on it, she drags on the chalk to form the letter six and to the left, a very wobbly eight. That was the moment when a tiny step felt like a giant stride towards the possibilities of hope.

THE INTERVIEW
Back in Islamabad, at the end of the day before our night-time flight, we sit down to a formal interview in the living room of the British High Commiss­ioner’s residence, where Cherie has been staying.

It has been my belief that this will be a one-on-one, so I’m somewhat surprised to see not one but two assistants – Sue Geddes and Sara El Nusairi – sit down on chairs at the back of the room; particularly as they have already positioned their own tape recorder on the table along­side mine. In retrospect, it was probably quite a useful misunderstanding since it enabled me to catch a glimpse of the steel behind Cherie’s warmth. It is no exaggeration to say that her face darkened when I asked her why she felt it necessary to have an audience. (I wondered who was more frightened by what Cherie might say – she or they?).

She said words to the effect that it was normal protocol for someone in her position to have a press assistant sitting in – which, to be fair, it probably is. Norma Major had someone with her, she added, when Cherie interviewed her for The Goldfish Bowl, her book on Downing Street spouses. It takes a good 15 minutes – half our allotted time – to get back to the easy to-and-fro which has made my dealings with her so pleasant. Indeed, she is so accustomed to asking questions that I have to remind her (and myself) that we are in interview mode.

What has surprised her most about the trip? “Hmm. I suppose I wasn’t surprised to find the women interesting and into all sorts of different areas… perhaps what did surprise me was to find that the men were more accepting of that than I thought.”

What one has to wonder is how much of it is pretty words and how much of it will be action? Although it’s interesting, perhaps, that they feel those are the right words to express? “I think the fact they want to use that language is important and shows some progress at least. Some people are paying lip service, I’m sure. But I’ve met the President a few times, and Mrs Musharraf, and actually, I think he’s made those words before and he has delivered on some things. For example, the women’s quota. I mean, that’s a huge thing and it wouldn’t have been done unless he wanted it to be done.”

Where did the pressure come for the President to do it? After all, we hardly think of him as an enlightened feminist or a human rights person (in 2005 the President caused an international outcry when he was reported to say of an alleged gang-rape: “A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped”). “No… no…” (It must be tricky remaining true to yourself, without badmouthing your host.) “He probably sees it as a way of making sure this country doesn’t become more extreme Islamist.” Pressure from the United States? “That’s what the international community wants, that’s for sure, but I also think he wants this country to be a secular state and therefore empowering women is one way of doing that.”

Did she notice a certain sullenness from the men in the rural areas? She says that that they were noticeably quiet but some of that might have been cultural. “I was careful to put my hand out to them but only shake their hand if they indicated that’s what they wanted. Some of them clearly didn’t, not because they were being nasty but because I’m a woman and in their culture they might not want to touch me.” She did concede that the other reason may well have been that she was so clearly focusing her attention on the women. She was very heartened by the sight of the women doing the electrics during a visit to a retraining programme in the earthquake zone. “OK, they weren’t being taught how to wire up a new house but learning how to mend household appliances and be self-sufficient makes total sense, doesn’t it? Remember that many of those women would be widows, and if they don’t know how to do that, who is going to do it, in a society where women can’t just ask a stray man in to help?”

Her own household skills are not all that hot. So is Tony any good? “Oh no,” she laughs. “If anyone did change the fuse in our house, it was me, not Tony. But I’m not claiming that I’m an electrician.” We talk about all the shocking practices against women we have heard about during our stay. In the Hadud law, sex between any two people, outside marriage, is considered adultery (although Dr Lodhi stresses this law is under review). If a woman is raped, unless there are four male witnesses to confirm her story, she will be accused of committing adultery. The honour killings and such are all tied up with the question of whether a woman has shamed the honour of her family: “So if you’ve been perceived to have been flirting, the reprisal could be the complete disfigurement of your face,” Cherie says. In Bangladesh, she says, the most popular punishment against women is to fling the acid from car batteries on their faces.

In some of the tribal areas, if there’s a dispute between two families, the local form of justice is that a daughter will be taken as compensation. “At the end of army rule, the General [ie, the President] had taken [these practices] out of the family law and put them into this special Hadud law which is particular to the Islamic law. So it makes it much more difficult now for the Government to repeal a law which is perceived to be Islamic.”

Do we call Pakistan a military dictatorship? “No, we don’t. We certainly don’t.” But he did seize power… (in a military coup in 1999). “But there have been elections since.” Nevertheless, some people do still call it that. (Imran Khan, for one, in this magazine – who has his own political ambitions, of course – recently described the regime as “a military dictatorship with a democratic façade”.) Says Cherie: “Pakistan has been restored to the Commonwealth and is working its way towards a fully non-military involvement. This is the question of whether [Musharraf] should continue to be General. [If he is re-elected.] And certainly our policy remains that he should not.”

As a human rights lawyer, and a passionate human rights activist, how would you weigh up the compromises involved in visiting a country whose regime you disapproved of, with the good you feel you could do for the people who are living there?

“Well, that’s – um – that’s – always a – I mean – that’s always a ques – um… To some extent, I feel, particularly in relation to women – that sometimes just by going to these places and showing your face and talking about women’s issues, at least you’re both, hopefully, giving some sort of encouragement to those who are pushing those issues, and making people who are against those issues face up to the realities. But there’s only so much you can do, and in the end, it has to come from the country itself.” We move on to more general questions. It has been made clear that questions relating to the Prime Minister’s policies are off-limits. I wonder whether there’s part of you that thinks it will be a tremendous relief when you leave Downing Street; do you think you will regain part of yourself?

“I don’t know about that. I mean, ever since I got married, I’ve been Mrs Blair – who’s the wife of Tony Blair and the mother of…” Aha, I am reminded of her slightly poignant quote: “I started life as the daughter of someone, now I’m the wife of someone, so I’ll probably end up the mother of someone.” Does that suggest you feel that you will never be able to be seen as a person in your own right?

“Certainly I feel that as Cherie Booth, QC, the law is my thing, isn’t it? And within the law… well, it’ll be 30 years this year since I qualified as a lawyer.”

Do you think you might like to become a politician? “A politician?” You’re looking at me as though you think I must be crazy. A deep, rich laugh. Well, you did think about it at one time. “No, I did. [She was a candidate for Thanet North and lost; the year Tony gained his seat at Sedgfield.] And I’m fascinated by politics but I’ve lived 26 years in politics – more than that because I’ve always been interested. But, you know, you can change the world through the law, too, and that’s the path I’ve chosen.”

Have you been paid to come here? “No. As you know, we’re guests of the Government. That means they paid for our flights and, well, actually, not our hotels since we stayed here.” No fees for any of the talks? “No. No. In fact that’s the norm. I do these things all the time and I don’t get paid for them.” (Although sometimes she does – as in last year’s controversial speaking tour in Australia for a children’s cancer charity when she was reportedly paid a fee of £100,000.)

Do you think you could have married or fallen in love with someone who didn’t have a faith? “Not all the people I went out with were particularly religious but it was one of the things that Tony and I had in common from the beginning. One, was an interest in politics and the Labour Party, and the other was in the spiritual. And we both still retain both those interests.”

You’ve said on a number of occasions that your first love was history but that you felt that if you studied it at university (as her two older sons, Euan and Nicholas, have; Kathryn is showing interest in following in the thespian footsteps of her maternal grandparents), you would end up a teacher; an idea that clearly filled you with dread.

“I know. What a terrible thing to say because I think education is so important. But I think the ethos in the Sixties from the nuns was that you would go into teaching and you’d become good Catholic mothers. I haven’t got anything against good Catholic mothers and I’ve tried to be one myself but I wanted to do something a bit more bold.”

Enrolling at the London School of Economics – which certainly had a reputation in the late Sixties for political radicalism – must have been Cherie’s way of giving two fingers to the nuns. If you have a rebellious streak, where does it come from? “My husband always says – and heaven forbid that he ever disagrees with me – that I’m a bolshie Scouser. Maybe that’s the explanation.” He doesn’t really call you that. “He does! But I always point out to him that I think the women from the North West are very strong and independent. A surprising number of women High Court judges come from the North West.”

We talk about her being brought up by strong women herself. Her parents, Gale and Tony, met at RADA and toured together in a repertory company in North Wales, where he played the juvenile boy lead and she was the juvenile girl lead. Cherie was brought up by her grandmother and aunt while her mother was away touring. After the birth of her second daughter, Lyndsey, Gale stopped acting. Did she miss the theatre? “Yes, absolutely. And if you asked me why I feel very strongly about women’s empowerment and why women have to be independent, it’s partly because my mum found herself abandoned by my father and had to go out to work. First of all in a fish and chip shop and then in Lewis’s, a big department store in Liverpool, and that was because she had to work to keep my sister and me.”

I ask her, just for fun, whether she finds Bill Clinton sexy. Mass squawking from all the women present. “Well, I can see what people see in Bill Clinton,” Cherie says, panting with laughter, “but as you may have noticed – um – I enjoy – niceyoungmen!” Do you think any of your children will go into politics? Have they expressed any interest at all? “They’re all interested and they’re all members of the Labour Party, for example.” Would you mind if they were members of the Tory Party? “It’s up to them. Let’s just say that I’m pleased they’re all members of the Labour Party so I don’t have to worry about it. They’re interested in the world and they’ve had a wonderful chance to have an insight into the world.”

Finally, what do you think you will miss when you leave No 10? “It’s difficult for me to know yet. I’m going to wait and see when it comes. One thing I can say is that it’s such an opportunity and a privilege and you do get a chance to make a difference – which is partly what this trip has been about.” Will you continue to do so through your charity work? “If they want me to because I think you should always try to make a difference if you can and so it depends on what opportunities come along. But it’s not… well, it’s not over yet, darling!”

LONDON
Before I went to Pakistan, there was so much secrecy and high security around the trip that there hadn’t been an opportunity to gauge people’s responses to Cherie; a woman so much in the public eye, she has no need of a surname to identify her. But back in Britain, even before the hair business, I was left in no doubt at all about her unpopularity. I spoke to lawyers, academics, actors, architects, singers, house­wives, secretaries and, of course, other journalists. Although most of them voted Tony Blair in, a couple of them said they would not be voting Labour in the next election. The central point of their disenchantment was undoubtedly the Iraq war, but they also seemed to blame his wife for somehow symbolising everything they disliked about the current regime. These are some of the words they used to describe her: “mad”, “vile”, “manipulative”, “power-mad” and “dreadful to look at”.

One person asked, “How can such a smart woman be so stupid?” In all my years of interviewing – a cast list that includes Jeffrey Archer, Donald Trump and Imelda Marcos – I have never encountered such overt and sustained hostility to a subject. Before our travels, I shared some of their misgivings but did not judge her quite so harshly. Her apparent reliance on Carol Caplin made me feel uneasy (Peter Foster and the flats didn’t help). But I also understood how a woman in Cherie’s position and with her natural temperament – a swottish bluestocking, in some ways (“There’s no need for lipstick in the law”) – might come to rely on someone who could take care of all the packaging involved in being the wife of a modern prime minister.

Hairgate was part of this, of course. But since I have had the odd snip at Michaeljohn, where her hairdresser Andre Suard works, I know that a day rate of 200-odd quid was a deal. (Andre wasn’t on the trip to Pakistan, although I was told that Cherie had asked for him to come, but the budget wouldn’t stretch to it.) The holidays chez-Berlusconi and Cliff Richard were similarly off-putting. So, let’s just say, I wasn’t an uncritical devotee of Cherie before I had the chance to observe her at close quarters for a week. However, I also felt that she was good-hearted, a genuine champion for women and the underprivileged, and someone who had achieved a great deal through the force of her own intelligence and efforts – and that these qualities were perversely and consistently overlooked in favour of concentrating on her defects.

If a picture paints a thousand words, then Cherie is stuffed. The constant refrain from anyone who has actually met her, is that she is so much more attractive in person than in photographs – which do not do justice to her flawless, milky skin (this she attributes, she tells me, to drinking 2 litres of water daily), her handsome eyes and, often, strikingly sweet expression. Part of her appeal is the way she is so animated. But this is the very thing that produces such unflattering pictures.

One or two people told me how much they loathed the way she hung on to her husband’s arm in public. But Cherie is a touchy-feely person and, from what I saw, reaches out to make physical contact with anyone she warms to. In Pakistan, one of Cherie’s aides told me that one of the reasons Mrs B is keen to usher other people into her photo opportunities is that it distracts her from feeling so nervous. Like Tracey Emin, whose response to a camera is to pull a lopsided grin, Cherie’s face tends to freeze into a panicky rictus; hence all the references to her being Cruella De Vil et al.

Spending so much time with her, however, left me in no doubt about the genuine, empathic parts of her personality, and it would be difficult for anyone to dissemble for so long while being watched so carefully. The different people who work with her seem very attached to her and her husband, which speaks well of them both. Although she is clearly by no means a saint. I asked one of the retinue whether Cherie ever spoke harshly, and the response was “No, but she sometimes speaks carelessly, which can be hurtful.” I am still left with a feeling of being tremendously privileged to have met so many impressive women in Pakistan and Afghan­istan at such a key point in their battle for personal freedom and democracy, but feel daunted by how far they have to go – and how tenuous that progress may prove to be. But as Cherie said, “The longest journeys start with the smallest steps.”

Fighting Breast Cancer: A Journey with Cherie Blair is on BBC News 24 tonight and tomorrow

General, Politicians, Theatre

David Blunkett: The Musical

In 2005, Ginny Dougary wrote the lyrics for a collection of songs about David Blunkett’s life and recent times. These were showcased at the Soho Theatre under the working title of David Blunkett The Musical; a collaboration with the composer MJ Paranzino and producer Martin Witts who was behind the award-winning one-man-play, Hurricane. The actors were Mark Perry, Robert Bathurst, Lynne Davies and Zigi Ellison. There was a positive response from the invited audience which included: Sir Terence Conran, John Sergeant, Ann Leslie, Suzanne Moore, Deborah Moggach, Julie Myerson, Theodore Zeldin and Alvin Stardust.

This is what columnist Suzanne Moore had to say about it in her diary in The New Statesman:

“I went to see the run-through of David Blunkett: the musical/the other night, which superbly takes the piss out of the Sextator goings-on and has great tunes as well. It was brilliant to see Boris Johnson (played by Robert Bathurst) rapping and Petronella Wyatt (Zigi Ellison) as his “ho”. But it reminds you that, as lovely as he is, you don’t actually want people like that running the country.”

David Blunkett The Musical is still in development; following please find a list of links to stories about the show.

David, Kimberly, Boris and Petsy: it’s showtime
You’ve read the book, browsed the tabloids: now…
London run for Blunkett the musical
Blunkett’s life to be turned into a musical
Rise and fall of Blunkett in song
The David and Ginny show
Blunkett – The Musical on its way
The tragic tale of a man who lost EVERYTHING for love…
Blunkett story has it all
Sex, power, betrayal? It’s “Blunkett: the Musical”

Actors, Celebrities, Politicians, Theatre, Writers

David, Kimberly, Boris and Petsy: it’s showtime

THE TIMES – April 13, 2005
Ginny Dougary

The lyricist for David Blunkett: The Musical, reveals how the show was inspired and explains why the real-life characters are perfect for the stage.

THE life of the musical began, in a curious way, last summer before the news about any of the key players had even broken. I had gone to the Bloomsbury office of The Spectator to interview Boris Johnson, who was attempting to publicise his debut novel, Seventy-Two Virgins.

The date was Tuesday, August 10. On Sunday, August 15, the News of the World splashed with its story about the Home Secretary’s long-term affair with a married woman who was revealed in The Sun the following day to be Kimberly Fortier.

Boris was late for our interview and so I hung around the stairwell, as various women of a certain age walked past. One or two had the whiff of breeding and resigned melancholia that made me think of a heroine in an Anita Brookner or Barbara Pym novel. And then Kimberly appeared, bright-eyed and as bouncy as a puppy. We spoke for a few minutes, during which she managed to namedrop several times: “Have you met my husband?” “Do you know Lord and Lady . . . ”

When Boris appeared on his bicycle, soaked from a rainstorm, Kimberly hovered — encouraged by my interviewee — and her manner became even more hectic. Out of the blue, she mentioned Boris’s wife: “Yes! Yes! Yes! He’s got a terrific wife! She’s the best!” For his part, Boris sighed and mumbled and tugged his wet, yellow hair and complained that he was finding the whole experience of being interviewed “harrowing”.

The hero of his novel is a shambling, bumbling, bicycle-riding Tory MP who is worried that his extramarital affair is about to be exposed by a tabloid newspaper. “He’s not me, by the way,” Boris made clear, then added: “but you’ve got to use what you know, haven’t you?”

Speccie columnist Rod Liddle’s affair had already broken and his estranged wife, Rachel Royce, had referred (writing in the Daily Mail, with a swift retort from him in The Sunday Times) to the frisky atmosphere at The Spectator — soon to be dubbed, as the extramarital shenanigans mul- tiplied, The Sextator.

I had asked Boris if he felt that as editor, he was responsible for creating the ethos of his office. “You mean, am I presiding over a bordello? Certainly not!” he exclaimed, giggling hugely. The strangest part of the interview — spookily prescient, given that I had absolutely no idea what was unfolding behind the scenes — was this question: “Would you have any qualms about printing a story about a senior Labour politician’s liaison?” “Got a good one?” Boris asked. And “I tell you what. There’s only one way to settle this moral issue. Bring me the story and I’ll scour my conscience.”

As I said, I didn’t have that story to bring Boris (it turned out that he had one of his own). But in the months to come I found myself gripped by the Blunkett-Fortier saga — and, to a lesser extent, by the disclosures about Boris and his columnist, Petronella Wyatt.

All four characters are con- summate media operators and poli- tical players. Just as the Prince and Princess of Wales had manipulated their contacts to gain sympathy — who were, of course, only too happy to oblige — so did our newspapers seesaw between the various combatants.

The developments had all the makings of an epic drama. Commentators compared Blunkett’s downfall to a Greek tragedy; Shakespearean analogies proliferated. Here was a man who had overcome so many obstacles, driven by the steel of his will to succeed, toppled near the pinnacle of his world by that which makes him most human: love. But there was also something uniquely modern about it, too. A politician — or any man in high public office, for that matter — who risks his career by insisting that a child out of wedlock is his and he wants to see him? Unheard of. Yet it does seem strangely contemporary, chiming in with the protests of Fathers 4 Justice. And there’s something both ancient and modern about a woman who uses her own power and influence to destroy one of the most powerful men in the country.

It began to intrigue me that the publisher I had met at The Spectator — with her breathless voice and cheerleader manner — was being portrayed as a femme fatale. From the newspaper stories, as more and more lovers crowded into her boudoir, she became a fantastical creature from another era. I saw her as Violetta in the opening scene of La Traviata, a gorgeous salon courtesan in a scarlet ballgown, fluttering her fan, captivating all the male guests at the party, her come-hither manner promising them everything. Blunkett, who had never particularly interested me before, became Alceste — the anti-hero of Molière’s 17th-century play The Misanthropist. He rails against the shallowness and frippery of the age but the woman he is besotted by — the young, flirty, faithless Celimene — embodies everything he detests. As he tells his one loyal friend, Philinte: “La raison n’est pas ce qui r ègle l’amour” (it’s not reason which governs love).

Once Boris had been snapped jogging in that skull-and-crossbones beanie and long baggy camouflage shorts, it became obvious what to do with him. He had moaned in our interview about the straitjacket of his shambling, bumbling bicycle-riding persona. Clearly behind that P. G. Wodehouse façade there was an urban rapper bursting to break free. So in our musical there is the ultimate tribute to the man we call The Sultan of The Sextator — The Boris Rap. Yo!

As for Petronella . . . what a joy! The more I read about her, the more perfect she was for our musical. She has posed for the Tatler in satin babydolls and ostrich-feather mules. She loves to sing Cole Porter and her party trick, which she performed for Norman Lamont’s birthday, is singing Lili Marlene in the husky tones of Marlene Dietrich. She has apparently serenaded Boris with arias from La Bohème. She’s a daddy’s girl — her father was Woodrow, the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford (doesn’t that trip off the tongue nicely?) — who lives at home with her mother, Verushka. And she’s obligingly indiscreet.

It is down to Petsy, as she is called by her friends, that we know about Kimberly’s “extraordinarily flirtatious banter” at the dinner where Blunkett and Fortier met, accompanied by Boris and Petronella. Ostensibly reviewing Stephen Pollard’s biography of Blunkett, she informed us that “Mr Blunkett and I ate Dover sole. Ms Fortier ate Mr Blunkett”. And this is where we learnt that Kimberly had informed the new Home Secretary that she had “ always wanted to know what it was like to sleep with a blind man”.

More outrageous lines followed, Blunkett’s gift to the headline writers, “The Socialist and the Socialite”, was one of the best, and it dawned on me that this dramatis personae were calling out for a stage of their own, to express themselves in song. More extraordinarily, I, never having written a song before in my life, would be the one to make it happen. A couple of weeks before Christmas, a composer friend by the stage-name of MJ (short for Mary Jo) started to bash out some lyrics and melodies. Our first number was Blunkett’s theme song. Handily, she had written the tune only a few weeks earlier, while on a songwriting master class in Yorkshire under the tutelage of Ray Davies of the Kinks fame. That was for Cinderella: The Panto but the robust, catchy opening, which moves into a poignant lament before its bracing return, worked brilliantly for Blunkett’s story.

Left to our own devices, who knows how long it would have taken us to write the whole musical? But on the evening before Christmas Eve, my 17-year-old son, Tom, read out a paragraph in The Week about a producer, Martin Witts, who was planning to put on a David Blunkett musical and this news galvanised me into action.

The slightly surreal atmosphere that has attached itself to much of the making of this musical began with my initial phone calls to track down Witts. I spoke to Nigel Reynolds, an old mate who had written the original diary item in The Daily Telegraph. He was sitting in a car park in the dark in Devon and was about to go canoeing. And so it went on, each phone call more bizarre than the last, until I fin- ally found Witts — driving down a country lane in Yorkshire — who agreed to meet MJ and me in the new year in Soho, where we would play him our songs.

Over Christmas, MJ — who was at home with her family in the US — and I e-mailed each other lyrics and ideas and the opening of Kimberly’s Song (Blunkett’s companion piece) was written on her laptop on the composer’s return flight to London.

Around the time of our first meeting, I picked up T2 to read Richard Morrison under the headline “Don’t just read this column . . . turn it into a musical”. Well! “Where are the new Lloyd Webbers?” he asked. “And who will give them the chance to show what they can do, when staging even a small West End musical can easily leave a producer sadder and wiser to the tune of several hundred thousand quid?” (I hoped Martin Witts was not a Times reader.)

Morrison was publicising a Greenwich Theatre initiative to encourage new composers and lyricists to submit works from newspaper stories . . . “The fact is that a huge number of masterpieces — musical, literary and cinematic — have started life as headlines ripped from the morning papers,” he wrote, and listed Porgy and Bess, Rebel Without a Cause, Blood Wedding and Anna Karenina, just for starters.

In the weeks to come, these illustrious antecedents proved a useful rebuttal to the accusation that there is something intrinsically suspect about basing an artistic endeavour on a news story.

Martin turned up for our first meeting almost an hour late — an inauspicious start (his train from York was delayed). It never happened again. The three of us hit it off immediately, but the promised piano was not available, and Leo Alexander of Kettners was persuaded to let us use his baby grand in the private rooms upstairs. Two good-looking boys — I assumed they were Leo’s nephews — asked if they could listen in. Martin whispered in my ear “That’s Simon Anstell from cd:UK.” Now I see his impish features on the televison all the time.

There were gratifying grins when MJ finished singing and, most importantly, Martin was persuaded by the two songs that we could pull it off. We were on! And, almost immediately, rather like the Blunkett story itself, the musical began to take on a life force of its own.

The so-called preview in The Grey Horse pub in Elvington, Yorkshire, was a case in point. The original thinking behind this was that it would be a good idea if the London writer and the American composer visited Sheffield to get a bit of a feel for Blunkett’s northern origins. We would drive around the estate where he grew up and his Brightside constituency and this would illuminate our script and songs. As part of the Yorkshire experience, we would stay in Martin’s friend Dave’s pub and try out some of our songs on his clientèle of ex-miners. A reporter from the Yorkshire Post might come along; possibly someone from the local radio station. Nothing we couldn’t handle.

At this point, I should say that Martin has impeccable showman credentials — he produced last year’s award-winning show Hurricane (about Alex “Hurricane” Higgins), and the musical of Prisoner: Cell Block H (with Lily Savage); he was the promoter for B. B. King and Nina Simone, and stage manager at Glyndebourne. But I think it is fair to say that he was unprepared for “the world’s media” — as The Guardian put it — arriving en masse in Elvington.

They started turning up shortly after breakfast. So many television crews; so much equipment. Press agencies. Newsnight. Ridiculous numbers of photographers with more equipment. The Sky presenter seems as bemused as us that her bosses insist that she keep on filming, when she clearly wants to wrap it up and go home. An independent crew film us being filmed by Sky. I cannot get the hang of someone talking in my ear and feel myself pulling unattractive faces in response to the rather haranguing tone of the interviewer. My eye-rolling and muttering and Martin’s bossy admonishments are all caught by the independent mob, as well as our phoney smiles when we go back on air.

I just want to hang with the guys from The Guardian and the Telegraph but keep having to pose for photographs — which is one of my least favourite activities. The locals are pretty bemused by all this activity, much to the delight of my fellow hacks. John, an old chap, complains about the loudness of MJ’s singing voice, and then threatens to show me his hernia scar but instead pulls out an enchanting sepia photograph of his wife when they were courting.

One of the photographers chalks up a blackboard with a Blunkett: The Musical preview sign and places it in front of the pub. All his colleagues are delighted t hat someone has had the wit to produce a bona fide photo opportunity.

By 8pm, I have completely had it. It is interesting seeing what my press confrères do with the material. They, like me, are as charming as they can be during the interview — but the finished article or television slot will often have a slightly different tone: a coolness and detachment which I recognise in the way I work, too, and which is only proper. But when you are the subject, I now discover, you can’t help feeling a tiny sliver of betrayal: Oh, I thought you were my friend. Which might be true, in some cases, but mostly it’s not.

I have to say that we were as thrilled by the splendid coverage as we were surprised by its extent. Suddenly there were hundreds of stories about the musical from all over the world; Google is full of Italian, Spanish, German and Dutch references to it. We are in the Hollywood Reporter. And Florida, and other rather surprising places. But then Kimberly, of course, is American.

Friends phone with regular updates on the key players — did you know Kimberly had been keeping diaries? Consternation at Condé Nast’s London office over US Vanity Fair’s investigation of l’affaire Blunkett (Mr Quinn being the publisher of Vogue UK); Did you catch Blunkett on the Today programme? My mortgage broker e-mails: “Have you got a tag-line yet? Every musical needs one. Something along the lines of ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind Man there is only one Woman: Quinn.’ Or maybe not.”

A few weeks on and a US production company wants to fly over to film us. MJ gets very excited. This is a big deal, apparently. Current Affair was a famous pioneering series and they want to film us in rehearsal for their relaunch (to be broadcast nationally on prime-time terrestial TV).

The crew from LA do their thing while we do ours in a practice room at the Pineapple Dance Studios. A couple of women from one of the Edinburgh Festival venues sit in. One completely gets the spirit of the thing; the other sits there as sour-faced as can be. Perhaps this is a good cop/bad cop routine. But it is quite lowering to meet such a blank response when we have had really positive feedback to date.

Martin has been approached by two record producers who are interested in producing a Boris hip-hop single. Four different independent television companies are pitching Blunkett: the Musical ideas to the Beeb, etc. Is this all hot air or is it real, I wonder?

Mostly, I find, people are responding to the idea of the show. The majority think it’s a “hoot”; one or two that it’s cruel and invasive. But when they hear all the songs, they are quite unprepared for the impact. Alvin Stardust — one of Martin’s clients — takes a break from being the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and describes the songs as: “A meeting of Stephen Sondheim and The Little Shop of Horrors”. (Thanks, Alvin; we love over-the-top compliments.) Mark Perry, who plays Blunkett in Dead Ringers and will play him much straighter in our show, says: “The songs are lovely. Very accessible. I mean, they’re not Sondheim.” MJ and I exchange a private smile.

The writers India Knight and Andrew O’Hagan have been midwives of sorts to the show. India, who takes singing lessons with MJ, has not only opened up her house for auditions but has found us the two amazing women who are playing Kimberly and Petronella. Lynne Davies (Glyndebourne; ENO) has a nightingale-beautiful soprano voice. Watching her first attempt to inhabit Kimberly — in that Traviata-esque opening — was like some sort of alchemy. I hardly dare to look at India for fear of breaking the spell.

Zigi Ellison, who played opposite Steven Berkoff in the US tour of Salome, is as much an actress as a singer — and she is fantastic as Petronella. And such a fox . . . I can’t help but think that Petsy would be flattered by the portrayal.

Having been a bit snooty about actors in the past, I have now developed a slavish admiration for them. Believe me, when you have written a song or a script and the actor seems effortlessly to bring those words to life — and far more — you want to fling yourself at his feet and moan “I am not worthy”.

When Robert Bathurst came to check out the Boris songs, my jaw dropped as he transformed himself within minutes — can’t you just see him in the role? — into a sort of über-Boris. Watching him grin from ear to ear, like a schoolboy at the most thrilling birthday party, as he heard all the material and the darkening of his face in the sadder songs, was . . . well . . . it was a very good thing indeed.

Behind the tawdry versions of our characters that we have all read about in the papers, we had invested them with souls and an inner life, he said.

So now we have a man who plays Blunkett in Dead Ringers playing Blunkett (he is filming the new series as we rehearse for our opening), and the man who plays a PM (in My Dad’s the Prime Minister — I’m looking forward to the third series) as Boris. We have all nine songs, the four actors, a nine-part choir for our Greek chorus, the script, the five-piece band, and the narrator . . . and, yes, I’m excited (and a bit terrified) as we embark on rehearsals for the real preview with an invited audience at the Soho Theatre.

Martin decided to go for a bigger venue in Edinburgh, not the one represented by the two women who had come to watch rehearsals. We have invited all the real-life characters to check out the musical for themselves, and have yet to hear from them. We think they would be pleasantly surprised.