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.”

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.