Gordon Brown interview: the election, Blair and family life

The Times April 10, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

Gordon Brown talks candidly to Ginny Dougary
Photo: Mitch Jenkins

Gordon Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politicians, Women

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

The Times March 06, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

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

Pauline Prescott
Photo: Phil Fisk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* * *

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


Mikhail Gorbachev: the man who changed the world

The Times September 5, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

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

mikhail gorbachev
Photo: Graham Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Who is David Cameron?

The Times May 16, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

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

David Cameron
Photo: Tom Stoddart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man behind the scenes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Character study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tony Blair on Gaza, Catholicism, Iraq and Cherie

The Times, January 31, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

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

Tony Blair
Photo: Nick Danziger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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