The author (circled) celebrating Labour's victory on election night, 1997 (Peter Marlow / Magnum Photos).
I met Tony Blair back when he was a nice guy. Everyone liked him in 1995, because this was back when the smile still seemed genuine and a little goofy. This was also way before he took the country into two differently-disastrous wars, ballsed-up the best economic conditions we've had in a century by going on a spending spree and inexplicably kept his promise to Gordon Brown to stand aside.
We were both on holiday and were having lunch in the house of a mutual friend. Tony was spending some time away from being knocked about by the Labour Party, having been elected its leader, and I was spending time away from being knocked about by grief in the aftermath of my father being killed in a car crash. Good vibes and happy days.
"Hey, Magnus," Tony started as he scowled at his sons for failing to eat their cabbage. "What’s the most important political topic for young people?" (I was young – 23 – but trying to act 40.)
"The environment," I said.
He looked disappointed, pained even.
"And education," I added, because I knew he didn’t really want to do anything about the environment and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
He perked up.
"We need," he said, "more people in the Labour Party like you."
'Cool,' I thought. 'I’ve just made friends with the next Prime Minister and I even got on quite well with his spooky wife.' But, even though I didn't know it, I'd already sown the seeds of my own downfall.
A year later – and after I'd sold my magazine publishing business – I became Managing Director of the New Statesman. I'd been doing the job rather badly for six months when the subject of standing in the General Election came up. I volunteered, thinking that it might be a laugh. Not being an MP, though – that would be awful. No, what I thought might be funny was to stand in some hopeless seat where there are no voters to the left of Oswald Mosley. Because that’s the way it had been done for centuries, in all parties. First-timers, unless they're precociously brilliant, are supposed to lose appallingly to a long-time incumbent and learn a thing or two about the rough and tumble of real politics before doing a better and wiser job next time around.
With this in mind, I went to see the Leader of the Opposition’s Office in the House of Commons. I can’t remember anything much about Sally Morgan (now Baroness Morgan of Huyton) except that she had a clipboard. I’m sure she remembers even less about me. However, I do remember our conversation:
"So, we’ve checked you out," she said. "And that’s all fine. Where do you want to live?"
"Where do you want your constituency to be?"
I hesitated. "But, I – I don’t want to win."
"Oh." She said, looking me up and down. "Really?"
The author more recently
At this point, I think it might be worth listing the reasons why I would not have made a good MP. On the PRO side, I have the following attributes in my favour:
I am approximately symmetrical, can speak and read English and write it reasonably well.
On the CON side, I have the following things against me:
I do not care about most people. I don’t hate people and I'm reasonably free of prejudice, but I’m not OK with the political equation, which – at its most fundamental – says you have to represent an entire constituency of people. I just don’t like that many people. I don’t think anybody does.
I would definitely have got caught up in the expenses scandal. Having had a little success in business, I think I know what the money rules are: You look at the law and obey it while doing whatever is sensible to minimise your costs and maximise your income. So, if the whips’ office had told me to help myself to a big pot of money that was specifically there in order to make up the difference between what an MP’s salary is and what it should be, I definitely would have done exactly that. I also would almost definitely be locked up right now.
I’m not special or extreme enough. From my time in the Westminster scene, I picked up a distinct impression of politicians. I found some of them to be among the cleverest, most well-intentioned, well-informed, good-hearted and morally-upright people you could hope to meet, all of them with brilliant judgment and boundless energy. But I also met some of the most self-serving, arrogant, charmless, venal bullies it has ever been my misfortune to come across. I heavily suspect that if you come anywhere between those extremes, you may as well not bother.
I am not a good liar. I can act a little, but I can’t really lie. Really good liars believe their own lies.
I am not good at telling the truth. This is a quality that many people find it difficult to believe about politicians. They have to be very good at telling the truth to people who have power. Nobody who is powerful will thank you for telling them things you think they want to hear. I was tested in my ability to tell the truth to power in my conversation with Tony, and I flunked it. Even if no one noticed at the time, I knew it.
Tony with Condoleezza Rice. (Image via)
Back to Sally Morgan and I in the House of Commons.
"So you want to lose?" she asked again.
I nodded emphatically. She flipped a page on her clipboard. And then another page. Then she looked down at the bottom of the third page and said, "Well, we could put you up against Portillo. You’ll never win that."
"Great," I said, knowing that Michael Portillo, darling of the Conservative right and a shoo-in for the next leader of the party, couldn’t possibly be defeated. We shook hands.
During the next week or so, I took advice from friends and family and decided that I couldn’t spare the time to fight even a desultory campaign in Enfield Southgate. More accurately, I would tell people that I was going to stand as the Labour candidate in a hopeless constituency and they either laughed or went very quiet. So I decided to tell everyone that I didn’t have the time – including Sally Morgan.
"Oh well," she said. "Don’t worry, we’ll find someone."
On the night of the Election, May 1st 1997, I darted around London like everyone else in the Labour scene and ended up at the Festival Hall. We all sang along to "Things Can Only Get Better" for the 14th time (with the exception of the scowling John Prescott, who realised it made us look self-satisfied and idiotic), kissed each other and went home tired and happy with our victory.
Later that night, I was drifting off to sleep in front of the TV as the BBC re-ran clips of the Festival Hall jamboree, with me just out of shot. And then they replayed the “Portillo Moment” – where Portillo lost his seat to Labour MP Stephen Twigg – the lantern-jawed Portillo chewing a wasp and Stephen Twigg looking as if he’d just inhaled some amyl nitrate. As I sat up to face the TV, and while Stephen Twigg stared back at me, I knew we were thinking exactly the same thing: “Oh, shit.”
Follow Magnus on Twitter: @MagnusMacintyre
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