I did this interview in July 2010. Alastair never knowingly gives a bad interview and he was certainly very open in this two hour conversation.
When did you start writing your diary?
I’ve always done a diary, I started when I was a kid when my dad was in hospital and I used to write him daily digests. As Tony was preparing to leave I was getting so inundated with ideas, other people’s ideas, about how I might say something, do something about it and I just thought sod it, I’ll do it. I’ll give my own version based on the diaries but it would be just be a single volume which was just extracts. Obviously a lot of focus has been put on the fact that I took out stuff that people thought might be damaging to Gordon but actually what I was trying to do was do a book about Tony. It’s very much the key episodes for Tony really. So that was what the Blair Years was largely about, and then this just follows on from it.
But how unexpurgated is it because presumably you can only ever publish a fraction of the material that you’ve got.
It’s pretty much unexpurgated because I’ve kept out a lot of stuff that people would not be remotely interested in. You know, how your kids are doing at school and holidays. Some judgements you had to make legally. But by and large in terms of the key moments and the big stuff it’s unexpurgated. Bear in mind most days I didn’t have more than 10, 15, 20 minutes to write. So where some days are a couple of sentences, that’s all I did. Other days where it’s ream and reams and reams, that’s what I did.
How difficult do you find the judgement about leaving stuff in that you know is actually quite hurtful to someone?
I did think a lot about that. And some stuff, where I felt… you know, I did make a lot of judgements in The Blair Years and I veered towards leaving out. This time I probably veered towards leaving in. Partly because we’re talking about a long, relatively long time ago. Also to be absolutely honest every single one of us who’s a big player as it were within the New Labour, it’s not as if we’re not used to people saying part true critical things. Now I suppose the difference is that it’s us saying it. I sometimes left things out if they were in the mouth of others and I felt actually it was unfair to them. But when I say unexpurgated, its ‘unexpurgated. There’s nothing there I’ve taken out. Sometimes taste, sometimes law, you know, libel sometimes just because you think it’s too harsh or it’s something that is so rooted in that moment that you think it’s unfair, either unfair on the person saying it or about the person about whom its said.
And who do you think will feel most uncomfortable reading them?
I don t know. I think of all of us. When The Blair Years came out Jonathan Powell came up with this really great line. He said, ‘well no one can say this is a self-serving memoir because you come across as a complete lunatic’. So I think all of us at points will think ooh, maybe I would have rather not have seen that in print.
How can you go on about change when you’ve been in power for 13 years and Gordon Brown as Prime Minister then brings Mandelson back, brings you back and one or two others. It completely goes against that message doesn’t it?
I can see that. I think the change, from Gordon’s perspective was that he had to represent both continuity and change. I felt he could do both. Continuity is a good thing, it gives him experience, it gives him the record, it gives him a sense of knows what he’s for and what he’s on about. I think change was about the way the world had changed and the change challenges. If you were talking about the economy, or public services or foreign policy or the constitution or climate change the challenges had changed and that was what would give you the policy agenda going forward.
But wasn’t his problem right from the start was that there was no plan? You just kept waiting for this vision and it never really came. He had 13 years to decide what to do, for goodness sake! This was illustrated in Peter Watt’s book when he said come the election that never was there wasn’t even a draft manifesto ready and Harriet Harman ended up writing it!
I think he needed the continuity. The change bit was more difficult because Tony and Gordon were politically not that far apart. Tony may have been more on the outer edges of modernisation and the public services end and so forth, but actually, certainly, going back to where this book starts, the differences in so far as they existed were deciding who’s going to do the job and whether they can stand against each other. So I think it was the loss of the sense of continuity that gave him that problem that you defined. People were saying hold on a minute where is all this new stuff. I mean there was a plan.
My view is that if Tony Blair had been leader at this election he would still be in Downing Street now. What do you think?
Well it’s an interesting hypothetical. Tony used to say that no one in a top job should stay more than eight years. Now, I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. I certainly think that Tony, if he had been able to get through and fight this election, he was certainly the sort of opponent David Cameron would have found very, very difficult.
Did he ever contemplate actually carrying on that long?
No I don’t think so. He was always of the view that eight years was about as long as you could go. And he went 10. Now that being said I mean who knows. Who knows. Who knows whether the party would have allowed it.
Why did you go back into Downing Street after it nearly ate you up the first time around?
John Harris in The Guardian said it’s perfectly obvious to him Gordon Brown was the source of my depression. And I said, oh no, I used to get depression before Gordon. But people like him were saying how can you put up with all this angst and grief he’s causing you and then go back and help him in 2010. Now part of it is tribalism…
And that’s what people who aren’t involved in politics never get.
Yeah, I think that’s right. They just see the how can you put up with it. But part of it is also a residual understanding of his strengths and so I found at every stage, there were points at which I said to Tony ‘this is just terrible, I can’t go on like this’.
Did you actually ever come close to snapping?
Well there are points at which you think, there is another way here. But the point is Tony was the boss and Tony was always of the view, certainly for the bulk of the time he was always of the view that the problems were way outweighed by the strengths and the brilliance that Gordon brought to it. One, he was the boss and you had to go along with that, but secondly, he had a point. And so when the whole before the last election where there were lots of people saying that Gordon should be replaced kicked off, I was never 100 per cent of that view because you just don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know that we might’ve ended up in a worst position. You just don’t know.
But if Blair knew Brown was going to succeed him, it would have been good for him to be Foreign Secretary for a few years rather than just be Chancellor.
I think Gordon would have found it very hard to be anything other than Chancellor. Not that he couldn’t have done those jobs, but you know how they would have been perceived. But looking back, and I mean I haven’t talked to him about this, but would it have been sensible to have some sort of competition, some sort of leadership election? There is a view that the party would have found it very difficult for Gordon not to have been Tony’s successor.
But Gordon Brown appeared to think that the leadership was an entitlement, his by right and I think that was the root of the reason why he ultimately failed…
Because a normal politician would have had to fight for it and he just didn’t. He fought for it in the sense that there was a continual undermining of Blair but that was it.
No, I can see that and I think it would have been better had there been a fairly broad field. When you look now and see David and Ed Miliband in competition you do ask yourselves whether it might have been better back then. Prescott said so at the time.
Prescott comes out of your diaries as a bit of a hero.
Tony had a lot of doubts about John from the start but I think at the end he would say he had a great deputy leader. Really great.
He was sort of Heineken deputy leader- he could reach parts that Tony couldn’t.
But he was also somebody who’s political judgement and expertise is not to be underestimated. John’s always been somebody who, because of his rather curious relationship with the English language, has always been underestimated. People by and large do wear their hearts on their sleeves. I do, Gordon, whether he was saying what he thought or not you could always tell. Tony was probably the most able to just hide a little bit what he was thinking. Peter maybe a bit as well. But basically we were all pretty open people and John Prescott is somebody who, you know when he’s in a good mood, you know when he’s in a bad mood, you know when he’s serious, you know when he’s not. And I was the person who dealt with a lot of that.
And Peter Mandelson doesn’t come out of the book so well.
There was a problem there with me and Peter in that I never felt I could be totally open with Peter and I think funnily enoughin this recent campaign Peter and I worked really well together. Total openness, close. Back then I was never quite sure what he was up to but that’s part of who Peter is. The other thing I’ve learnt over time is that we’ve all got strengths and weaknesses and you have to appreciate all them. Sometimes the weakness is just the flip of the strength. It’s the other side of the coin and so you don’t necessarily get one without the other.
Is there part of you that would have liked to have been an elected politician but you had enough self knowledge to know that you were psychologically unsuited?
No, I don’t think so. The answer to the first part is yes. The answer to the second part is no I think I would be quite suited to it but it’s just the way the thing has worked out . In 1994 I was getting bored with journalism. In my mind I was thinking about moving into politics in some way. John Smith dies, Tony asks me to work for him and I do. Now actually there’s a passage towards the end of this volume which I’d totally forgotten about until I transcribed the diaries where Tony starts sounding me out about whether I should stand. By then I felt I was doing what I needed to do for him and for the Labour Party in that position. By 2001 I’m thinking as David Miliband Pat McFadden, James Purnell, you know these guys they’re all starting to get seats.. and I’m thinking maybe I should do that, but actually by then I’m kind of a round peg in a round a hole. But then by 2003, when I left, I just wanted out of the thing. By 2005 when I go back it’s very much to go back and that’s it. In 2010 I go back again and I sort of feel if I was going to stand I should have done it when David [Miliband] did.
Surely when Kitty Usher decided to go in Burnley, you must have thought, maybe now’s the time.
I did think that in 2005, and I thought it again this time. And actually when the results came in from Burnley and we lost it I felt quite bad about that because I think I could have won that. But you just have to make judgements and I did make a judgement about it when I left in 2003.
You will never escape the so-called dodgy dossier, however much you try and explain what it was or what it was not. That will hang around your neck for the rest of your life.
Well that’s for you to say. I get asked about it in interviews but when I go about the place talking to people very rarely does it come up.
You will always be associated with David Kelly. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it are, you will still always be associated with that.
If you put your head above the parapet and you do the sort of job that I did in the way that I did it there’ll be lots and lots and lots of things. I was thinking the other day, ‘bog standard comprehensive’, ‘People’s princess’… But every time I get into a cab in London if the driver is from Kosovo, I promise you I never pay. The driver will say ‘what you guys did in Kosovo, we’ll never forget it’. Going to Northern Ireland and it’s different. Yes, I accept the premise of the question and it’s a very, very odd situation because David Kelly, I never met him. I never met him. And yet we became inextricably linked. But all you can do, as you say, is keep explaining. That would never have happened if it had not been for what Gilligan broadcast.
When you learnt of David Kelly’s death you must have been like jumping off a cliff.
I felt a juggernaut coming my way. That was exactly what I felt. I felt an absolute juggernaut. And the truth is, you think about it. You do think about something like that. I don’t want to be pompous about it but they [the diaries] are, I think, quite an important historical document because they show politics and politicians in all their guises. And it shows how hard it is. It was hard enough for me but what it’s like too for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron? I mean it is such a difficult job. And it’s why although I will continue to work against the Tories and so forth I will always try and step back because I know how hard it is. And the other day for example when the David Laws thing was breaking and I did a blog about it Fiona said why are you so sympathetic? I said look, you’ve got to step back a bit and try and imagine you’re in their shoes. I don’t know them. I don’t know these guys as well as I knew our own guys. I’ve got very little time for Cameron in relation to this because of the way he exploited it in our campaign. But I did feel some sympathy for Laws.
Is there part of you that thinks you don’t want to push someone like that too far because you’ve always got David Kelly in the background? I’m not saying you pushed David Kelly to that, but I’ve always thought over this expenses thing that at some point someone could top themselves.
No, funnily enough,
I mean Laws I’m really worried about him.
I’ve been there. I’ve had to come out to my parents at his age, I know what it was like.
Well I can remember the Nick Brown thing. When Nick Brown was being done over by the News of the World. I remember that, I very quickly sensed that eventually he said that was the thing he was most worried about. I don’t really want to go there. Look, some MPs did terrible things but the general sense being given is that they are all at it but they are not. Most MPs have to subsidise their own existence. You know that, I know that, most journalists know that.
What do you admire about Adam Boulton?
I suppose the way he’s been there for a long time but I think that’s part of his problem to be honest with you.
Have you spoken to him since your incident?
But what happened when you went off air? Did it continue?
Oh yeah he just carried on ranting. “You’re a fucking liar, Mandelson’s a fucking liar, you’re all fucking liars”. Poor old Jeremy Thompson was trying to carrying on his broadcast.
And what provoked that? Just the fact that he was tired after the election?
I think it’s that, I really don’t know. Look, he really doesn’t like me, there is no going back. I think a lot of these journalists who see other journalists actually going over the other side of the fence have an issue with it. If you think about Adam Boulton’s life, he stands in Downing Street and talks about what’s happening inside but he’s not there. I think over the years he has really come to resent people like me. And he’s got this thing you know. I love the way he is describing me as unelected. Most people in politics are unelected, let’s be honest about it. Civil servants, defence chiefs, the people who run the quangos, journalists, people like Adam Boulton. The reason I was there is because Gordon Brown, in this very odd constitutional situation, had asked me to go back and help him, and then asked me to go and do some interviews because the Cabinet were meeting. So Boulton says he resented this unelected person telling him what the government was doing. Well that’s what he does 24 hours a day.
Did you actually think he was going to hit you at one point?
I thought he might headbutt me at one point. He came so close into my space. I remember thinking what happens if somebody headbutts you live on TV. Are you entitled, a la John Prescott, to go and hit back or do you have to stand there? I really was thinking about that. I thought he totally completely lost it. Now I don’t know if it’s true, I heard that Murdoch phoned him the next day and said well done. What Sky love is being talked about so they were being talked about. The really funny thing is when, if you are involved in something like that, you’re so conscious, I mean I was very conscious I’ve got a bit of temper, so I was saying to myself ‘keep calm’, so when I was saying ‘calm, calm’ I was probably talking to myself! I went back to Number 10 and I walked into what is my old office, you know the suite of offices at number 12 and they all stood up and clapped. I had no idea it had become this instant big thing.
But didn’t he do just what you did with Jon Snow after the Hutton Report was published?
No I don’t think so. To this day, I think I did the right thing there. Don’t get Fiona going on it! That was one of our biggest rows, of the many we have had. It reached that point where the media wasn’t listening on that story, and I just thought sod it, I’m going to have to do something about this. Now did I get a bit aggressive? People say they want candour and passion in politics and I was very candid. I’ve not seen that interview since – I’m not someone who goes and looks at how you did on the telly – but I read the transcript when I was appearing for the Chilcot enquiry, and I stand by every word. I stand by every word.
It wasn’t the words, it was the demeanour.
Yeah but sometimes you have to go just a little bit over the top for people to notice, and I’m not saying that was planned, but nobody could say I wasn’t saying what I thought.
And do you think it was right in retrospect to do the presidential thing after the Hutton Inquiry, the podium at the bottom of the stairs?
Well look, I felt I was entitled after all that we’d been through to say what I thought and, you know, I think that as to the venue, somebody else found that for me. It wouldn’t have mattered to me where it was. But I think I was entitled, after all the shit that was thrown at me over such a long period, you know with war protestors outside the house and all the rest of it. I was entitled to have my say.
How often does depression strike you, and how do you know what’s triggering it?
That is a hard one. I don’t record all my kind of depressive moments in my diary.
Reading the last book, correct me if I’m wrong, I just got the impression you could tell when something’s really building up, but you can’t actually stop it.
I can tell but you can’t stop it, no. Some people can. Now as it happens I had quite a bad episode just before Easter. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out, that was probably all the angst of going back. I’d promised Gordon, Gordon had been trying to get me to go back for a long time. I knew I could help him in some ways…
In your former position?
Or any other position. Lots of different positions but certainly that would have been one of them. And I just knew that that it wasn’t right, for me, and it therefore wasn’t going to be right. I had a pretty bad episode. Funnily enough, it’s just amazing how sometimes other people can see things for you. We were in Scotland on holiday at Easter and met up with Charles Kennedy and his wife Sarah, as usually do. I don’t think she’s even aware of this but Sarah basically persuaded me in my own arguments about how the Tories were stoppable. I’d been saying that Cameron had a problem with the public, that there people were beginning to resent the money and the posters and the negativity about Gordon and so forth. So I actually came back early from my holiday. I came back the next day. And the point I was making is that I neither saw that one coming, nor did I see it going. You always tend always to get a depressive episode after you’ve been through a big thing. I’ve had a bit of a wobble since.
Is depression also largely the reason why you haven’t gone into elected politics?
No I don’t think that’s the reason. I honestly think that I would have done had events worked out differently. I still might, but if this thing lasts five years I’d be 57 at the next election. I was 53 last week. Back in the old days that was fine.
Well I’ve already decided that I’m done with it now.
Because I’d be 52 at the next election. Who do you know that gets selected in the Tory party over the age of 50?
I’ve probably made that decision too but I just don’t know it now. Depression is interesting because it’s really hard to describe, because it’s like childbirth. I’ve seen Fiona having a baby three times now, and you just think, how do you ever want to go through that again? Answer: because you forget the pain, and it’s the same with depression. When I’m not depressed I find it very hard to explain what it’s like and one of the reasons I wrote the novel because I wanted to give some sense of it. I used to have to wait until I was depressed to get in the right mood to write. But if I waited too long and became genuinely depressed I couldn’t write. The thing that really helps is having a sense of purpose. What it must be like for people who are depressed and unemployed? I can’t even begin to think. Tony to be fair he didn’t know how bad it was until he read the diary. I used to tell him but he said he never realised I was actually that bad.
Is it something that unless someone suffers from it they can ever really understand? It’s very hard for me to understand because I’ve never ever had any kind of depression whatsoever.
Fiona finds it hard as she has to live with it so she sees what it’s like when it’s really bad. I find for example with the kids even though they can see when I’m depressed, I’m not quite as bad with them as I am just with Fiona because with Fiona I can feel that I can let myself go. Likewise if I’m out and about. I mean you know, I remember periods when things were really really intense at work, when I was actually in a state of clinical depression. You’ve just got to keep going. It’s very hard
How bad does it get in those circumstances? Have you ever come close to thinking ‘I’m going to top myself’?
No, but you understand why people do. Where I’ve got to now is, depression at its worst is feeling l dead and alive at the same time. You feel you’re alive, there’s a glass of water there, you know you’ve got to drink it, you’ve got to eat but you feel completely dead inside and where I’ve got to is an understanding that it passes. One of the first lessons of crisis management is understand it will end, and that’s the same with depression. It will end. It may end in medications, it may end in you going to hospital but it will end.
When you had that incident on the Andrew Marr show were you in the middle of it then?
Possibly. That was just a moment of absolute frustration. I’d been through the whole inquiry. I’d really prepared for that inquiry. I’m self-employed and I literally blanked out a month to prepare because I knew there were a lot of people gagging for me to screw up, desperate for it. So I prepared very very hard and I answered all the questions fully, honestly, fairly. I took it seriously. As I came out there were hundreds of journalists hanging around and I could sense their disappointment. There’s a guy [Andrew Marr] who has made a very good living out of being part of this media culture, and when he threw in that question about the figures – by the way the BBC have apologised on this about getting the figures wrong, they won’t do it on air but they have apologised. He got it wrong. He said they were UN figures about casualties – I think it was just a combination of things. The thing that was going through my mind was like you said earlier, that, it didn’t matter what I said to him, it didn’t matter what I said to him. And they like to say that, like Adam Boulton, they’ve got no agenda, they’re totally impartial. Bollocks.
And what about this role you have now as a sort of ambassador for people with depression. Are you comfortable in that role, is it something you like doing?
Yeah, I’ve got, I mean the only problem it gives me is that leukaemia, lymphoma research, they think I’m theirs…
They’ve done quite well from you haven’t they?
Cathy Gilmore is the chief executive, she’s brilliant. She stared off as a volunteer eight years ago and she’s now chief exec, and whenever I pop up on the radio or television talking about mental health she sends me this text and she says “tart”. No I do, because if one in four people in the public get mental health problem in their life, why should politics be any different?
There are a lot of politicians, past and present who have suffered from depression aren’t there?
The Norwegian Prime Minister told his cabinet he had to resign because of his depression and they insisted he stayed. He took a sabbatical, his ratings went stratospheric. I do feel comfortable with it because I’ve never felt ashamed of it. It is like some people get cancer, some people break their leg, some people get depression. And I think it’s important that we understand it in politics because I suspect it attracts more people of a mentally ill bent than other areas. We should be open about it. I won’t say who it was but there were a couple of candidates at the last election who came to me and said ‘look I’ve got problems’ and I said look I think it’s great that you’re open about it but I don’t want to be prescriptive. And neither of them were. I feel it’s never harmed me. I feel I get a pretty unfair press. I’m not moaning about it, it’s just a fact. On this issue I don’t. I feel actually the press have been pretty fair on this and I think that’s in part because within journalism you’ll find there are more people getting this then you’d realise, so I don’t mind that.
Is it true, as Lance Price told me, that it was actually Tony Blair who made the psychologically flawed quote?
You’ll have to wait for future volumes of the diaries.
Oh come on.
No I’m not saying.
You took the rap for it. Did you, in the final days of the Brown bunker, take the loaded pistol to Gordon Brown and say ‘it’s time to go’.
No. It was a fascinating few days. We were conscious about what was happening with the Liberals. I wasn’t aware of what was going on in the Tory party at all. There was certainly a point at which I wrote Gordon a note, saying in addition to pursing this track with the Lib Dems, we do need to start planning as it were, you know, an exit and it will be an important moment. These are really important moments. You’ve got to think about them and so I certainly wouldn’t say that was his lack of involvement, just saying you’ve really got to think about this, assuming this [the Lib-Lab coalition] wouldn’t work.
Why did Gordon Brown surround himself with thugs like Whelan, Balls and McBride?
Don’t know. There’s quite a lot about Charlie in this volume. I didn’t know McBride at all well. Ed Balls, he does have a lot of strengths. Charlie Whelan had some but I think Gordon would have done himself a service if he’d not had people like that too close to the operation
What was the truth of the meeting that was helped with the Lib Dems on the Monday afternoon?
I was getting text messages from Liberal Democrats who were not at the meeting saying this is all going very badly. So I sent a message back saying why, what do you mean? Oh Balls really rude, duh duh duh. So I sent a message to Peter [Mandelson] saying ‘don’t know what’s going on but I’m getting messages from Liberals saying this is going terribly and people are being really rude to them’. Peter sent me a message straight back saying ‘I don’t understand where that’s coming from, it’s going perfectly well’. You know what Peter’s like, he’s a very good judge of mood and that sort of thing. Afterwards when I talked to Peter and Andrew [Adonis] about it they said Ed Balls had been polite and Ed Miliband had behaved perfectly well. What that said to me was actually that the Liberals had already decided, that they’d already made their choice.
I think I wrote at the time that they were doing this to get cover with the left wing of their party.
Absolutely right, I’m sure that’s right. Vince [Cable] was the one that was talking most of all from a let’s try and keep it going viewpoint. Paddy [Ashdown], Ming Campbell, Charlie Kennedy, David Steel were all pushing towards us.
Which hurt more, Labour losing the election or Burnley being relegated?
Well I’d prepared myself mentally for Burnley over a long period, but it was a bad week, though, wasn’t it?
You’ve taken to the internet like a duck to water.
Oh, you think so?
Well, I do actually. But I do think part of it’s because of your personality. Because it is a bit sort of compulsive.
Well, there’s a few things to tell you, first of all that is all me.
Having taught you all you know…
That is me. I don’t know how to, I mean yesterday, my first hashtag. I’m hopeless at it, honestly. I get so many complaints off people who can’t read my blog off their iPhone.
That’s because it’s appallingly designed. That’s not your fault.
Well it is my fault, I OK’d the design. Anyway I’ve got to change it.
I remember having a surreal evening where I got an email from you saying ‘I’m going to start a blog how should I do it’ and then within minutes Piers Morgan had come up on Facebook chat thing and he said ‘oh I always read your blog when I’m in America, bla bla bla’. I thought can it get any more surreal than this?
Piers is very anti twitter. I like Twitter though, and I found on the blog, I found during the election what was interesting, was that I kind of used it as a bit of a strategic sounding board as well. Dave Muir who is one of Gordon’s strategists, even before when I went back, I would be sort of not flying kites for them. I don’t mean in an organised way but it’s almost like a focus group goes on. You work out the ones who are just sort of rabid Tory or rabid Labour, but actually you can work out when something’s kind of connecting.