More ‘out’ than ‘on’

Glen Newey

  • A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin by Chris Mullin
    Profile, 590 pp, £20.00, March 2009, ISBN 978 1 84668 223 0

I’m on research leave in Finland, which, like any well-ordered social democracy, but unlike the UK, maintains an air of strenuously contained bedlam. Public notices in Finnish look as if they were produced by pogoing on a typewriter. Bank staff, waitresses, children, even the drunks, have the air of Marks & Spencer management trainees. Matti Vanhanen, Finland’s cyborg-like teetotal prime minister, survived in office after ditching his mistress via text message – it’s hard to imagine Gordon Brown getting away with that. But now and again, one hears a keening strain from the old country. On the Alexanderinkatu recently a dress shop was enticing passers-by with ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, the D:Ream chantalong which Labour ran as its theme tune in the 1997 general election campaign. Apparently, the ditty is still good for shifting frocks, at least at 60°N. It’s a fair bet that Labour won’t revive it for the next election.

Before he was elected Labour MP for Sunderland South in 1987, Chris Mullin was prominent in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, as the editor of Tribune in the mid-1980s, and notably in the campaign to quash the Birmingham Six’s convictions. As he comments here – no doubt part joke and part apologia – the CLPD’s demand for mandatory reselection of sitting Labour MPs, though branded as a ‘loony left’ entryist stratagem at the time, was in fact New Labour avant la lettre. Mullin is well aware that taking the paymaster’s shilling means forsaking his independence. As a parliamentary life form, junior ministers are even more amoebic than backbench MPs, who can at least hope to leave their mark by sponsoring a private member’s bill, select committee membership, tenacious single-issue campaigning, or the odd rebellion in the division lobbies. Parliamentary under-secretaries get their mouths stuffed with gold, or at least with an extra £27,000 a year – as Mullin is reminded by the astoundingly mercenary Cherie Booth after leaving office. The price of accepting is to swell the payroll vote, and spout stultifying drivel.

In 1999, Blair calls to offer Mullin a post as a bottom-ranking minister. First he accepts. Next day he resigns. Blair gets back on the phone. He dangles the prospect of promotion to minister of state sooner rather than later. Mullin accepts again. He quits as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee and joins what is baggily known as the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR): in effect, the Ministry for John Prescott, whose amour-propre demands a duly sprawling apanage. Mullin goes to Fenwick’s at his wife’s insistence, and buys three new suits. Early in 2001 he moves to International Development, only to get the heave-ho after Labour’s election win that June. He goes back to chairing the Home Affairs Select Committee, and sits on other parliamentary committees. In 2003, he returns to government, this time as Africa minister at the Foreign Office, where he remains for the rest of his ministerial life.

Most of the time, Mullin, though generally closer politically to the Blairites than the Brownites, seems sincerely bemused at New Labour’s short-termism and rhetorical flapdoodle. He is a bit like an Anglican vicar for whom the old doctrinal certainties have gone west, leaving only the remnants of liturgy, and ironic detachment at the absurdity of his situation. He comes across, on the whole, as a genial cove, certainly by comparison with the Tourettish protagonist of Alastair Campbell’s diaries. Not that everybody gets an equal ration of the milk of concord. Journalists – whether because they are seen as playing gamekeeper to MPs’ poachers, or conversely – excite Mullin’s contempt and loathing. Piers Morgan is ‘odious’, John Humphrys ‘smug’, Quentin Letts ‘a toe rag’; Jeremy Vine is ‘a cynical smart arse’. Generally, his sympathies wax inversely with people’s proximity to wealth and power. This extends, to some degree, to his perception of himself.

Admittedly, on Mullin’s testimony, power seldom looks alluring. The distended egos of New Labour grandees such as Peter Mandelson, and especially Prescott, float by from time to time, gas-filled blimps at risk of collision or spontaneous combustion. Mandy, prickly, imperious and unloved, falls, twice. Gordon Brown schemes to become leader, while his faction intrigues against Blair’s. At the DETR, Prescott blusters and bungles away, the Peter Principle made flesh. Other ministers – Alan Milburn, David Blunkett, Stephen Byers – briefly shoot skywards, flare and fizzle. Through the passing show Mullin is by turns wryly amused and appalled, but often just alienated, a Meursault of the red boxes.

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