Edwina Currie and I were walking from the green room into the studio for a live On The Record interview. I mentioned the name of the prime minister. She stopped dead, fixed me with her most scornful look, spat out ‘John Major is a c***’ and walked on.
I can describe that brief exchange today (even if the word she used is unprintable) because Mrs Currie herself lifted the lid very publicly on her secret affair with Major some years later.
But there is an unwritten rule that governs the relationship between interviewer and politician. What’s said in the green room stays in the green room — especially when politicians are talking about each other. By which I mean colleagues in their own party.
One of the many interviews I did during the last race for the Tory leadership was with a very senior party figure who protested on air that of course the victor would have his total support. In the green room later, he told me Johnson would be a disaster for the party and the nation.
Alan Duncan, right, claimed Boris Johnson is ‘an international stain on our reputation, a selfish, ill-disciplined shambolic shameless clot’
But the ‘green room rule’ does not apply to retired politicians with memoirs to sell — like the former Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan. Those with a taste for malicious gossip will have hugely enjoyed the extracts from his diaries published in this paper. Here’s a flavour:
Boris Johnson is ‘an international stain on our reputation, a selfish, ill-disciplined shambolic shameless clot’.
Theresa May is a ‘frightened rabbit, a cardboard cut-out . . . her social skills are sub-zero’.
Priti Patel is ‘a nothing person, a complete and utter nightmare’.
Michael Gove is an ‘unctuous freak, a whacky weirdo’.
David Cameron is ‘too glib . . . he’s made too many appointments from close associates.’
Doubtless Sir Alan will have been relishing the serious trouble Mr Cameron finds himself in today because of his relationship with those ‘close associates’.
On one level, the kiss and tell political diaries are part of a weird game that politicians have always played. It’s tempting to say there’s no harm in it and, anyway, why shouldn’t we know what they really think?
More from John Humphrys on Saturday…
Back in the 1990s, the nation was hugely entertained by Alan Clark’s infamous diaries with his scabrous descriptions of his colleagues and his own drunken sexual escapades — both in the House and outside it. Not least his affair with a young woman and her mother.
But we struggle to understand how politicians of the same party can work together when they often have nothing but contempt for their colleagues.
Especially when so many of them (Duncan included) clearly think they could have done a better job than their leaders. It’s more than just working together. They must publicly sing the praises of men and women they privately think are incapable of running a chip shop.
Can they all be hypocrites? Well possibly, but the sad fact is that politics requires an appearance of party unity, so hypocrisy is essential. As the great George Burns once said: ‘If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made’.
But surely living a lie must be a hellish existence. Maybe. But not if you enjoy it. And Duncan clearly did. That shines out from every page of his hugely entertaining book.
He was just playing the game — and there’s no doubt it’s a fascinating game if you’re made of the right stuff. The stakes are high and so are the risks. Politics is a drug you can get addicted to and Duncan was addicted.
What I learned from 33 years of jousting with politicians in the Today studio was that those who enjoyed it the most were invariably the most fun to interview. People like Ken Clarke, who told me he’d enjoyed every day of his 49 years in the Commons, David Blunkett, David Davies and Michael Heseltine.
They were also the most forthcoming. David Blunkett once admitted to me that he’d made a serious mistake as education secretary. The audience reaction was interesting. They didn’t attack his mistake. They applauded his honesty.
Once, Edwina Currie told me that John Major ‘is a c***’ as we were walking onto a studio to do a live interview
Yet none of those politicians got the top job. Those who did very quickly stopped enjoying the game — or maybe never enjoyed it in the first place.
Gordon Brown wanted it so badly it destroyed his friendship with Tony Blair. His intensity could be scary. You only had to see him chewing his fingernails.
He once got so angry with me for challenging him he charged out of the studio and almost knocked over Nick Robinson, who’d been waiting outside.
Blair has claimed he never enjoyed being prime minister. I can believe it. He often struck me as a deeply tortured man. On one of the many occasions I challenged him over Iraq, he responded: ‘I only know what I believe.’
Fine, but you don’t take the country to war on belief. You need hard evidence. And he knew there was none.
John Major was another tortured man. At the moment of his greatest triumph, unexpectedly winning the 1992 election, he told an adviser: ‘This is where my troubles really begin’.
For me, Margaret Thatcher was easily the most scary — partly because she said what she thought, not what her spin doctors told her to say. Yet she suffered terribly from nerves.
Tony Blair has claimed that he never wanted to be Prime Minister… and I believe him
The great Brian Walden told me she announced one minute before a live interview: ‘I’m going to be sick!’ and started getting out of her chair. He made her stay and she went on to win another election.
It’s easy to understand why she wept when she was forced from office. Politics had been her life and she had reached its summit.
But what of all those ministers monstered by Alan Duncan and the many, many more politicians who inhabit this strange land and play this strange game where the real enemy is not the opposition but your own colleagues? A land of envy and antagonism and malice and frustrated ambition. Why do they do it?
A mixture, maybe, of idealism and status and the illusion that, one day, they may succeed or at least start enjoying it.
When Enoch Powell famously said all political careers end in failure, he meant politicians either fail to win the power they crave or, if they do, fail to use it to change the world.
But maybe there’s another failure. That’s the scar that a political career so often inflicts on the souls of those who enter ‘the game’.
The mind of God is a mysterious thing
It seems scientists have discovered a new force of nature. They’re extremely excited about it. The problem is that most of us won’t have the first idea why.
It doesn’t help much to be told that it’s to do with things called muons. Muons are very small particles — far smaller than atoms which we once thought was as small as it gets. They’ve managed to make them travel at stupendously high speed and they expected that would make them wobble. But it didn’t. That’s why they think there is a new force at play which might explain the mysterious stuff known as ‘dark energy’.
Muons are very small particles — far smaller than atoms which we once thought was as small as it gets
They’ve never been able to prove it exists, but they’re pretty sure it does and (this is the crucial bit) it’s probably what is causing the universe to expand.
It doesn’t matter whether you or I understand all this stuff. After all, most of us aren’t theoretical physicists. But many who are say it takes science a step closer to developing what they call the ‘theory of everything’. One of the great physicists, Stephen Hawking, said that when that happens we will have ‘seen into the mind of God’.
If that doesn’t set your pulse racing, nothing will.
Yet even if we do discover exactly how the universe works there remains a question that can never be answered. It can be expressed in just one word. Why?