Russian rally

Was it the car or the country? The Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov travelled from St Petersburg to Ek

In an old Lada, you will surprise no one in Russia and no one will notice you; Russia and the Lada are in complete harmony. Driving into Russia in a brightly painted Mercedes, one of 70 such cars, accompanied by their own fuelling station, is another matter altogether. Unfortunately, they crossed the border without me. I got into car number 69 in St Petersburg, where the crew, which had driven from Paris, handed over the ignition key. The next leg of the Paris-to-Peking rally course would take the 70 Mercs, including mine, to the Urals and Ekaterinburg.

A handful of people covered the entire rally course. They included the technical support group, the chief driver, Johannes Reifenrath, and the 63-year-old president and chief executive of DaimlerChrysler Thailand, Karl-Heinz Heckhausen - who was driving in a generally homeward direction anyway. The others, including me, all took part in one of the five legs of the journey. The participants were from 23 different countries. I was surprised to see the Ukrainian flag in the publicity material, and asked whether there really were any Ukrainian participants.

"You, of course!" came the reply.

That was when it sank in that I was a participant. Some 50,000 hopefuls had sent CVs and eulogies to the Mercedes-Benz rally website; 500 entrants were invited to Stuttgart for interviews, a medical and a test of their driving skills. On my leg there were two Estonians (both engineers), one Lithuanian, three Poles, one South African, four Swiss, six Americans and quite a few Germans. There was also a Russian team: two young chaps frequently to be seen posing for photographers draped in the Russian flag. I was certainly the only Ukrainian, invited as a writer rather than a competitor.

At St Petersburg, we were presented with our rally equipment - jacket, gloves, hat and rucksack with unbreakable Thermos flask. Then we were given a pep talk by the chief driver which included the warning: "Europe is behind you. Beware! Bad roads, unpredictable drivers and unpredictable traffic police lie ahead."

He seemed concerned that some cars might not make it to the Urals, and so, soon, we were all feeling nervous, spacemen heading off to an unknown planet.

At eight the next morning we assembled on Isakovskaia Square to set off. I had already met my partner driver, Oliver from Switzerland, and we were expecting a third team member - a certain Joe from New York. He had last been seen in the hotel bar at three in the morning, and after all attempts to find him had failed, having waited 90 minutes, we set off without him. Joe was the first victim of this little-known planet, "Russia".

No sooner had we crossed the city limits than a grey sky lowered itself over a road riddled with potholes, reminding us of the previous evening's pep talk. On either side, wooden houses flashed by, some occupied, some abandoned. Often a village had more abandoned than occupied houses. Their wooden façades, darkened by the damp, provoked autumnal thoughts. The great metropolis of St Petersburg was a world away. We were travelling in a Russia that had changed little since 1917. Occasionally, the modern era would intrude in the midst of the tumbledown cottages - a perfectly up-to-date petrol station, for example.

But mainly, the roadside services were remarkable for their simplicity. With surprising regularity we would pass a makeshift table on which stood a huge, old samovar, watched over by a woman bundled in layers of clothes. Dark coal smoke would rise from the samovar funnels and there would be a few token buns. On Russian roads, the most important thing is tea; everything else is an extravagance.

Fishwives and pilgrims

Now and again there would be a stretch of good road and we would see samovars and their keepers less frequently. They knew that drivers would brake and stop near a samovar only when the road was poor. On a half-decent surface, drivers want to fly past (checked only by the black-and-white stripe of a traffic policeman's baton). The speeding fines amused my fellow drivers, at least those who understood Russian. For exceeding the speed limit by 25 kilometres per hour, they were fined 100 roubles (about E3). Those who understood no Russian nervously handed over ten to 20 dollars and, thinking they had got off lightly, drove on.

Soon our drivers began to understand the headlight signals given by local drivers warning of traffic police and were able to avoid the fines.

Some 300 kilometres from St Petersburg, the "fish" villages began. Along the fences and on the gates of houses, in huge letters, were written the varieties of fish caught, smoked and sold locally. In the village of Zavidovo (from the word meaning "envy") we stopped outside one such fish house. The lady inhabitant, on seeing a camera pointed at her home and at the sign advertising her trade, immediately protested: "This is not a palace! There's nothing to photograph here!"

We moved 20 metres further down the road; the lady of this next house was more welcoming. She led us into her yard where, under a cloth, lay a smoked fish. She uncovered the fish and exclaimed: "That eel! It's only 1,500 roubles!" The price of fish obviously depended on the make of one's car. When the lady realised I spoke Russian without an accent, the price immediately fell to 1,000 roubles. But I really had no need of a metre-long smoked fish, so I opted for a smaller one, costing 100 roubles, and won the right to be photo graphed with the metre-long eel.

But the strongest image on that first part of the journey, for both Oliver and me, was the group of Orthodox pilgrims walking in the direction of St Petersburg. There were about ten: men in monks' gowns and women simply dressed with headscarves. One pilgrim carried a banner, another an icon. When they saw us, the icon-bearer turned it towards us as if, it seemed to me at the time, to ward off the devils in the foreign car. Later, I remembered the incident and realised that the icon had been pointed at us as a blessing for a safe journey. At the time, the dark group on the muddy road filled me with foreboding.

Moscow began suddenly. We jumped from one era into another. The single-storey wooden houses became fewer, until we were abruptly among the high rises of Moscow's suburbs. The dark evening was left behind. Above Moscow shone the bright sun of electric light, so that no one could say they had not seen the dawn of the new Russia. I felt sorry that Moscow was not a cake that could be cut into slices and shared throughout the land so that the other Russia - wooden, damp and puddle-ridden from lack of drains - could take some of the capital's energy, riches and optimism.

Later that evening, the rally participants ran about on Red Square and the nearby streets. I decided to take a walk along Varvarka, one of the corners of Moscow which dates back to when the Kremlin was Moscow. I saw the first British Mission building and the aristocratic town houses from the 15th century. Behind them, brightly illuminated, hundreds of builders were working in three shifts to dismantle the largest hotel in Europe, the Rossiya.

I stayed there once, in the Eighties. I think my room was on the ninth floor. I remember the 15-minute walk along corridors to get to it and the 15-minute search for the breakfast room the next morning. The ninth floor of the USSR's most important hotel had already disappeared. The architectural revolution is speeding up in Moscow. New buildings are overshadowing the old villas. On every road something is being built or reconstructed.

Early in the morning I made for the Old Arbat, where I wandered around for about an hour, watching the city's most popular street wake up. The first people to appear were Tajiks and Uzbeks. They swept and cleaned the road. Conversing quietly, they emerged from the side streets carting display stalls and cardboard boxes full of matrioshki and other souvenirs. A few English and American visitors walked by, briefcases in hand.

I heard the Russian language only later. Muscovites sleep longer and live a lot better than the immigrants who fill the vacancies that Russians disdain. Today, Moscow is swept and looked after by central Asia. Among wealthy Muscovites, it is fashionable to have a maid from the Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia. Most popular are young women who don't speak Russian. They earn about $600 a month and often never leave the flat in which they work, terrified by the huge city and their inability to communicate.

Recently, the newspapers wrote of a curious incident. A woman reported her Filipina maid missing after she ran out of the flat wearing only her housecoat. She had been told off for some small oversight. After a two-hour search, she was found in a neighbouring yard. Coming from a culture where voices are never raised, she had understood from her employer's intonation that she was about to be murdered.

Bright lights of Kazan

The Republic of Tatarstan can boast both oil and gas and its own Kremlin, in Kazan, where, apart from a number of Orthodox churches, stands a newly built mosque, the biggest in Russia. There is also a monument: a Russian standing beside a Tatar, their expressions making it clear that, together, they are about to build a new state. But you need to remember that in the 16th century Russia seized the Kazanski kingdom, which has since been part of the Russian empire - an empire now called the Russian Federation.

Our American companion, Joe, had caught up with us by plane in Moscow and travelled with us to Kazan. He was amazed at the brightness of the evening streets in the city centre, at the number of pedestrians and their relaxed deportment. There were casinos, clubs, boutiques and shopping centres and, at the heart of it all, the luxurious Shalyapin Palace Hotel. Here the rally drivers rested before continuing the journey east.

To discover the less-well-lit Kazan, I walked half a kilometre along a murky little street and saw a policeman outside a bar, truncheon at the ready.

"It's understandable," I thought to myself. "The peace has to be protected. After all, the bright lights of central Kazan are unlikely to shed their rays on this part of town for a good while." So I thought, until I came across a noticeboard with an announcement that caught my imagination. Someone wanted to buy a railway branch line, together with land.

"Good idea," I thought. "Branches are the right things to buy, especially those with trains on. The price of transport can only go up."

On a well-lit street in Kazan, I went into a café. I ordered a hot chocolate and, as I drank it, marvelled at the way the waitress jumped back and forth between Russian and Tatar. The Tatar women do not cover their heads. Later, I was made welcome at the biggest mosque in all Russia and taken to the balcony for "the press and tourists", as it was called. During Muslim festivals, up to 2,500 people worship in the mosque. For those who can't get in, the prayers and sermon are televised.

The next day we journeyed east. The villages looked familiar, but there were more brick houses and the fences and yards seemed better kept. We passed a petrol station with small mosques attached and 50 kilometres further on we saw another mosque, this time built amid a cluster of cafés.

From Kazan to Udmurtia, the road was full of Tatar traffic police. They waved their batons cheerfully at every Mercedes they saw and it was difficult to understand what they were most interested in: a chat or extra income. "What Russian is averse to travelling fast?" wrote the great Ukrainian writer Gogol. Well, the Swiss, the French and the Germans are just as partial to it.

Thus, not noticing any signs of Muslim fundamentalism, and lost in thought concerning the raison d'être of the Tatar traffic police, we left Tatarstan behind and entered Udmurtia. The republic was expecting us, and the welcome was warm. The head of the border region's administration was waiting for us with a giant samovar, a pile of Udmurt pies, and a song-and-dance troupe. Amid the snow, on a concrete platform, before a concrete symbol of the new republic, these Russian Udmurtis threw a tea-party-cum-concert for us, their bright costumes warming our spirits as the tea warmed our bodies. The dance troupe wanted us all up dancing and, in the end, even less-than-sociable Joe joined in.

The Russian birch trees that had accompanied us on the trail from Moscow came to an end in Udmurtia. Firs and pines took their place. There were far fewer villages, but the roads were excellent. None the less we came across several lorries, their long trailers lying in the snow-filled ditches beside the road. The many crosses and wreaths along the roadside also warned us to drive with extra care. Russians don't like to observe regulations, and traffic regulations especially, so it is not enough to drive carefully; you have also to be aware of what everyone else is doing and allow those in a hurry to overtake.

Hidden from Brussels

On a hill, roughly a hundred kilometres outside Ekaterinburg, stands a concrete obelisk marking the border between Europe and Asia. It is just as well that they don't know about that obelisk in Brussels. What nightmares the bureaucrats would have if they knew where Europe really ended. Most of Europe, it turns out, has nothing to do with Brussels at all.

Having said that, Ekaterinburg, with its population of just over a million, is a completely European city. The moderate-sized central shopping mall has two mobile-phone shops. It is a rich town effusing calm, in contrast to Moscow, which is a rich town effusing frenzy. Here, in 1918, in the cellar of Ipatiev House, the last tsar and his family were executed by firing squad. A church has been built on the spot and it bears the name "Church on the Blood".

Just outside Ekaterinburg, in the village of Ganina Yama, the Bolsheviks burned the remains of the royal family. Here, for the past six years, a huge monastery has been under construction. It already contains nine churches. Schoolchildren come on excursions and the monks show them the miracle-working icons - one of them belonged to the imperial family but, by some miracle, survived.

The funds to build the monastery were donated by a local metallurgy company. Ekaterinburg has dozens of industrial plants and factories. The local brewery was bought up by Heineken. At the English pub I visited in the evening, more than half the customers were British, German or American, and had nothing to do with our rally. The town is growing and is becoming more expensive.

A circus ring was to be the venue for the ceremony of handing over car keys. The teams picking them up would drive on to Almaty.

Circus elephants performed for us, along with camels, dogs and one clown. I felt strangely ill at ease. It seemed we had been cheated. Our journey had gone without a hitch: no wild bears on the city streets, no Russian bandits trying to hijack our shiny Mercedes on a quiet stretch of road. Everything had been too civilised. That is how I felt that evening, as I tried to decide whether or not to go to bed. I had to leave for the airport at four the next morning to catch the direct flight to Frankfurt. I decided not to go to bed.

But early the following morning, Ekaterinburg's newly extended airport did display a bit of the Russia we had expected. After a long wait while our e-tickets were being printed, we found ourselves in the departure lounge, where the two ladies selling duty-free goods shut up shop in front of us and went off to have coffee. My rally colleagues were outraged and proceeded to reopen the shop themselves, marching in and filling their baskets in the normal way. The shop assistants were forced to return to their posts to serve the queue of international clients who so wanted to take their bottles of Ural vodka back to far-off Europe.

"He must have been a complete idiot to imagine you could take over this country!" said Oliver, sitting back in his airplane seat at last. He was referring to Hitler. "It's totally impossible to control it."

"And nobody does control it," I replied. "It's just held together by the rouble and the dollar."

As I spoke, I remembered the billboard I had seen on the outskirts of Ekaterinburg. The text of the advert was written in Russian and Chinese. Surprised, I asked a passing woman who the Chinese script was for.

"We've got whole streets of Chinese here," she said calmly.

We were between six and seven thousand kilometres from Russia's easternmost borders and about two thousand from Moscow. Our flight was taking us west. Beyond the round windows, the night went on and on. We crossed three time zones that night and, in the morning, awoke in Germany. I understand the logic of time zones a good deal better now. Every large country, be it Russia, China or the United States, lives in its own time zone, its own epoch and according to its own rules. And none of these countries will ever set its clocks to Brussels time. Whether their wealth comes from underground or from the sweat of workers on low wages, they are all self-reliant in their political folly and their economic miracles.

Russia's wealth is underground. There is enough there to last hundreds of years. The important thing is that there should be someone to get the wealth out. There must have been something behind the government's recent call to all Russians living abroad to return to the motherland. In 30 or 40 years there will be no one left to dig, especially where the wealth is greatest, in the Urals and Siberia.

Laura Hynd for New Statesman
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Having the last laugh

How Diane Abbott – overlooked, mocked and marginalised by her own party for three decades – ended up as the closest ally of a Labour leader

“I don’t think you’re up to it.” It is 1970, and Diane Julie Abbott, aged 17, is keen to apply to Cambridge University, but her history teacher has other ideas.

“I was an omnivorous reader,” she says now, sitting in her parliamentary office, in a prime spot overlooking the Thames, “and in all these books, particularly these novels between the wars, if you went to university, you went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

The teachers at Harrow County School for Girls, where Abbott was the only black girl in her class, were not supportive. Her memories are less happy than those of her contemporary Michael Portillo, who attended the affiliated boys’ grammar school, and who played Macduff to her Lady Macduff in a school play.

Even when Abbott succeeded, she was regarded with suspicion. She remembers getting an A-minus in an English class – a mark that disappointed her – and being asked to stay behind by the teacher. “She picked up my essay between her thumb and her forefinger and said: ‘Where did you copy this from?’ I was genuinely shocked.”

The story suggests that she acquired her ability to shrug off criticism early. It is also a reminder of how often she is underestimated. The Times journalist Matt Chorley once described a successful day for Labour as one in which “Diane Abbott was on TV a bit less”. Julie Burchill described her in the Spectator as a “preposterous creature” who “blotted the landscape of English politics, speaking power to truth in order to advance her career”. In the Guardian, Michael White dubbed her a “useful idiot”.

She has been endlessly dismissed as stupid, untalented and bad at politics – an obvious “diversity hire”. These criticisms are immune to evidence: her time at Cambridge, the only black British student from a state school in the entire university; her 12 years on the sofa with Portillo on BBC1’s This Week; her time in the shadow cabinet under Ed Miliband; her reliable ability to hold the line in television interviews; and now her status as Jeremy Corbyn’s closest political ally. She is largely ignored by lobby journalists, even as they lament their failure to secure a line into the Labour leader’s thinking. In 2017, Diane Abbott celebrates her 30th year in parliament. Should we take her seriously?

 

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Abbott’s mother, a nurse, and her father, a welder, were born in the same village in Jamaica, but met and married in London and lived in Notting Hill “before it was a fashionable place to live”. Abbott was born there in 1953, 12 years before the phrase “race relations” first made its way on to the statute books. “My father was very aspirational,” she recalls, “and so every weekend, he and my mother would drive round houses in Pinner, and every Monday they’d ring the estate agent, and the estate agent would say the house had gone. But, of course, the house wasn’t gone.”

Eventually, they did buy a house, not in Pinner but in Edgware, north London. “My brother – his best friend was Jewish,” she tells me, “and he’d attend the Jewish youth club with his friend, and one day his friend said in a really embarrassed way: ‘I’m really sorry, I’m afraid you can’t continue to attend the club, because they’re afraid it will encourage the girls to marry out.’

“The thing was,” she continues, “my brother was upset about this. We were all upset on his behalf but it was just part of life.” And in 1970, a black straight-A student being told that she wasn’t good enough to go to Cambridge was, again, part of life. It was her response that was out of the ordinary: “Well, I do think I’m up to it. And that’s what matters, isn’t it?”

At university, Abbott didn’t get involved in politics, and she found the Cambridge Union off-putting. Her hall tutor advised her to go into the civil service, and so she arrived at the Home Office in 1976, the lone black graduate trainee on what she now describes as “a quixotic quest to do good”.

In turn, that took her to the National Council for Civil Liberties, now Liberty. Believing it to be a hotbed of communist sympathisers, MI5 tapped the office phones, an action that was ruled unlawful in 1990. “One of the things that Diane still talks about,” a friend tells me, “is her experience not only of the Home Office, but of being the subject of official surveillance. She has a cynicism about the state that hasn’t gone away.”

Abbott also joined local campaigns on some of the issues that have defined her career, such as the abolition of the “sus laws”, the informal provision that allowed the police to stop and search anyone under the ­Vagrancy Act, which activists claim was used to target ethnic minorities in Britain. After joining the Labour Party, she became a councillor in Westminster in 1982.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as today, Labour took the lion’s share of the ethnic minority vote. But no one from an ethnic minority had ever sat as a Labour MP. In the 1983 election, just one person from a minority was selected as a parliamentary candidate, and in an ultra-safe Conservative seat. In response, Labour’s minority activists formed the Black Sections, a campaign to secure ethnic minority representation.

It was through these that Abbott met Linda Bellos, who was the leader of Lambeth Council, where Abbott worked as a press officer – her last job before entering parliament. “I was born here in 1950, one of 50,000 black people [living in the UK],” Bellos tells me. “We might have talked about going home but home for me was bleeding London, wasn’t it? Hence the need to make sure we were involved in all of the parts of the state. Someone like Diane had been to Cambridge, she’d been a councillor, she knew the democratic process, she was friends with a number of MPs, she knew the score. If someone like her couldn’t be selected, what was the point of any of us being here?”

The Black Sections wanted affiliated status, similar to that of the Fabians. But there were concerns that black candidates would not appeal to Labour’s presumed core white working-class vote. Some on the left saw “identity politics” as a distraction from the class struggle; and some on the right thought the Black Sections were too radical. At the 1984 conference, their plan was thrown out by a margin of ten to one.

Despite this setback, the fight had an important legacy. In the 1987 elections, four ethnic minority MPs entered the Commons for Labour: Paul Boateng in Brent South, Keith Vaz in Leicester East, Bernie Grant in Tottenham – and, in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, there was the 33-year-old Diane Abbott.

 

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She was the first black woman to be selected for a safe parliamentary seat. The Times marked the occasion with a leader denouncing her “rhetoric of class struggle and skin-colour consciousness”.

A few months later, the Sun profiled the “ten looniest Labour candidates” in Britain. “We were all there,” Abbott recalls. “Jeremy [Corbyn], the rest of us, and I was number eight.”

The local party in Stoke Newington was delighted with this firebrand reputation. “They said: ‘Stick with us, and we’ll take you right to the top!’”

The voters of north London were less welcoming. A brick was thrown through the office window of her local party. With Abbott as the candidate, some traditional Labour voters switched to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, taking the Labour vote below 50 per cent for the first time in the seat’s history (the second occasion was in 2005, just after the invasion of Iraq).

In parliament, the intake of ethnic minority MPs was regarded with caution. Abbott recalls that the then speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, was “very anxious”. She adds: “He thought we’d be like the Fenians and disrupt and collapse parliamentary process. So he invited Bernie [Grant], who was regarded as our leader, for port. And Bernie came for port and the speaker was very nice to him. And I imagine the speaker thought this was what stopped us being like the Fenians.”

Those Labour MPs who were disruptive – such as Corbyn the serial rebel – were in low spirits for other reasons. The marginalisation of Abbott and her allies during the late 1980s and 1990s explains why they have so little sympathy for the party’s beleaguered centrists in the current power struggle.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool this year – where she spoke as shadow health secretary – Abbott told me: “I came to party conference every year for 20 years, and we would lose and lose and lose. These people have lost twice and they’re complaining!”

Her thick skin was toughened during the New Labour years – and it reaffirmed her close friendship with Corbyn. (The two had a short sexual relationship in the early 1980s, which ended amicably. Abbott was married for two years to a Ghanaian architect from 1991 to 1993; her son, James, was born in 1992.) “She’s always had an odd hold on Jeremy,” one Labour MP tells me. “You would see them having lunch together and her bossing him about. I think people underestimate how influential she
is on his thinking.”

When David Lammy, her neighbouring MP in Tottenham, entered parliament in 2000 following the death of Bernie Grant, he found her “vilified, ostracised and exiled by the Blairites”. There were several attempts to remove her as an MP – another reason why the Corbyn camp is unconcerned by complaints from MPs such as Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle about their local parties threatening to deselect them.

Abbott retains a network of friends from her time before politics, including from her stint as a television producer. They urged her to quit in the Blair years – or to end her association with the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group. “I never thought I was willing to trade what I thought was right for some position in the party,” she says.

Some allies see it differently. “I don’t think Diane is someone who can quit [politics],” a friend told me. “I see her tweeting at all hours. She has interests, books and so forth, but she couldn’t walk away.”

Abbott says that Keith Vaz convinced her to stay, telling her, “You have forgotten what it took for us to get here.” (Some of Corbyn’s allies believe that this is what made the leader so supportive of Vaz during his latest scandal.) This sense of solidarity with other ethnic minority MPs has led to the long-standing rumour that Abbott would have nominated Chuka Umunna had Corbyn not stood for the Labour leadership.

“Diane is absolutely loyal to Jeremy,” one MP who knows them both well tells me. “She’s loyal to the project, yes, but she’s also loyal to him, in a way I don’t think you could honestly say about John McDonnell or Clive Lewis.” During the coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, Abbott spoke forcefully in favour of Corbyn remaining in place, rather than striking a deal to put Lewis or McDonnell on the ballot. “Her position,” one insider recalls, “was that we’d got a candidate we knew could win, and that candidate was Jeremy.”

Not that they always agree. Abbott advocated a less conciliatory approach after Corbyn’s first victory in 2015. “The thing that can be infuriating about Jeremy is that he likes to think the best of everyone,” she says. “I’m always perfectly straight with him as to what I think, and even if he doesn’t believe me at the time, he always does come round to my point of view.”

Abbott is one of the few people in the Parliamentary Labour Party whom Corbyn trusts completely. In their relationship, it’s hard to see who is the senior partner.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Corbyn and Abbott settled into a pattern of dissent, followed by defeat. Corbyn spent the time attending to foreign and human rights campaigns and signing thousands of early day motions. Abbott carved out a niche as a reliable critic of the Labour government under Tony Blair, with a month-long slot at the launch of the BBC’s This Week in 2003 blossoming into a regular gig alongside Michael Portillo. But away from Westminster, Abbott was making a decision that she knew could destroy her political career.

 

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The London borough of Hackney is today a national leader in schooling, but in 2002, just a third of students received five or more A*-C grades. That prompted Abbott to send her ten-year-old son, James, to City of London, a leading private school.

“I knew I could lose the seat over it,” she told me. “I was a single parent, and time after time, I had not been there for things at school, or I was too tired to take him out somewhere . . . I just thought, just this once, I should be prepared to make a sacrifice for him. If I lost the seat, then I lost the seat.”

She kept the seat. “Other things do annoy Diane – reporters saying things about her that aren’t true, people talking down to her,” one friend tells me. “But with [the schooling] I think she was very happy with that deal and to take that blow.”

Then, in 2010, Abbott’s career began a surprising second act: a bid for the party leadership. Activists and commentators felt uninspired by the choice in front of them – Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, four former special advisers from the New Labour era. Abbott called them “geeky men in suits”. Harriet Harman, in particular, was keen that the contest should not be an all-male field. Her support swayed Abbott. “If you had to pick one person, it was her,” she says, “because she was more mainstream.”

David Lammy set up a meeting between Abbott and David Miliband. The front-runner told her that, if she were a vote short in the nominations from MPs, he would vote for her. “But because it was David Miliband, I didn’t believe him.”

The elder Miliband had his own reasons for backing her. He believed that having her on the ballot would deprive his brother, Ed, of valuable support from the left. This was also the calculation that allies of Yvette Cooper made about Corbyn in 2015. “David’s legacy,” the Wakefield MP, Mary Creagh, wrote five years later, “made it normal – Blairite, even – to put a left-winger on the ballot to ‘have a broad debate’.’’

Of Corbyn’s campaign, Abbott says now: “I knew he’d do well, because what people missed is that had it been one person, one vote [in 2010], I’d have come third.”

Had the unions and the MPs not had a disproportionate influence on the result, she says, “I’d have beaten Andy Burnham, I’d have beaten Ed Balls. I’d been to 53 hustings – most Labour people are where Jeremy and I were. I knew there was much more left-wing sentiment in the Labour Party than the lobby thought.”

As a result of Corbyn’s victory in 2015, she is shadowing one of the great offices of state in what once looked like her final term in parliament. Her policy priorities as shadow home secretary are broad but include her favoured subjects of police reform and anti-racism. “I want to help shape the debate on migration,” she tells me. “I think we’ve had a very vacuous debate.”

That has put her at odds with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Though both are long-time friends of Corbyn, their relationship is not warm. Allies believe that the division stretches back to the late 1980s, when McDonnell – then outside parliament – gloried in not going “soft” in the manner of Neil Kinnock. Abbott attracted suspicion, in part because of her early conversion to a pro-European position. Many believe that McDonnell never embraced the European project. He has ruled out opposition to Brexit and is behind the toughening of the party’s line on immigration. Abbott, privately and publicly, is determined to hold Labour to a more open and pro-immigration position. She has said that Labour cannot win as “Ukip-lite”, a coded rebuke to McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor is the only MP with a comparable influence to Abbott’s on Jeremy Corbyn and, thus far, the Labour leader has struck a middle path on migration, supporting Abbott’s line that the single market cannot be traded away for restrictions on the free movement of people but stopping short of a full-throated defence of free movement in principle.

As well as winning that internal battle, Abbott faces the task of landing more blows on Amber Rudd than her predecessors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls – managed against Theresa May when she was the longest-serving home secretary in a century, transforming the reputation of a department once regarded as a political graveyard. Not many give Abbott much chance of success but, as always, she believes in herself and thinks that she’s up to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent of the New Statesman

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge