The New Statesman Profile - Paul Routledge

Born with coal dust in his navel, his victims now include two top ministers, a spin-doctor and a PM'

One of Private Eye's many contributions to Fleet Street's rich folklore is the invention of Lunchtime O'Booze as the archetype of the steam-age, pre-computerised journalist. Hacks just like him could once be found in all the pubs that lined the Street of Shame. He and his sort thrived on typewriters, telephones and beer. They have found the e-mail revolution more challenging.

Private Eye once named grumpy old George Gale as the model. But Gale became teetotal towards the end of his life and wasn't quite right. A better example would be the man who now heads new Labour's list of most hated journalists: Peter Mandelson's nemesis, the author of two explosive political biographies, Mirror pundit and former Times reporter, Paul Routledge.

Not only does Routledge have a reputation as a professional drinker of heroic proportions, he also performs better than his more sober competitors. As most of his ex-bosses affirm, he is capable of taking on awesome quantities of liquor, but will still be in the office early next morning, throbbing with enthusiasm rather than a hangover. For him drinking is not just fun, it is also an effective tool in the search for a story. As one admiring ex-colleague puts it: "Paul sees it as his duty to get pissed with his contacts as often as possible."

The result, even before he took to writing books, was a string of memorable scoops. A prime example was his exposure of John Major's hatred for three members of his cabinet, whom the then prime minister described as "those bastards" during a private chat after finishing a television interview. Unfortunately for Major, the microphones were still live, and someone phoned Routledge with the quote. It set the tone for the last stages of the Major premiership.

Routledge was under sentence of death at the Observer when he delivered the "Bastardgate" story. Though the paper used the story with elan, it didn't save his job. His enemies - and his gruff Yorkshire manner has made a few - claimed that he did nothing to get the story beyond answering the phone. They missed the point, which is that Routledge's source chose him, and not someone else.

Yet his books rather than his news stories are what now assure Routledge of his place in contemporary history. His biography of Gordon Brown, published more than a year ago, supplied the first detailed account of the personal feud between the Chancellor and Tony Blair and their respective followers. His newly published biography of Peter Mandelson was the origin of the story about the loan of £370,000 to Mandelson from the Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson. It forced the resignation of both ministers, together with that of the man widely (but probably inaccurately) accused of being the source of the story, Brown's spin-doctor, Charlie Whelan.

Whether you regard that as a good or a bad thing, the toppling of two senior ministers and a top Treasury official is an astonishing feat for a journeyman journalist who plies his trade in spit-and-sawdust bars. Not only has he blown a gaping hole in the cabinet, he has also shaken the entire new Labour "project" to its foundations. All that activity at the beginning of this week, with ministers besieging the television studios in a desperate bid to restore the government's reputation for competence, is down to just one rumpled, middle-aged reporter: the 55-year-old Routledge.

He was born at No 15 Railway Terrace, Normanton, Yorkshire, the son of a railway clerk. Most of the rest of his male relatives were coal miners; as a colleague put it, "he had coal dust in his navel".

A scholarship boy at Normanton Grammar School, he moved on to Nottingham University. Soon after arriving there, however, there was a romantic drama when the 19-year-old Routledge eloped to Edinburgh with his 18-year-old girlfriend Lynne. They were married in Cramond Church, and their first daughter was born while they were still in their teens. That was in 1963. They are still together, proving that teenage pregnancies aren't always a misfortune.

Armed eventually with an upper second in English and the experience of editing the student paper, Routledge decided to go for journalism. A whirlwind tour of the British provincial press took in the Brighton Argus, the Manchester Evening News, the Glasgow Herald and the Sheffield Telegraph. He finally reached Fleet Street in 1969 on the labour staff of the pre-Murdoch Times.

Being given money to buy pints for trade union officials was Routledge's idea of bliss. But the coal dust still clung to him, and he concentrated more and more on the gloomy old pub near the then London headquarters of the miners' union. By the time the NUM brought down the Tory government in February 1974, after a devastating strike which forced Ted Heath to shut down the whole of British industry for two days a week, Routledge had become an expert on coalfield trade unionism.

Though never a card-carrying communist, he made no secret of his left-wing views. Indeed, some colleagues came to regard him as more the miners' representative on the Times than the other way round. But the relationship with the NUM brought the Times many fine scoops and, far from complaining, the paper put him in charge of its industrial coverage. The complaints came later, when Routledge became a prominent union officer and, eventually, father of the chapel at the Times (chair of the journalists' union). His enemies say that he was one of the militants who caused the then proprietor, Kenneth Thomson, to lose heart and sell the paper to Rupert Murdoch.

But a more comic episode probably made Routledge's departure from the Times' labour staff inevitable. It happened when the Queen was visiting the paper in the middle of the second great miners' strike - the one in which Arthur Scargill led his troops to ultimate ruin at the hands of Margaret Thatcher. Routledge was presented to HM as the man of the moment because he was covering the strike. Her Majesty said that, as she understood it, the whole business was down to the vanity of one man. Routledge demurred, and proceeded to put his sovereign right on a few points. When a following royal reporter asked what he'd said, he unwisely told him. The story was all over the Evening Standard that afternoon.

The Times was not best pleased and, after the Murdoch takeover, Routledge was banished to distant Singapore. He was still there when the Dirty Digger sacked hundreds of printers and moved from Gray's Inn Road to Fortress Wapping. When Routledge heard what had happened, he announced his unwillingness to cross a picket line, even though there was no picket line in Singapore to cross, save in an electronic sense.

Brought back to London when he stopped filing copy, he even refused to enter the Wapping building to discuss severance terms with the Times editor, Charlie Wilson. The aggressive and very Glaswegian Wilson had to go to Routledge - who was in a pub, naturally. As the conversation grew heated, Rowters shouted: "I'm not the prodigal son, you know." Wilson yelled back: "No, and you're not getting the coat of many colours, either."

"Wasn't it the fatted calf?" asked Routledge. "I don't give a fuck what it was, you're not getting it," roared Wilson.

Routledge fetched up on the Observer, for a time as news editor and then as deputy political editor. But when the Guardian bought the paper from Tiny Rowland, his Lunchtime O'Booze demeanour did not seem to fit. He was offered a low-paid job on the gossip column, turned it down and went off to the rival Independent on Sunday. He was set to leave there last summer to become political editor at the Express ; when the offer was mysteriously withdrawn, it was suggested that No 10 had leaned on Lord Hollick, the paper's new Labour proprietor, to keep out so off-message a journalist. The Mirror snapped him up instead.

It was at the Observer that Routledge started writing books, the first a biography of Arthur Scargill at his wife's suggestion. To everyone's astonishment, it turned out to be a devastating critique of his former idol. The man with the coal dust in his navel had reached the conclusion that King Arthur had feet of clay, that his vanity had destroyed his union and his industry. The book brought Routledge fame. But it also led to a bitter row with a former friend and colleague, the Guardian journalist Seumas Milne, who had also written a (favourable) biography of Scargill. The falling-out has dogged Routledge ever since, partly because as one colleague put it, "Seumas is a Trot and Paul is a tankie".

Subsequent books on Betty Boothroyd and John Hume caused few ripples. But by then Routledge's cultivation of his contacts had again paid off when an old boozing companion, Charlie Whelan, the press officer of the engineers' union, became Gordon Brown's aide at the Treasury. It provided the stimulus and source for book number four: the fateful biography of Brown. This time, Milne got hold of a pre-publication copy and ran its most sensational revelations in the Guardian, thus scuppering a rich serialisation deal with the Sunday Times. Then, in an extraordinary coincidence, the whole business was repeated with the later book on Mandelson, with the same result for a Sunday Times deal.

Routledge himself remains convinced that the sinister figure behind both these curious episodes was Mandelson himself, working through his friendship with Milne - which is vigorously denied by the Guardian. But what is clearly true is that Routledge was holding the smoking gun when the three bodies - Mandelson, Robinson, Whelan - were discovered.

Blair has since done his best to dismiss the whole business as a Macmillanesque "little local difficulty". He argues that ideological differences weren't involved. There were, he implied, none between him and his Chancellor, or indeed between him and anyone else. And in a sense this is true - but only because Blair has no ideology to differ with.

Brown, on the other hand, very definitely does. It may not be old Labour, but at least it acknowledges Labour's past and pays nodding respect to the concept of socialism. Whatever he may say in cabinet, Brown can ring bells when he addresses gatherings like the Tribune rally, and Routledge understands this very well. He is the living proof that a journalist with a few beliefs of his own will always be better than those who parade their "impartiality" as an asset. Routledge's "views" are what make him so effective. That, plus a racy prose style and a reputation as a thoroughly good egg.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?