Mo Mowlam is even busier than usual in the week before the party conference. "Everyone wants a bit of her," an aide observes as we pass a long corridor with framed black-and-white photos of previous Northern Ireland secretaries - all men, many of them grey and dull. This is her only pre-conference interview, but in Bournemouth she will address several fringe meetings, attend endless receptions and speak on Monday in the conference hall. Unlike many cabinet ministers, she will be staying for the whole week. Indeed, she has become the heroine of the conference.
Mowlam is too astute to say so publicly, but she has acquired considerable political muscle as a result. It would be an exaggeration to say she could name her next job in the cabinet, but she has more bargaining power than almost anyone else sitting at Tony Blair's top table. She did not want to change jobs in the summer and, in spite of all the frenzied speculation, she was not moved. Even so, she has never immersed herself in Northern Ireland to the total exclusion of the government's wider agenda.
Sitting on a sofa in her office, still tanned after her holiday in Turkey, she highlights the link, as she sees it, between wary perceptions of the government as a whole and her own efforts in Northern Ireland. "We've achieved a lot in Northern Ireland and in the same way we've done a lot in government. Yet, in both cases, it hasn't got through to people. For example, ten years ago we were losing 80 to 100 people [to terrorism] in Northern Ireland a year. This year, it is seven. Ten years ago, unemployment was high; now it is relatively low. In Northern Ireland and, more generally, with devolution, we concentrated on getting the structures right first. As a result, both in the Good Friday Agreement and, say, in education and the New Deal, policies took longer to bite on the ground."
She is optimistic that the policies are about to bite, even in Northern Ireland. "I feel good every morning I come into work. I get at least a dozen letters every day saying: don't give up. There is literally no alternative to what we are trying to do in Northern Ireland. What else is there on the table? Nothing. Has the whole peace process stopped? No. Who's talking? Everyone."
She sounds surprisingly upbeat, given the whirlwind of recent events in Northern Ireland. Since the collapse of the peace talks in July she has endured a hostile reaction to her judgement that the IRA ceasefire was still in place. Her verdict is now the subject of a court case. Then there was the storm surrounding Chris Patten's report on the RUC. The unionists' antagonistic tone towards her has sharpened further.
The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has said repeatedly that she should be moved. She denies that their meetings are icy. "It's difficult for everyone coping with change. David has shown determination and courage in keeping it going; I really believe that." But what about all his hostile comments aimed at her? "Everyone has good and bad days. When we talk, it's fine."
The target of her fury is not Trimble, but the Conservative Party. Indeed, she blames the Conservatives, rather than herself, for the pressures on Trimble. She insists that bipartisanship is important and in place, but then launches a ferocious attack on her opposite number, Andrew MacKay. "Andrew MacKay says he supports the Agreement, but he never says anything in support of it. He is always out knocking it. It isn't very helpful the way the Conservatives are behaving . . . Every time the Tories appear to be the anti-Agreement party, who does it expose, who does it make life hard for? David Trimble."
Is she suggesting, specifically, that the Tories are making it harder for Trimble within his own party? "Yes. That's why I find it difficult to cope with. It impinges on us only when I compare their attitude to the support we gave them when they were in government. When they talked to Sinn Fein without telling parliament, we said this was problematic, but we didn't put the knife in. But what angers me is that the Conservatives are making it harder for the Ulster Unionists to do what many of them want to do, by cutting the ground from underneath their feet. I think that's unforgivable."
Even if she blames the Tories, some of the Ulster Unionists, as she must know, have little or no time for her. So, after the grim collapse of the talks in July, why did she want to stay in the job? "There were difficulties in this process which experience helps to keep in perspective. I wanted a chance to see if we could make more progress, to get it up and going again."
Now there is speculation that she will be moved in an autumn reshuffle brought about by the elevation of George Robertson to Nato. She makes it clear, however, that her tasks will not be completed by next month when the reshuffle is due. "The parties are talking and I want to do all we can to facilitate that. But I also want to give the Patten report on the RUC a fair wind. I had no idea what was in it, but I knew that policing was one of those key issues that needed to be dealt with. Patten did a good job. The report is a good piece of work. There is a chance to have a police force that is effective, efficient, impartial to both communities."
With that next reshuffle in mind, I suggest that her objectives for waiting to stay on in the summer have been met: the former US senator, George Mitchell, was chairing talks with the different party leaders and the Patten report had been published. She interjects immediately. "No, they haven't been met. We're in the middle of the consultation on the Patten report and the middle of the Mitchell talks. So I have not finished. Of course, there is never a perfect moment to bow out and say the job is completed. But the converse is also true: there are some bad moments in which to bow out. This summer was not a good point to leave."
What about this autumn? "I'm not putting a timescale on anything. I have no idea what the Prime Minister is thinking. We didn't fall out in the summer over the last reshuffle, either. We talked before I left on holiday. Mobile phones exist and he knew he could contact me."
Amid the frenzied speculation in the summer, but before the reshuffle had been announced, she flew off on holiday. Inadvertently or not, her actions added to an impression that Blair had lost control of his own reshuffle. She plays the innocent. "I was asked about the reshuffle speculation when I was campaigning in the by-election and all I said was: I am happy with what I am doing."
I am told - not by Mowlam - that the real story behind the non-reshuffle last summer is much more dramatic than anything that appeared in the papers. I suspect that Mowlam's determination to stay in Northern Ireland and uncertainty about where to place her next were, to say the least, complicating factors.
On her next job, she is extremely coy. I suggest that she would be outstanding at presenting the government's case, perhaps as chairwoman. "I am quite happy doing what I am doing. As you can see from the August carry-on, it soon declines into crass debates if I say anything else. I believe I've got an important job to do. If others open up, of course consideration will be given."
The "August carry-on", as she describes it, reflects a wider disillusionment with the media. Compared with many in the cabinet, she has at times had a dazzling press. But this summer, after being accused by some newspapers of getting too big for her boots over the cabinet reshuffle, she was attacked for her decision on the IRA ceasefire. Her solution is to stop reading the newspapers.
"I've stopped reading most of them because so much of what they write isn't real. But my husband's been made unemployed, so he reads them all . . . I get a very good summary across the media."
So was she told how some newspapers cheekily blamed her for the non-reshuffle? She laughs: "No, not so much that sort of thing. He tells me about East Timor, with knobs on. And the state of the euro . . . "
Despite her optimism, prospects in Northern Ireland do not look as promising as a year ago. But she will still get a warm reception in Bournemouth, because her appeal spans all sections of the party. Only a fortnight ago John Edmonds was openly moved when he reminisced with me about her reception at the TUC conference last year. Ken Livingstone has suggested to me that he and many on the left would vote for Mowlam in a future leadership contest. Yet she herself is an unashamed Blairite moderniser, heralding the radical changes that she believes the government has brought about.
Still, she has had enough setbacks, personal and political, in recent years to retain some perspective. " If you keep your head you don't get too elevated . . . at least people aren't coming up and saying what a shit you are. But I have always known in politics that rising stars also fall."