On 31 July the Mirror's splash erroneously consigned Mo Mowlam to political oblivion. "Mo: I'll Go", read the headline over a report stating unequivocally that Mowlam "is to quit the Cabinet after the next election to launch a schools crusade in her beloved Ulster". By mid-morning, the first career obituary had appeared in the London Evening Standard. Mo was a lot of fun but not a safe pair of hands, was the uncontroversial but premature adjudication of George Walden. The day wore on. The story changed. Both Downing Street and Mowlam refuted her Mark Twain-style despatch. Mo was to stay.
We meet mid-afternoon for a long-arranged interview, and I expect only a modicum of tension - not least because Mowlam's quoted wish to lend a hand with integrated education in Northern Ireland, at some unspecified time in the future, is so obviously a quantum leap away from extrapolating her impending departure. I am wrong. Even allowing for a tremulous John Redwood on the day after his sacking from the shadow cabinet in February, I have never seen a politician more visibly distraught.
"I am just so fed up," she says dolefully. "All I did was a very friendly interview. I get on well with the guy who did it. He asked me what I intended to do when I left politics. When I do leave - and I didn't mention this - I would like to do something with people with disabilities. I did say that I would also like to do something on integrated education. And that came out that I was going to quit at the next election. 'Mo to go.' I was so annoyed." Assuming her version is correct - and there was nothing in the article to suggest otherwise - any politician would be entitled to fury.
But that does not begin to explain Mowlam's reaction. The warm, uninhibited, joking woman whom Walden so semi-kindly recalled has mutated into a forlorn, distracted figure torn between anger and what looks uncomfortably like terror. At one point, she mistakes the aide sitting in on the interview for another adviser. At first, she circles her large room, pausing for a conversation with the goldfish she keeps in a crystal bowl that she was awarded for her peace efforts in Northern Ireland. "Poor little fish," she says solicitously. "Did someone feed you?"
Apart from the day's diet of imperfectly digested facts, Mo - fresh from a six-filling appointment at the dentist - has had no sustenance. She has cancelled two interviews and clearly wishes that she had also canned this one. "You've caught me in a bad mood," she says, unnecessarily. "So I shall be shorter than I normally am. Sorry." But her demeanour does not suggest a display of bad temper. Rather, it implies a disillusion, or even despair, that any other politician might regard as too raw for public display.
The false steer on Mowlam's future has led to the antithesis of Walden's analysis. Her mission for today is to present herself as a safe pair of hands but not, definitely not, a lot of fun. She runs back through the Mirror story. "No, I'm not going to bitch about it. No," she cries, as if she has been invited to heap venom on the perpetrators. And she will definitely be carrying on in the Cabinet? "I don't plan to go. No. Eventually, I am going to give up politics, and, when I do that, [school integration] is what I would like to do.
"We did stuff on it when we were in government," she says, as if the thrust of Blairite endeavour in Northern Ireland halted on the day she was ousted. "I mean, as has this government, you know, continued to do. It [melding Catholic and Protestant schools] is an enormous shift." And then she stops. "You're going to run that story again, aren't you?" she cries, irrationally convinced that whatever she says will be translated into a resignation speech. "I'm sorry. But if I do this, all I will get is a telling-off for doing interviews on Northern Ireland."
The inescapable question, after only a few minutes of dislocated conversation, is: Who is spooking Mo Mowlam? Any question not directly related to Cabinet Office business provokes a frantic wail that time is up. The name Ken Follett (who complained in the Observer of the briefings against her) is not to be uttered. At the mention of her public perception, she says accusingly: "You're going into . . . me being marginalised etcetera. Is that what you want? No-o. No-o [this in a falsetto warble]. I don't feel marginalised. I intend to continue what I'm doing. I was unhappy when I left Northern Ireland. I missed the place, missed the people, but now I'm settled. I'm doing poverty, social deprivation and I'm engaged."
Two years ago, Mowlam - adjudged a prime architect of Irish peace - called all the shots. Her public desire to keep the job that went to Peter Mandelson delayed a Cabinet reshuffle, before her shift to the Cabinet Office (she wanted Health) coincided with vicious rumours that called into question her intellectual rigour after her recovery from a non-malignant brain tumour. Other traumas - the death of her mother and financial strictures after her husband, Jon Norton, was made redundant - coincided with a widening gulf between public adoration and political protection.
Possibly rashly, Mowlam seems to have failed to realise that the latter always trumps the former. At the 1998 Labour conference, Tony Blair's speech was punctuated by a standing ovation for "our Mo". But the erroneous story that she was leaving the Cabinet did not even provoke a call from No 10. "I haven't had any response from them over the 'I'm quitting' article. They never say to me: 'You must do this or that.'" So she did not speak to Blair? "No. It's patently rubbish, so why bother? I'm not upset. It's just frustrating."
However sympathetic one is to Mowlam, it is hard not to think that, inadvertently, she has ushered in some of her misfortune. As her political profile waned, she embarked - perhaps tapping into the fix of public fondness - on the sort of media blitz normally geared to a Jerry Hall stage strip. Women's magazines have excavated her private life. A Saga interview revived her old wish that the royals decamp to modern premises. A recent chat-show performance spawned headlines that she had authorised bugging Gerry Adams's car (which she never quite said). A Chippenham commuter provoked a minor story after claiming that she had gone to the lavatory on a train, leaving her red box unattended (which she may or may not have done - I do not dare ask).
While her policy initiatives - most recently on drugs - have gone largely unnoticed, the gaffometer has always been running. Although she does not say so explicitly, she now seems to be aware that, among the forces undermining her, her own input is not the least damaging. "It is very naughty of me to keep stating my personal views, because it doesn't help. If we all did that, the government would be unworkable." And does not she, the maverick, believe herself to be a welcome antidote to the perception of an automaton administration lacking in credo? "We all have a credo. But by doing what I do, I take out a good National Health story on the day. That isn't why I want to be in the news. That is unhelpful," she says, as if reprogrammed to on-message default mode. "No headlines," she intones frequently in a mantra of penitence, fluttering sheaves of statistics on drugs - one of the few issues on which she wishes to speak. I ask politely (or desperately) what she would most like me to say on the millions in new funding. "Umm, what's important is that people realise we're not going to do it overnight. It's a ten-year strategy, because that is the timescale. I would also like to say that we are decentralising to the drugs action teams on how to spend the money to serve their needs."
Alas, whenever Mowlam pronounces action on drugs or embarks on a trip to investigate the barons of Colombia, the press resurrects her own spliff history. Her work on GM food and community integration gets subsumed to candyfloss headlines. Increasingly, the impresario of the Mo Show is not Mowlam herself, but the forces of media misinterpretation or, in her view, mendacity. Hence the new, contrite Mowlam, interested solely in "jobs that Tony thinks and I think will make a difference. It would be silly to hypothesise on what happens after the election. I will do what Tony wants me to do, and I am quite happy doing this." But still, one senses, she is happier on a tack broader than self-preservation might sensibly decree.
I ask whether she minded having to apologise for suggesting merely that the royals might shift to modern quarters. "People told me that I had caused hurt in the royal family, and I don't want to hurt them as individuals. I had no intention of that." Mowlam's comments - confined to royal locus rather than status - have been followed, in the week of the Queen Mother's 100th birthday, by the stirrings of a debate (in the Observer and New Statesman) on whe-ther the time has come to jettison the monarchy in favour of a republic. Does she agree that such a debate should take place? "Well, I hope the media do have it. But it shouldn't be up to a member of the Cabinet to lead it. It should be something the press and public do. Yes."
So a full-out discussion forum on a republic? "You are trying to get me to give a comment on republicanism. That is not for me to dictate. That is a debate for the people of this country to have."
How grim it must be to be traduced by government and by media spinners alike. And still one suspects that Mowlam's nemesis may be partly driven by her own belief, receding fast, that popularity renders her somehow inviolable.
Her current unhappiness seems to stem from the fact that she, inured to the Judas element in Blairite circles, now glimpses the destructive power of a media machine that has always lauded her value and charm. How many traitors, she must wonder, can one career withstand?