NS Profile - Denis MacShane

Charming, egocentric and clever, the new minister for Europe "can't bear to talk like a woodentop".

One day in 1979, the Times gave Ken Morgan, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, space to reply to the charge that the NUJ was a gang of left-wing militants. Morgan wrote a moderate-sounding article. But half the page was given over to a photograph taken the previous day, of his union's handsome and youthful president being bundled into a police van in front of a picket line in Darlington, a defiant fist held in the air to encourage his comrades to keep the faith.

A few days later, that president, Denis MacShane, confirmed his working-class hero status by being arrested on the picket line at Grunwick, the totemic union dispute of the day, where Arthur Scargill himself was arrested. "He always seemed to be looking at the cameras when they arrested him," recalls one former colleague. MacShane wrote a book at the time called Using the Media. It was a very good book, from a master of the craft.

The same man has just become the rather right-wing minister for Europe. He was born Denis Matyjaszek in 1948, the son of a Polish army officer who died when Denis was ten. He later took his Irish mother's maiden name. The Polish-Catholic background partly explains his hatred of communists. He passed the 11-plus and attended St Benedict's School in Ealing. He has a daughter of 23 from a relationship with the broadcaster Carol Barnes, and four children aged eight to 15 from his present marriage to Nathalie Pham, a French-Vietnamese interpreter.

Now 54, he did not enter parliament until he was 46. Try as he might to be a loyal Blairite, he doesn't even attempt new Labour phrases like "innovative and exciting initiative" - he knows he couldn't get through it with a straight face. "He's a colourful, cosmopolitan figure in a dreary labour movement culture," says a journalist who knows him well.

It is said that, giving him his new job, Blair told him to keep his mouth buttoned, and not to give interviews to old journalist friends. This is probably true. Real decisions about Europe will be made in a locked room containing just Blair and Gordon Brown. MacShane's communication skills, which are formidable, will then be useful for conveying them. Until then, the justly famous MacShane tongue is to be kept under lock and key. And with the Daily Mail hunting down his militant past, door-stepping old girlfriends and even barging in on his frail, 84-year-old mother, he has to be careful.

The young MacShane was much more than a Sixties leftie. His quick wit and sharp tongue, and the imp inside him, constantly got him into glorious scrapes. He's spent the past 20 years trying to kill the imp.

As an Oxford undergraduate in the late Sixties, he worked on Cherwell, and wrote a stinging front-page article attacking the rival publication, Isis. Furious Isis staff burst into his room at midnight, drove him to a remote village, stripped him naked and sprayed him with indelible pink paint. Yet when the Cherwell editorship came up, he didn't get it - and he suggested to the man who did that he should stand down in MacShane's favour. The idea was turned down, so he went to his old enemies at Isis and they made him editor. He's always believed that there's no harm in asking, and it's virtually impossible to embarrass him.

Eight years as a BBC reporter ended abruptly after MacShane telephoned the phone-in programme he worked on under a false name because no listeners were phoning. Unfortunately, he called the leading Conservative politician Reginald Maudling a crook. Maudling threatened to sue, and the BBC fired MacShane.

As NUJ president, he provoked libel suits from the then chairman of the Press Council and the managing director of a publishing company. He led the biggest provincial newspapers strike ever; and he mercilessly ridiculed fainthearts on the union's executive like me, who wanted to delay the strike for a few days in the hope of a settlement.

He established himself on the international stage at conferences of the International Federation of Journalists. Those were bad times in the unions, and the NUJ was riven by dissent. Lifelong enmities were made in that cauldron, but none of his former colleagues can bring themselves to hate MacShane. Even Ken Morgan says: "It's not possible to dislike Denis. He's generous, and charming, and shameless."

What's his secret? He was disloyal and selfish, his attacks on the old guard were cruel and unfair, yet what sticks in the mind is his charm, wit, erudition and vanity, and his boyish sense of mischief. He had a whale of a time. His sexual exploits have probably been exaggerated by rumour, but not much. The worst anyone will say of him comes from Tim Gopsill, now editor of the NUJ paper the Journalist: "He is a shifty operator. No one ever knows if he is telling the truth." Yet, says Gopsill, "he always phones to thank me for the derogatory things I write about him. There's no malice in him."

After he finished being president, no one would give him a job. Blacklisting is hard to prove, but many at the centre of NUJ affairs found doors in journalism unexpectedly closed to them. After many dispiriting months, he got a job as head of communications at the Geneva-based International Metalworkers' Federation. Here, for the first time, his huge physical and intellectual energy were put to real work. From knowing no languages beyond O-level French, he made himself fluent in French, Spanish and German. He found time to write well-received books on British, Polish, French and South African politics, and on the cold war, as well as a stream of articles and a PhD thesis. He got fit enough to run marathons, and will run the London marathon again this year. (Even now, as a minister, he rises early for a morning run, followed by a stint at the computer, writing the unsolicited articles with which he deluges newspaper editors.) He learnt discipline: passionate pro-European though he may be, he won't be calling for entry into the euro until Blair says he can.

His capacity for self-publicity remained undimmed. He contrived always to be in camera shot when Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela were around. At one stage he even looked as though he might get the top job, and live out his days as general secretary of the metalworkers' federation.

He spent 12 years in Geneva, and reinvented himself. His politics moved from the flamboyant posturing of a 1968 radical, through the tight-lipped style of steelworkers' trade unionism, and out the other side to new Labour. He's dismissive about the younger MacShane, writing of "the 1968 generation luxuriating in its self-indulgent egoism".

He always wanted to be an MP. Before his NUJ years, he had been Labour parliamentary candidate for Solihull, and in 1984 he got on the shortlist for Labour Party communications director, but the job went to Peter Mandelson. He pottered round vacant seats, ingratiating himself. He acquired an absorbing interest in Gulf War Syndrome while trying to get Labour's nomination for Coventry South East, where there were several cases of it. He tried Neath, but Peter Hain beat him to it. He tried for the Labour nomination in Rotherham in 1992, lost, but was more or less forced on the constituency by Labour Party headquarters for the 1994 by-election. He likes to point out that he has connections with Rotherham: it's a steel town and his brother is a GP there.

Appointed a parliamentary under-secretary at the Foreign Office last year, he talked in their own languages to journalists from papers such as Le Monde and Der Spiegel. This did not endear him to new Labour's foreign specialists, irritated that he knew more journalists and languages than the rest of them put together. His interviews with foreign papers have not always been well received.

His worst moment was in April, when Hugo Chavez, the left-wing Venezuelan president, was ousted in a military coup. MacShane was there, and the Times asked him for a colour piece. He agreed, and described Chavez as a "ranting, populist demagogue". Forty-eight hours later, the coup had failed, Chavez was back in office, and MacShane was back in trouble.

To his old friends on the left, that's a measure of how far he has moved. But no editor would ask most politicians for a colour piece; they know they'd get cliche-ridden, leaden prose. MacShane can write with wit, a political weakness he'll be required to overcome. Good journalists seldom make successful politicians, and MacShane has the instinctive rebel's urge to swear in church. He's been heard to refuses interviews to old friends because "I can't bear to talk to you like a woodentop".

The egocentricity continues unabated. When elected to parliament, he took a journalist friend to lunch and asked: "How do I increase my profile?"

Cynical and passionate, a naturally indiscreet man fighting his instincts to keep the confidence of less interesting people, irritating, ingratiating, immensely likeable: one cannot predict a luminous political future for Dr Denis MacShane. He's more able than many politicians who have gone further, but it is only surprising that he has got so far.