A golden life

The Heat of the Kitchen

Bernard Donoughue <em>Politico's, 392pp, £25</em>

ISBN 1842750518

For those who can't recall - or who never knew - what happened the last time there was a Labour government, Bernard Donoughue's memoir is a welcome reminder. It is a reminder, too, of the days before new Labour's Rolls-Royce machine swept all before it; a glimpse of life at the heart of government during a period of 25 per cent inflation, with pay claims and interest rates to match.

As head of the Downing Street policy unit, first under Harold Wilson and later under Jim Callaghan, Donoughue had a ringside seat. He entered Downing Street in February 1974. It was an election that no one, least of all Wilson, had expected to win. Indeed, Wilson was so convinced he was going to lose that he devised a bizarre plan - complete with false trails, diversions and a secret hideaway in the country - to disappear as soon as the result was declared.

The party machine was riven with incompetence and petty jealousies. Donoughue describes how, on election night, when the leader's plane touched down at Heathrow, he rang party headquarters for an update on the results. "Nobody there seemed to know," he writes, "or was particularly interested to help their party leader find out. To the end, Transport House seemed to be fighting a different battle. So I telephoned the Daily Mirror . . ."

The Wilson of the 1970s was a very different man from the impressive, confident figure who had led Labour to victory a decade earlier. Second time around, he was tired, demoralised and to an extraordinary extent under the thumb of his political secretary, Marcia Williams. The chapter on Wilson's fraught relationship with Marcia, and the paralysing effect it had on life at Downing Street, is riveting. More than once Donoughue claims to have heard her threatening to "destroy" the prime minister, "ominously tapping her handbag and implying that it contained the fatal ammunition . . .". Wilson "was visibly intimidated by these threats".

Jim Callaghan's arrival in Downing Street was invigorating but it brought no relief from the growing economic, financial and industrial relations crises. Donoughue describes how the Treasury cynically tried to bounce Callaghan into agreeing terms with the IMF that would have brought down the government. One Saturday when the prime minister was ill in bed and cut off from his advisers, the Treasury produced a draft letter of intent, brazenly omitting key figures which officials proposed to insert after they had obtained the prime minister's signature.

In the end, Callaghan was brought down by the "winter of discontent" - compounded by his own huge miscalculation over the election date. Donoughue is scathing in his criticism of the unions. He also blames ministers who, as he puts it, "capitulated at the first sound of union gunfire". There was, he says, a whiff of France, circa 1940, about the dying days of the Callaghan government.

This is not simply a political memoir. Two chapters describe Donoughue's dysfunctional family and his impoverished childhood in rural Northamptonshire. Given his disadvantages early in life, his later achievements are remarkable. He owed his first big break to a good school and an excellent teacher.

In the 1980s, Donoughue worked for Times Newspapers and later for Robert Maxwell. There is a good account of the takeover of the Times by Murdoch's thugs and of Donoughue's revenge when, many years later, he persuaded the Lords to reserve for terrestrial television eight major sporting events which Murdoch's British Sky Broadcasting would otherwise have snapped up.

By 1997, the now ennobled Donoughue was back in government, this time as a junior minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, an experience that he, like others before him, seems to have found exasperating.

This is a good book about a golden life. It is full of wit and wisdom, and will be of interest to those who take an interest in the business of government.

Chris Mullin is MP for Sunderland South

Next Article