The New Statesman Interview - Simon Jenkins

He has the fire in his soul, but not the iron. Is that why, despite his many opportunities, he has a

If Simon Jenkins would only stick to his fonts and flying buttresses, he would not get up so many people's noses. His book listing the thousand best churches in Britain, graded by star ratings, was meticulously researched, concisely written and became a deserved bestseller last Christmas. Yet he insists on regaling us with his erratic views on every subject under the sun, in irritatingly self-righteous columns in the Evening Standard (mainly about London) and the Times - the two papers, as it happens, on which he served brief terms as an ineffectual editor.

Worse still, he has made a second career of cultivating influence, with the result that he has been invited on to the board of countless public bodies and do-gooding committees, including the doomed British Rail, the struggling Millennium Dome, the largely unheeded Calcutt committee on privacy (1989-90) and, most recently, Lady Runciman's inquiry into drugs legislation, similarly pigeon-holed. Few in journalism and public life have been offered so many opportunities to make their mark in so many areas, yet have achieved so little of substance.

Gliding smoothly through London's fashionable salons, the urbane Jenkins could easily be a character from an Anthony Powell novel. He is slight and dapper, with a disturbing facial resemblance to Jeffrey Archer and a comparable speaking voice - Oxbridge with a demotic edge. He owes much to the patronage of the late Charles Wintour, the long-serving Evening Standard editor. In 1968, Wintour hired the 25-year-old Jenkins from the Times Educational Supplement as a leader writer and then appointed him as a specialist on London. As such, he became an apostle of the burgeoning cults of conservation and environmentalism and an enthusiastic flag-waver for the capital, despite being born of Welsh parents in Birmingham where his father, a Free Church minister and theologian, held a post at the university.

He was sent to Mill Hill School - it has a tradition of harbouring nonconformists - where his networking skills secured him the position of head boy. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at St John's College, Oxford, and emerged with an interest in political life, but no firm views. He later told friends that, on leaving university, he wrote to the research departments of both the Conservative and Labour Parties asking for jobs and plumped for the Conservatives because they replied first.

Later, he joined the council of the progressive Tory Bow Group, where he forged links with fast-track politicians such as Geoffrey Howe, Michael Howard and Norman Lamont. Over regular lunches with them, he must have toyed with the idea of entering Conservative politics himself, but maybe recognised that he would not have been good at it. Although never a paid-up Thatcherite, he supported part of the Iron Lady's agenda, in particular privatisation and the emasculation of the trade unions. Yet he takes a notably soft line on drugs and was one of the most strident public voices urging Ken Livingstone to run for mayor of London, though without committing himself to vote for him.

Wintour was impressed by the young man's self-assurance and marked him out for greater things, eventually promoting him to features editor. Then Harold Evans, who could never bear the thought of a rising young star working for anyone else, recruited him as editor of the Sunday Times "Insight" investigative unit. It is hard to imagine a less suitable appointment. His predecessors in the job had been dogged muckrakers such as Bruce Page and John Barry: Jenkins, though a fast and industrious writer, could never knuckle down to the grinding, often tedious detailed work that such reporting entails. He found it hard, too, to exert his authority over the tough, experienced reporters such as Peter Pringle and Phillip Jacobson, who notionally worked for him. "I've never known Simon to sweat hard over anything," says a Sunday Times veteran. "As an investigative journalist, he was a joke."

After two unhappy years, he was rescued by Wintour who took him back to the Standard as deputy editor, grooming him for the editorship. He had made few friends at the Sunday Times, and nobody thought to organise a whip-round for a leaving present. At the farewell party, the quick-thinking Evans eased the general embarrassment by reaching into his office cupboard and presenting him with a signed copy of his acclaimed book about skiing.

In 1977, aged only 33, Jenkins duly succeeded Wintour as the Standard's editor, but his first taste of supreme power was soured by acrimonious negotiations over the paper's future between the Express Group, which then owned it, and Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the rival Evening News. When a merger of the two titles was eventually agreed, the editorship went to the News's more experienced editor, Louis Kirby, and not to Jenkins, despite Wintour's lobbying on his behalf.

As others have done before and since, he found refuge from the hurly-burly of Fleet Street in the calm, collegiate atmosphere of the Economist, whose editor, Andrew Knight, appointed him political editor. His argumentative nature was an asset at editorial conferences, but again he did not make many friends. "He was close to Andrew, but never very clubbable with lesser mortals," says a former colleague. "We thought him rather grand."

Despite his reputation for giving A-list parties at aristocratic locations - they have included St James's and Lambeth Palaces - he is not a great mixer. He belongs to the Garrick Club, which he uses to entertain members of the power elite; but he is the kind of member whom Kingsley Amis used to deplore, habitually leading his guests straight into the dining room without a call at the bar to exchange gossip with chums. Colleagues at the Economist were more taken with his wife, the Texan actress Gayle Hunnicutt, whom he married in 1978 after gaining an impressive reputation as a Lothario, from which he has never totally escaped.

Jenkins stayed at the Economist until 1986, and is remembered there for three stories. He is fond of South Africa, and persuaded Knight to send him to write one of the major country surveys that appear as supplements to the journal. The survey was beautifully written, but took very little account of the views of the African National Congress, seeming to suggest that the country's future might lie in a partnership between the Afrikaners and the Zulus under Chief Buthelezi. On the Falklands, he patriotically backed Thatcher's army and, when the war was won, wrote a celebratory book with Max Hastings. (He has been less supportive of British involvement in Iraq and Kosovo.) Finally, he used his impeccable social contacts to secure an off-the-record interview with Prince Charles in 1986, after which he wrote a long profile. In it, he painted the first clear picture of the Prince as a crypto-liberal. "He was raving about David Owen and clearly regarded the Social Democrats as the saviours of Britain," Jenkins would later tell Andrew Neil, then editor of the Sunday Times.

Despite these high points, Jenkins clearly found that his work at the Economist was insufficient to occupy his fertile mind full-time. Through his political contacts, he began to collect a string of appointments on quangos and busybody committees. Apart from BR and the Millennium Commission, he has served on the ruling bodies of London Regional Transport, the South Bank, the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission, the Buildings Books Trust, Save Britain's Heritage, the Thirties Society, the Railway Heritage Trust, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the World Monuments Fund, the Museum of London and the Old Vic. In 1989, he sat on the Grade committee on fear of crime, and in 1994, he chaired the Commission for Local Democracy.

Such excess indicates either a morbid taste for sitting around polished boardroom tables or an unfulfilled desire to be associated with real power and decision-making rather than just writing about it. But when he was lured from the Economist, it was only to another inky-fingered chore as a Sunday Times columnist. Four years later, when Knight was hired to run Rupert Murdoch's London operations, one of his first acts was to ease out the editor of the Times, Charlie Wilson, and invite his old colleague Jenkins to replace him.

This was surely his apotheosis, the proper consummation of years of elegant writing and social aspiration. Yet these turned out to be insufficient qualifications for the stiff task he was tackling. Murdoch's dream of lifting the circulation of the Times to the level of the Telegraph had been dented by the strong performance of the four-year-old Independent. On his first day at Wapping, Jenkins called his troops together and delivered what he hoped was a rousing call to arms, using the military metaphors he had picked up from his collaboration with Hastings. The Independent had "put its tanks on our lawn . . . quite deliberately tried to occupy the Times's territory".

This second stab at editorship was no more successful than the first, partly because of his old trouble of failing to bond with the other ranks. Two years later, the Independent's tanks were still on the lawn. Knight offered his job to the Daily Mail's Paul Dacre and, when he turned it down, recalled Peter Stothard from Washington to take the helm.

So for Jenkins, stripped of his power base, it was back to the columns and committees. As a member of the Millennium Commission, he became a great enthusiast for the Dome. In December 1997, John Lloyd revealed in the New Statesman how Jenkins had dissuaded the government from abandoning the project, in a three-page letter imploring Tony Blair to look at it through the eyes of his children. Some might think he has a lot to answer for, but in his columns he still vigorously defends the project against critics.

"Only whingers wobble," he wrote scathingly when the Dome came under attack in the summer of 1998. Then, after the disastrous New Year's Eve opening: "The fact that the Dome at Greenwich opened on time, on budget and on spectacle was a triumph that deserves to tower over the hitches of the opening night."

As for the London elections, he is said to have considered running for a seat in the assembly; but he now seems destined, like most in his trade, to remain a gadfly, buzzing around the fringes of power, making do with the occasional sniff of the real thing. Wintour was once asked why he thought his former protege had fluffed his most important professional opportunities. "He has the fire in his soul," was the perceptive reply, "but not the iron."

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy