Michael Dobbs wrote the original House of Cards novel. Photo: Getty
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House of Cards creator Michael Dobbs: "I must have sold my soul"

The man behind television's most masterful political operator reveals the inspiration for his story, gives advice to the PM on the powers of persuasion, and recalls his own real-life political dramas.

“So this is our little office.” It’s an aside worthy of Francis Urquhart. Pithy, understated, and a little bit camp. Michael Dobbs, or Baron Dobbs of Wylye as he’s known around these parts, is showing me into the House of Lords chamber. But his awe at this opulent workplace gives him an innocence unexpected of the man behind House of Cards’ infamous antihero.

Dobbs is the author of House of Cards, the original novel published in 1989 about the machinations of an amoral fictional chief whip. Two further books to complete the trilogy and a BBC miniseries on, Urquhart has morphed into Frank Underwood, the modern-day Washington DC equivalent played by Kevin Spacey in three successful television series on the online streaming service, Netflix.

The story, a hit in the UK during the Nineties in its Westminster days, has become a sensation since its migration to the marble corridors of the Capitol.

The programme has been the most popular series ever on all of Netflix (that’s 6.4 per cent of subscribers who tuned in during the first 30 days after each season premiere), according to figures released in March.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in Season 3 of House of Cards. Photo: episode still

Dobbs is an executive producer of the US series, which means he “has as much involvement as I want”. He beams that it’s been “the happiest professional experience of my life”, and is currently working on a new drama based in Westminster with Borgen creator Adam Price.

Meanwhile, a fourth season of House of Cards has been lined up for next year, and Spacey and Robin Wright (who plays Underwood’s wife, Claire), have each picked up Golden Globe Awards for their performances (respectively Best Actor and Best Actress in a Television Series Drama) – a first for an online-only show.

And this all came about, as most things do, because of Margaret Thatcher.

Before he began writing, Dobbs was a Conservative party backroom boy, scurrying up the chain of command from speechwriter to special adviser to chief of staff. He was serving as the latter when, on the eve of the 1987 election, he fell out spectacularly with his then boss, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He was soon kicked into the political long grass, which was when he found time to write fiction.

“It all started because Maggie Thatcher beat me up and was actually rather cruel to me,” he says, looking softly out onto the Thames from a sunny spot on the Lords Terrace. “I don’t complain about that – politics is rough and tough. But it caused me great unhappiness for a while . . . [Despite] the fact that she could be absolutely horrid to me, I still regard her as being probably the greatest peacetime prime minister in the 20th century.”

It was on the day known as Wobble Thursday, exactly a week before polling day in ‘87. Thatcher was convinced she was losing the election (spoiler: she wasn’t), and “she took out all her pain and anger and frustration on me, when in fact I was perhaps the most innocent person in the room at the time”, says Dobbs with a sweet smile.

Soon after, the bruised former chief of staff found himself on holiday with his wife, sitting on the beach and scrawling two letters onto a piece of paper: “F U” – his soon to be protagonist’s initials, and a none-too-cryptic two fingers up at the page.

Although Dobbs denies his first and most successful novel is a “book of revenge”, the story begins and ends with a toppled prime minister, and he does reveal that the book was inspired by his experience of politics. “Most of the stuff I put into House of Cards was material from events I’d either seen, or participated in, or done, or watched other people do.”

Dobbs himself was tagged “Westminster's baby-faced hit man” by the Guardian in the Eighties because of his skill as a political operator. Indeed, although he is 66 years old, and merrily aware of growing older (he chuckles that he would like to write a play about the House of Lords with the title “The Zimmer Conspiracy”), Dobbs has a boyish look – all wide-eyed wonder beneath his sweep of tousled sandy-white hair. He even wears his stripy orange tie and smart waistcoat a little like a school uniform. It’s hard to imagine him as a Westminster machiavel.

So how much of the Urquhart/Underwood ruthlessness comes from him?

“Oh, not a lot,” he says. “Because I had to take reality and water it down. Politics is outrageous, it’s ridiculous. We do things that you couldn’t possibly get away with in a work of fiction.”

Dobbs’ theory is that brilliant politicians derive their ambition from private demons – and he himself doesn’t “have that sort of drive”.

“Great people have great vulnerabilities, great weaknesses, and that’s often the reason that pushes them onto the public scene,” Dobbs explains in a hushed voice. “Harold Macmillan was a cuckold all his life, and it was his official biographer, Alistair Horne, who said it was his private shames that drove him to his public duties. There’s a huge amount of truth in that for all great people. Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Gladstone...”

He adds: “What makes them different, more obsessive, more driven, is that there is a worm inside them, a worm of shame or guilt or anger that drives them beyond the normal, which is why they end up being able to do what they do.”

Dobbs’ preoccupation with politicians’ personal turmoil has made his creation so appealing to a general audience. It’s about people, not politics – an angle heightened by Urquhart and then Underwood’s shattering of the fourth wall to give asides to the audience throughout the action.

“It’s not about politics, it’s not about institutions,” Dobbs tells me. “It’s about power, it’s about personality, it’s about great ambition, it’s about weakness, it’s about wickedness. All of that was drummed into me when I was a schoolkid, because we were made to read Shakespeare.”

The late Ian Richardson, who starred as Urquhart in the BBC series, was a stage actor who had played Richard III among other Shakespeare leads. And Spacey had just completed a worldwide tour playing Richard III before beginning filming the first Netflix series in Baltimore in 2012.

Dobbs is ecstatic about his story being brought to life by such accomplished actors. “It requires the best possible acting to get away with it. It would look really clunky if it were done by somebody who wasn’t up to it. Ian Richardson, Kevin Spacey – I think somewhere along the way I must’ve sold my soul, because I’m not quite sure why I’ve been so lucky.”

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in the first episode of the BBC's House of Cards miniseries. Photo: YouTube screengrab

Beau Willimon, the writer of the US series, who has also worked in politics, owes a great deal to his British counterpart’s focus on character over political minutiae. When I spoke to him following the release of the first series, he told me: “One of the things that I thought was so fantastic about the English original is it didn’t require that you be a political expert in order to enjoy it. We wanted to take that same approach . . . it doesn’t leave you by the side of the road as the political freight train rolls on past.”

Yet Dobbs has had his fair share of real-life political drama. As if working for Thatcher during the height of her premiership, and being in Downing Street with John Major at the very end wasn’t enough, Dobbs was present when the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the 1984 Conservative party conference.

“I had been right in the path of that bomb for much of that previous day, working in [then President of the Board of Trade] Norman Tebbit’s room,” he recalls. (Tebbit’s wife Margaret was left permanently disabled by the bomb).

“I realised two things. First of all, how lucky I was to be able to walk out of that . . . Secondly, it made me realise just how dangerous politics was. I had some really good friends who were murdered.”

Dobbs recounts discussing plans for the future on Thatcher’s sofa with her Northern Ireland Secretary Airey Neave the day before he was murdered outside the window of the very same office by a car bomb as he was driving out of the Commons car park. He was also “fantastic chums” with Ian Gow, the Tory MP and minister who was also killed by an IRA-planted car bomb.

“It was rather symbolic,” Dobbs reflects. “Airey was murdered almost at the start, it was the 1979 election, as the election campaign was starting – Ian was murdered pretty much right at the end . . .

“It certainly conditioned my view about my own political future, and how to protect my family while I was doing it. It was certainly a major step on the way to being who or what I am today.”

Indeed, Dobbs is more at home as a close observer than an active participant. Two weeks before our interview, he went back to stay in the Grand for the first time since the bombing, because “as a writer, you need to keep testing yourself”.

His most recent foray into British politics was his attempt to push the Private Member’s Bill to legislate for an EU referendum through the Lords, which failed in January 2014. He believes “the European question has been a cancer, a huge distraction in this country”, and warns David Cameron to take a softly-softly, behind-the-scenes approach to his EU renegotiation. Urquhart-style persuasion, perhaps.

“Being a little sensitive about these issues is very important,” he says. “I've always suggested to my lords and masters who make these decisions that we must make sure the way this is handled should enable not only the country to come back together afterwards, but also our party to come back together afterwards.

“Some people want to take it one direction, others in a totally different direction . . . And actually, although sometimes I think we get the tone wrong, if we want to persuade people, it’s often better to talk quietly to them, which he’s [Cameron’s] doing, rather than shouting at them across the barricades, which is what many people have been doing for too long.”

And although Dobbs, who was present during the Tories’ 1992 election victory, says the current period reminds him more of 1983 than Major’s surprise win, he doesn’t see a smooth road ahead for his party: “You always know that when the pressure’s off on a party, they normally manage to screw it up themselves – that's the nature of politics,” he chuckles.

Dobbs was made a life peer in December 2010, and remains enchanted by the House of Lords. He still thinks to himself “how on earth did I end up here?” when walking through its halls, and finds the “characters so lovely”.

But there’s still a glint of the old steel: “This isn’t a perfect place,” he admits. “We do have people who shouldn’t be here, absolutely clear about that. We don’t have the right procedures to get rid of them, no matter how hard we try.”

Whether this results in one final political coup, or another work of Westminster-based fiction, remains to be seen. Dobbs is guarded about what he plans to do next, bringing to mind the words most repeated to him by his colleagues and friends – the old Urquhart catchphrase: “You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.”

House of Cards Season 3 is now available on Blu-ray & DVD

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.