The power of nightmares

New Statesman
Lights out: politicians - most notably Margaret Thatcher - have long boasted about their lack of sleep. Photo: Getty Images

I t’s a damp Monday morning and John Humphrys (who, as a Today programme presenter, has to rise at around 4am every morning to start the show at 6am) suggests to the Prime Minister that he might be a little too relaxed in his role. (Exasperated laughter.)

“It certainly doesn’t feel like that! It’s a huge honour to do this job; an immense privilege. But it is extremely hard work. I work very, very hard at it. I’m normally at my kitchen table at quarter to six in the morning, going through my boxes and papers.”

It’s the specificity that stings. Quarter to six. Never 5.30am, or six o’clock on the dot, or even 6.15am? No, quarter to six. It’s like asking a small child their age: five and three-quarters, they’ll say proudly, counting off the days until their next birthday.

David Cameron resents the idea that he is a shirker, a layabout, someone cruising through life in a boating blazer – and the best way to disprove the notion? Boast about your hours.

Politicians have long done it (a survey conducted by the “Sleep Council” in 2005 revealed that politicians got, on average, just over five hours of sleep a night, ranking only slightly above doctors on call. The best slept? Solicitors, with nearly eight. Another reason to resent lawyers).

Forget the rest

Part of Margaret Thatcher’s colourful mythology was the claim that she only needed four hours’ sleep a night. Bill Clinton, the New York Times reported, only needed two or three (in a speech he gave at Berkeley in 2002, he said he’d been “really tired a long time . . . I spent 30 years sleep-deprived and I got used to it.” He might as well have flexed his muscles in front of the crowd).

Condoleezza Rice got up at 4.30am to exercise before work. Gordon Brown’s middle-of-the-night emails were legendary, although, being Brown, his sleeplessness was seen as yet another failing to add to his litany of failings and only served to explain his baggy-eyed grumpiness. (A cabinet minister was reported to have said at the time: “The problem is [Brown] thinks the answer to everything is to work harder. It would be much better if he got some sleep and had a clearer head.”)

It was not always thus. Winston Churchill, James Callaghan, Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson all took afternoon naps. Callaghan’s former assistant Bernard Donoughue said that the prime minister’s sleep was a daily event; he even had a catchphrase: “Better well rested than well briefed.”

Poor old Calvin Coolidge, US president from 1923-29, reportedly slept for 15 out of every 24 hours but this was later attributed to a major depressive episode after the death of his 16-year-old son from sepsis.

By contrast, our old friend George W Bush had, according to experts, a very “healthy” attitude towards sleep (after the 2000 elections, he told ABC News, he was “trying to set the record as the president who got to bed earliest on inauguration day”) and managed at least six or seven hours a night, even in the middle of the war on terror. How sweet: sleeping like a baby as the world burned. Healthy, it seems, is an ambiguous term.