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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Celebrate Labour's electoral success - but don't forget the working class

The shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face. 

In the moment when the exit poll was released on 8 June, after seven weeks of slogging up and down the streets of Britain, dealing with scepticism, doubt and sometimes downright hostility, we felt a combination of relief, optimism, even euphoria.
 
This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is “unelectable”, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.
 
We have learnt to tread carefully and wear our values lightly. But in recent weeks we have remembered that our convictions can, as Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “bring hope flickering back to life” and meet the growing appetite for a politics that doesn’t simply rail against what is but aspires to build a world that is better.
 
In this election at least, it seems the final, anticipated fracture of Labour from its working-class base after Brexit did not materialise. Shortly before the snap election was called I wrote that while Brexit appeared to be Labour’s greatest weakness, it could just be our biggest strength, because: “consider what remain voting Tottenham and leave voting Wigan have in common: Labour… We will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, and more importantly, so will Britain.”
 
But consider this too. The Tories ran a terrible campaign. It was, without any doubt,the most inept, counter-productive campaign I’ve ever seen in British politics. The day their manifesto hit the headlines, even in our toughest neighbourhoods, we could feel change in the air. Arrogance is never rewarded by the British people and Theresa May has paid a price for it. Yet, despite a Tory manifesto that was a full, square attack on older people, the majority of over 65s still came out for the Tories.
 
And despite the growing relevance of freedom, internationalism and tolerance in an era characterised by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Democrats managed to become bystanders in the political debate. They stood on a platform that aimed to capture the support of those remain voters for whom Brexit is the major question, but neglected the rest. And they quite spectacularly failed to foresee that those who were intensely angered by May’s conversion to a little England, hard Brexit stance would vote tactically against the Tories. Over those seven weeks, they all but disappeared as a political force.
 
As Bob Dylan once said, "the times, they are a-changin" – and they will change again. The recent past has moved at extraordinary speed. The Brexit Referendum, the rise and retreat of nationalism, the election of Trump and his crushing unpopularity just a few months later, the reversal in fortunes for May and Jeremy Corbyn, the astonishing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron and pro-European centrism, and the dramatic rise and sudden collapse of Ukip. Politics, as John Harris wrote last week, is now more fluid than ever. So now is the time, for hope yes, and for conviction too, but not for jubilation. We need some serious thinking. 
 
We should be cautious to rush to judgment. It is only two weeks since the exit poll sent shockwaves across the country. There is no comprehensive explanation for the multitude of motivations that delivered this election result and will not be for some time. But there are some early indictors that must make us think. 
 
After seven years of austerity, as John Curtice observes, the Tories made some of their biggest gains in some of the poorest areas of Britain. It is something I felt in all of the eight constituencies I campaigned in during the election. While the Labour vote rose significantly in towns like Wigan, so too did the Tory vote, despite little or no campaigning activity on the ground. As Rob Ford puts it, “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales… Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017”.
 
To acknowledge the growing, longstanding scepticism of many working-class men, and women, towards Labour in towns across England is not to take away from the hard work and drive of the activists, advisers and politicians that helped to fuel such a dramatic turnaround for Labour during the short campaign. To have won considerable gains in wealthier suburbs is no small achievement. 
 
But if the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle-class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration? I believe it can and must be done, but – as I said to conference when I was first elected seven years ago - it will demand that we begin with the difficult questions, not the easy ones.  
 
Just a few days before the election, statistics were released that pointed to a collapse in trade union membership. What does the decline of an organised Labour movement mean for who we are and what we can achieve? These are not new questions. They were posed by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant lecture, "The Forward March of Labour Halted" in 1979 - a challenge laid down in the year I was born. Now, 37 years on, we are no further down the road to answering it. 
 
The most dramatic finding from this election was the support Corbyn’s Labour party appears to have won from middle-class, young professionals. They said he couldn’t do it and quite stunningly it seems they were wrong. But a ComRes poll last week caught my eye – by a large margin those 30-44 year olds would favour a new centre-ground political party over the current political settlement. In an election where we returned strongly to two-party politics, it appears they moved to us. But what would a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat Party, or a British En Marche do to our support base?
 
After a hellish two years we have learnt in Labour, I hope, that unity matters. The public and private anger directed towards each other, whether the Labour leadership, the parliamentary Labour party or elected councillors, is desperately damaging and its (relative) absence in the campaign was important.
 
But unity is not the same as uniformity, and while two weeks ago I felt there was a real danger of historic fracture, now I believe the shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face, and must avoid. No one person, faction or party has ever had the monopoly on wisdom. The breadth of the Labour movement was and remains our greatest strength. 
 
Consider the Labour manifesto, which drew on every tradition across our movement and demanded that every part of the party had to compromise. Those broad traditions still matter and are still relevant because they hear and are attuned to different parts of Britain. Our country is changing and politics must catch up. The future will be negotiated, not imposed.
 
As we witness the age of "strong man" politics across the world, here in Britain our political culture has become angrier and more illiberal than at any time I can remember. The Brexit debate was characterised by rage, misinformation and a macho political culture that demanded that we abandon nuance and complexity, an understanding of one another and tolerance of different points of view.
 
But this is not where the future of Britain lies: it lies in pluralism. It lies in a politics that is nimbler, more fleet of foot, less constrained; a return to the great tradition of debate, evidence, experience and argument as a way to build broad coalitions and convince people; not shouting one another down, nor believing any of us are always right; an arena in which we listen as much as we speak; a political culture in which we are capable of forming alliances within and across party lines to achieve real, lasting change.
 
And ultimately that’s the prize: not just seek power but, to paraphrase a philosopher whose work inspired millions, in the end “the point is to change it”. We could sit tight in Labour and hope to see the current government fall apart. We might even inherit power, we could temporarily reverse some of the worst of the last seven years, but what then? If we have learnt anything from 13 years of Labour government it should be this: that to build lasting change is the hardest political task of all, and it requires now that we do not turn to the political culture, the tools or even the ideas of the past, but that we think hard about where the future of our movement and our country really lies. Now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Now is the time to think.

 

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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