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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

ANDRÉ CARRILHO FOR NEW STATESMAN
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The thin controller

How Seumas Milne – a Winchester-educated Guardian left-winger – became Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor and one of the most powerfully divisive figures in the Labour Party.

In October 2014, the Guardian journalist Seumas Milne arrived in the Russian city of Sochi on the Black Sea coast, near the Georgian border. He was there to attend the annual Valdai international discussion club where Russia experts from across the world – academics, diplomats, journalists – meet and sometimes question President Vladimir Putin and some of his top officials and advisers. The theme of that year’s conference was “The World Order: New Rules or No Rules?”. Milne, his expenses paid by the Russian business people who organise the event and started it a decade earlier, was there to talk about the Middle East, a subject of which he has compendious knowledge, derived from a lifetime interest in the region.

To his surprise, Milne was asked, while in Sochi, to chair the meeting’s key session, where Putin was to make a 40-minute speech – later described by the Financial Times as one of his “most important foreign policy statements” – followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session. Milne agreed and opened the questions by asking two of his own. Were Russia’s “actions in Ukraine and Crimea” (which Moscow had recently invaded) “a response to [a] breakdown of rules and a sort of example of a ‘no-rules’ order”? And would Russia alter its position that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it “can’t lead in the current global order but it can decide who leads”?

Innocuous as the questions may have seemed, controversy over Milne’s role at Valdai followed quickly, particularly at the Guardian. Like a number of other British and American critics of Putin, leading figures on the paper’s foreign desk argued that, after the invasion of Crimea, it was no longer acceptable for Westerners to attend Valdai. These people were legitimising an aggressive and authoritarian regime that paid little regard to human rights. Valdai was aimed solely at projecting the Kremlin line.

On the left-wing blog Left Foot Forward, Pierre Vaux, a writer closely associated with a New York think tank set up by anti-Putin exiles, argued that Milne was performing “front-of-house PR duties” with the president. Milne had long been a Kremlin “fellow-traveller”, Vaux said; now he was behaving like “a direct advocate, an agent of influence”. His questions allowed Putin “the space to not only justify Russian actions in Ukraine . . . but also to grandstand about Russia’s humble and well-meaning place in the world”. Vaux pointed out that, a few days after his visit to Sochi, Milne’s weekly Guardian column blamed the crisis in Ukraine on the US and the EU backing “the violent overthrow of an elected if corrupt government”.

Vaux stirred the pot by quoting the Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent Luke Harding as saying that to attend Valdai was to become “a puppet in the Kremlin’s theatre, there to make Putin look good”. The row spilled over into the paper’s offices in King’s Cross, London. Milne and Harding exchanged angry emails. When Harding – who has published a book about Putin’s Russia called Mafia State as well as accounts of how he was harassed during his four-year spell in Moscow – wrote that the Kremlin was guilty of funding far-right groups in Europe, they clashed at one of the paper’s daily editorial conferences. Milne’s mobile phone rang in the middle of the exchange. “That must be the Kremlin,” joked Harding, which, far from defusing the tension, took it to new levels. Voices were raised and the two men clashed in the newsroom and even the urinals after the meeting. “We don’t normally have angry words at the Guardian,” a shocked witness told me later.

There the matter might have rested, with the controversy, dismissed by many journalists as a turf war between writers jealous of their territory, confined to little-read online publications and of interest only to Russia specialists. But a year after he went to Sochi, Milne was appointed director of strategy and communications for the Lab­our Party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The national press took a sudden interest in his attendance at the Valdai meeting. “Red handed!” screeched the Mail, showing photographs of Putin shaking Milne’s hand and watching sternly as the columnist invited questions. “Corbyn’s pro-Kremlin spin chief held in Putin’s iron grip at propaganda summit.” Milne was bizarrely criticised for not interrogating Putin as Jeremy Paxman would have interrogated a British politician.

Milne had become another target in the press assault on Corbyn and his supporters, mounted mostly, but not entirely, by right-wing papers. After more than ten years of writing columns from a firmly left-wing viewpoint, many of them about international issues, Milne provided ample ammunition. He had argued that the killing of Lee Rigby, “a British soldier who had taken part in multiple combat operations in Afghanistan . . . wasn’t terrorism in the normal sense of an indiscriminate attack on civilians”. Two days after the 9/11 attacks, in an article that attracted a record 6,000 readers’ emails (roughly divided evenly for and against him), Milne wrote that Americans were “reaping a dragons’ teeth harvest they themselves sowed”. After 7/7, he claimed that the London bombings were “driven by worldwide anger at US-led domination and occupation of Muslim countries” and, given that Britain was a firm supporter of the US, the only surprise was that they had been “so long coming”. At an anti-Israel rally in 2014, he said Palestinians in Gaza were not terrorists: “the terrorism is the killing of civilians by Israel on an industrial scale”. And, according to Milne, Russia under Putin “provided some check to unbridled US power”.

Many such comments were wrenched out of context by right-wing papers. For example, Milne wrote of Lee Rigby that “the random butchery of an unarmed man far from the conflict by disconnected individuals who have non-violent political alternatives is clearly unjustifiable”. Nearly everything he has written about Putin describes him as authoritarian, conservative and definitely not “progressive”. Moreover, on the contribution of Western policies to terror attacks, views similar to Milne’s can be found across the Western political spectrum and even among senior diplomats and military figures, never mind across all sections of society in Africa and Asia.

Most newspaper columns are intended to surprise and provoke readers; predictable, orthodox, moderately expressed opinions are the province of politicians. Yet critics argue that Milne’s views are peculiarly hardline and extreme. Harding isn’t the only Guardian colleague with whom he has clashed. In October 2015, Brian Whitaker, the paper’s former Middle East editor, recalled on his blog al-bab.com a conversation with Milne in 1990 about the fate of Farzad Bazoft, a UK-based freelance journalist working in Iraq for the Observer. Bazoft, who had been making inquiries about a military site and taking soil samples nearby, was arrested and accused of being an Israeli spy working for the West. He was hanged on the orders of Saddam Hussein.

Whitaker was “startled when he [Milne] sought to justify Bazoft’s arrest” though not his execution. “He views international politics almost entirely through an anti-imperialist lens,” Whitaker wrote. That led him “to a sympathetic view of those dictatorial regimes which characterise themselves as anti-imperialist”. Milne, Whitaker said to me recently, “regards the people who want liberty in the Middle East as mostly Western stooges” and “never seems to express any libertarian instincts at all, either of the left or the right”. Whitaker’s concern is that Milne’s view of Britain’s historic role in the Middle East is even less subtle than Corbyn’s. “Britain’s relationship with repressive (but West-friendly) regimes,” Whitaker wrote last year, “and the Cameron government’s apparent determination to prioritise trade – including arms sales – over human rights are issues that desperately need serious public debate . . . Corbyn has shown a commendable willingness to raise them.” But can he do that with credibility “when his spin doctor has shown so much sympathy for anti-Western regimes that have been no less repressive”?

Similar questions are common even among those broadly sympathetic to Corbyn. Are Milne’s opinions too consistently and uncompromisingly left-wing? Does “the Thin Controller”, as he is known at the Guardian, have a sufficiently flexible mind to persuade Corbyn to fine-tune his message and make the compromises necessary in front-line politics? Can he help the Labour leader appeal to a wider audience? Does he even want to?

***

Milne is a clever man. Nobody I spoke to doubted that, though one source added that “he has little wisdom”. He is also well read, with several enormous filing cabinets at the Guardian, of the sort banished from most newspaper offices decades ago, full of books, reports and pamphlets. His desk was covered with a mountain of paper visible from the opposite side of the office which, from time to time, would slide slowly towards his neighbours. “He’s often the best-informed person in the room on any subject,” said a Guardian colleague. “He knows a lot of history and could probably walk you through all the prime ministers of Israel since 1948 without missing a beat. The knowledge is almost scholarly.” But the other side of him, said the same colleague, is that “he cherry-picks what he reads in an almost unintelligent way; he has a closed mind and an unpersuadable one”.

Another colleague at the Guardian told me: “Seumas is one of the most wholly political people I’ve ever met. He thinks of everything politically. He has a project and it’s political, not journalistic.” A third Guardian journalist said that his written output for the paper was never large. When he became a columnist, he rarely wrote more than one column a week. “He got a reputation for laziness. But I think that’s unfair. It’s just that he was doing other things, political things.” A fourth source said: “He sees himself as an activist who happens to work for a newspaper. He will tell you something and you’ll say ‘that’s a good story’ but he won’t write it for the paper because it wouldn’t go down well with the comrades.”

Some journalists saw him as a slightly sinister, furtive, cold figure, always pacing the corridors while on his mobile phone, talking  almost daily to his close friend George Galloway, whom he addressed as “chief”. One colleague described him as “a natural plotter”, never happier than when taking part in a caucus or cabal. Older hands recall his leading role in the Gulshan group in the early 1990s, named after an Indian restaurant where members met to plan resistance to what they saw as a rightward, downmarket drift at the Guardian. When, around the same time, an obscure magazine called Casablanca, now defunct, ran a scathing anonymous critique of how the Guardian was abandoning its liberal-left heritage, Milne was widely suspected as the main informant, particularly when his friend Tariq Ali confessed to being the author. Others recall his curious closeness to Peter Mandelson, the two apparently brought together by a love of plotting and a mutual loathing of Gordon Brown.

But colleagues also emphasise Milne’s charm and his calm, rather understated manner. “He nearly always sounds reasonable and sensible,” a colleague said. “He’s not a coiled spring waiting to have a row, like most people on the left.” Some said they thought a more human, caring side emerged after he took time off work to have a tumour removed from a lung and when, in 2013, his sister, Kirsty, a former New Statesman journalist, died at 49 from lung cancer. Many journalists acknowledge with gratitude his role in maintaining the Guardian chapel (union branch), which he led for many years, as one of the strongest in the industry, with a house agreement that still rules out compulsory redundancies. “The management always knew that, if ­necessary, he could deliver a strike,” said one.

Gary Younge, one of Milne’s closest friends on the paper, says: “Having been a Trot at 15, for a short period, I have some experience of rigid and doctrinaire socialists. Those are the people I find tiresome and boring. Seumas isn’t one of those. If you’re having an argument, he will engage with it, respond to what you’re saying.”

Becky Gardiner, who was also close to Milne at the Guardian and is now a lecturer in journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “Seumas is completely upfront about what he thinks. It’s ridiculous to accuse him of being secretive. When he talks on his mobile, it’s in a very loud voice. You know exactly who he’s talking to and what about.”

She, Younge and several other journalists agree that although his writing is hardly a bundle of fun and rarely contains a personal anecdote, Milne in person is nothing like the humourless leftist of popular caricature. “When you have a conversation with him,” Gardiner said, “you laugh a lot.” His friends are passionately loyal, perhaps surprisingly so, given his habit of arriving as much as an hour late for assignations. He has an impressive array of leftist contacts across the world, particularly in the Middle East and Latin America; in the past, they included Yasser Arafat and Hugo Chávez. “He’d always be coming into the office clutching an article for publication, saying something like, ‘This is from an excellent Turkish trade unionist,’” said a senior editor.

Outside politics, he seems to have little hinterland (his interest in sport is said to be zero) apart from popular music. He is awesomely knowledgeable about the Beatles and an enthusiast for the Rolling Stones; he also plays the guitar and sometimes the piano. He lives with his Italian wife, Cristina, in an Edwardian house in the leafy south-west London suburb of Richmond. Curiously, and not very ecologically, he usually drove to the Guardian’s offices and used the car throughout the day in London when he had a company parking space. Though Richmond’s state schools are wholly comprehensive, both of his children, now grown up, went to grammar schools in Kingston-upon-Thames, four miles away. Friends tell me that Milne – who declined to be interviewed for this article – refuses to discuss the subject but sometimes points out that the father isn’t the only member of a family who makes choices about the children’s education and that, in a truly democratic home, he can be comfortably outvoted.

If his own views have ever deviated from left orthodoxy on comprehensive schools – because he rarely writes or speaks about education, I could find no public statement of them – it would be a surprise. It is hard to discover any significant examples from the past 40 years of Milne changing his opinions, or even interrogating them. Born in 1958, he is a child of the 1970s, the last decade in which large numbers of people still believed that the near future belonged to socialism. “His political opinions stopped developing in 1975, along with his musical tastes,” was a colleague’s comment.

Milne’s cleverness won him a scholarship and a free place at Winchester, one of England’s most exclusive, cerebral and expensive fee-charging boarding schools, and later a scholarship place at Balliol, reputedly Oxford’s most intellectual college, to read philosophy, politics and economics.

As he left school, after taking his A-levels at 15 and his Oxford entrance exam at 16 – a common practice at Winchester – one-third of the world’s population was living under regimes that claimed to follow socialism in one form or another. In Britain, a Labour government had Michael Foot and Tony Benn in senior cabinet positions; raised the top rate on earned income to 83 per cent and that on investment income to 98 per cent; tried to control prices and incomes across the economy; nationalised British Leyland and established a National Enterprise Board. Many young Britons admired Mao Zedong and his “permanent revolution” in China. Many privately educated young people from elite backgrounds embraced revolutionary politics, as Milne did.

Not that his family was “establishment” in quite the conventional sense. His father, Alasdair, a producer at the BBC who became director general in 1982, was also a Wykehamist, but revelled in his Scottish roots, playing the bagpipes and speaking Gaelic. He was among the pioneers of a less deferential style at the BBC, and was sacked in 1987 largely because Margaret Thatcher thought that the corporation, under his command, was too biased in favour of the left. His wife, Sheila, Seumas’s mother, had an Irish-Danish background and was once an actor.

Though not a Tory, Alasdair Milne was certainly not a hardline left-winger. But nobody can remember his son being anything else. At Winchester, he stood as a Maoist in a mock election. The Conservative cabinet minister John Whittingdale, a contemporary of his at school, triumphantly produced printed evidence of this episode when Milne was appointed as an aide to Corbyn. He spent his gap year with friends in Lebanon, then in the throes of civil war. There, he learned Arabic, heard shots fired in anger, escaped from a blown-up building and was briefly captured by militiamen. Colleagues at the Guardian dismiss allegations that he attended a terrorist training camp as ludicrous. But he returned with a strong commitment to the Palestinian cause.

“He spent his entire time at Balliol,” a college contemporary recalls, “wearing a Mao jacket and talking with a fake ­Palestinian accent. It was like performance art, the sort of thing Gilbert and George would do. He launched a string of motions in the JCR [junior common room] attacking Israel.” (Guardian colleagues say he is still in the habit of adopting the accent of whoever he has most recently talked to.)

It was clear even then, both to Milne and to his fellow students, that he would devote his life to left-wing politics.

After leaving Oxford with a second-class degree, he went to Birkbeck College, University of London, to take an MA in economics, a subject he thought crucial to politics. He applied unsuccessfully to work for Labour’s Barbara Castle, who was generally considered to be on the left of the party, and for the TUC’s economics department.

Milne’s relationship with the Communist Party was close. After university, he did some work for a monthly journal called Straight Left, which, though most of its board members were left-wing Labour MPs and union leaders, became associated with the “Stalinist”, pro-Soviet, anti-Eurocommunist faction that eventually split from the Communist Party of Great Britain. It was through Straight Left that he met Andrew Murray, who became one of his closest friends. Murray, originally a Morning Star journalist, became the first chair of the Stop the War campaign when it was formed in 2001, and in 2011 was appointed chief of staff for the Unite trade union. Francis Beckett, who has written a book about the Communist Party and worked for several trade unions, described Murray to me as “extremely rigid and sectarian”. He added: “Murray and the Straight Left people were more extreme than most of the Stalinists I knew. The Stalinists were known as tankies, but Murray’s lot were super-tankies.”

Milne has always denied ever being a CP member but Beckett said “all the communists I know think he was in the party”. Whatever the truth – and there is no tangible evidence that he was a member – Milne had joined Labour by 1979. It was not then unusual, particularly in the union movement, for Labour supporters to work closely with Communists, whose discipline and organisation they admired and who shared a loathing of the “ultra-leftists” associated with various groups that went loosely under the label “Trotskyist”. Among those elected to the National Union of Students executive on the “Broad Left” ticket of Labour, Liberals and Communists was Charles Clarke, a future Labour cabinet minister.

It was not through left-wing connections that Milne secured his start in a Fleet Street career. In a textbook example of the British establishment at work, a highly-placed source told me Alasdair Milne (Winchester and New College, Oxford) recommended his son Seumas (Winchester and Balliol) to Andrew Knight (Ampleforth and Balliol), the then editor of the Economist. The young Milne stayed for three years, covering local government, education and the motor industry, but Knight, though he recognised Milne’s intellectual abilities, thought, rightly, that he was uncomfortable with the magazine’s free-market line. Knight went to his old and very close friend the Guardian columnist Hugo Young (Ampleforth and Balliol) and asked if the Guardian might be interested. The paper hired Milne in 1984.

***

Initially a general news reporter, Milne became a labour correspondent in 1990 and later the paper’s labour editor. His strong connections with union and Labour Party activists, what a Guardian colleague called “his unrivalled knowledge of the labour movement” and his own election in 1989 as a member of the National Union of Journalists executive council seemed to make him a perfect fit for the job. Moreover, he had recently written with two others – an academic who had been a contemporary at Balliol and a prominent figure in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, a pro-nationalisation pressure group – a book called Beyond the Casino Economy, which advocated extended “trade union statutory rights” and “a society based on common ownership where the working class and its allies hold political power”. In 1994 he published another book, The Enemy Within, showing how the British secret services infiltrated and set out to discredit the National Union of Mineworkers and its leader Arthur Scargill during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Though widely regarded as too uncritical of Scargill – who gave Milne the co-operation he denied to most mainstream journalists – it was warmly reviewed, went through four editions (the latest of these in 2014) and is regarded by many journalists as an investigative classic.

By the mid-1990s, however, the labour brief began to look like a dead end. For one thing, Milne, seen as fastidious, aloof and slightly arrogant, did not get on well with some union leaders and labour correspondents. “He stuck out like a sore thumb among the labour correspondents who were the very opposite of a public school elite,” recalled Paul Routledge, who was then the labour editor at the Times. “He mixed with a select left strand of the union movement. He didn’t really get on, or want to get on with, the more hairy-arsed tendency. If he had met the miners I knew, who have some very old-fashioned ideas about life, he would have run a mile.” With Milne much sought after as a speaker at labour movement events, other correspondents joked that they would go to cover a conference and he would go to speak at it.

But there was a second, bigger problem. The trade unions were losing membership and influence; their leaders, particularly Scargill, were being marginalised. After the advent of New Labour in 1994, it became clear that, for the foreseeable future, they would have little role in mainstream British politics. The labour correspondents declined in parallel. A group that had once been a national reporting elite, second only to political reporters, dwindled in numbers and importance.

Several, including Routledge, eventually switched to covering politics in the Westminster lobby. It seemed likely that Milne would make a similar move at the Guardian. Instead, to the surprise of many colleagues, the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger offered him a job that gave Milne potentially more influence over the direction of leftist debate and political thinking than he had ever enjoyed before.

Milne was comment editor of the Guardian from 2001 to 2007, supervising regular columnists such as Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland and George Monbiot and inviting outsiders to contribute, among them politicians, academics and union leaders as well as journalists. These were the years when the Blairite project – anathema to Milne and his friends – began to unravel and Britain became sharply divided over the Iraq War. Yet, at first, colleagues were impressed with the spectrum of views he published, from right and left.

“He was meticulous about it,” said Becky Gardiner, who worked as his deputy for four years. “Whatever the issue, he broke it down into constituent parts, looked at all the angles and represented as many of them as possible in the pages.” He was particularly anxious to increase the number of female contributors, and insisted that there should be at least one a day. He also, said a colleague, kept a tally of pro- and anti-Israel articles “so that he could cover himself”.

Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo, hailed Milne’s achievement in turning the Guardian’s comment section into “a truly global debating forum”. More surprisingly, the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan said he had made it “the most thought-provoking opinion section in Britain”.

Staff at the Guardian, however, are divided about Milne’s record as comment editor. As time went on and controversy over the Iraq War and Islamist terrorism grew, the number of Muslim radicals appearing in the pages increased. Left-wing friends such as Andrew Murray featured frequently. When the Blairite and pro-war columnist David Aaronovitch, recruited to the G2 section from the Independent in 2003, asked to move to the comment pages, Milne allegedly vetoed it and frequently referred (perhaps half jokingly, at least) to “the hated Aaronovitch”. Aaronovitch confirmed to me that his request, taken to the highest Guardian levels, was repeatedly ignored but said he had no idea whether or not Milne was responsible; he soon left for the Times. “Seumas put a lot of stuff into the paper that had no merit as writing,” said a senior Guardian figure. “Yes, he published right-wing people but they were usually iconoclasts who would say radical, surprising things and turned out to be against the Iraq War. He avoided the policy arguments taking place in the main parties.” His eclectic policies, critics thought, were just a way of making the publication of his far-left allies more acceptable.

The biggest row during Milne’s reign as comment editor came over his publication of an article by Osama Bin Laden, edited from one of the many taped statements the al-Qaeda leader put out, in 2004. An overwhelming majority of Guardian journalists thought the paper was right to publish the piece but a smaller majority thought it should not have been on the comment pages. Milne and his supporters insisted that its insights into what drove al-Qaeda justified its prominent position – particularly as Bin Laden’s views received wide attention across the Middle East – and that publishing opinions on the comment pages did not imply an endorsement of them. These arguments were backed by the Guardian’s readers’ editor, or ombudsman.

But by 2007 Milne’s critics had won. It was felt, I was told, that he was building up too many writers in his own mould and that he carried too many articles about Palestine. He was made associate editor and moved to writing a column, a weekly, rather lonely expression of views that had once represented a significant strand of mainstream left-wing opinion in Britain but had now apparently gone out of fashion for ever. Then came the call from Corbyn.

***

Dealing with Labour leaders was not entirely new to Milne. He and Ed Miliband had been friends for some years and, after Miliband was elected leader in 2010, Milne was among those consulted about his first party conference speech. The two continued to talk regularly, though less so as Milne became increasingly disappointed with Miliband’s lukewarm attitude towards fighting on a left-wing programme.

Corbyn knew Milne from the anti-war movement and in recent years had spoken with him at rallies and meetings. The two had also travelled together, with other MPs and activists, to Israel and Palestine. They were not, however, intimates. But when he became leader, Corbyn desperately needed somebody sympathetic to his views and also familiar with the mainstream media. Usually, a party leader comes to power with years of preparation, a firm base of parliamentary support, wide media experience and a trusted cohort of advisers. Corbyn had none of that: even his astonishingly successful campaign, primarily a social media operation, was organised by a group called Red Labour, spawned by a Facebook page started by a Brighton-based Labour activist whom Corbyn had never met. An infrastructure of union shop stewards, academics, the “peace movement”, union-financed research and constituency activists which had sustained Labour’s left in the early 1980s – and almost won the deputy leadership for Tony Benn – had all but disappeared over the following decades. The Labour Party staff largely dated from the Blair and Brown eras and their political thinking and loyalties echoed that. Corbyn knew almost nobody in the national press or broadcasting, even among the writers and reporters on the Daily Mirror and the Guardian.

His first approach was to Kevin Maguire, the New Statesman political diarist and Mirror associate editor. He turned Corbyn down as he had once turned down a position in Downing Street during Gordon Brown’s premiership. Milne also hesitated. Partly thanks to his assiduous campaigning, Katharine Viner had recently succeeded Rusbridger as Guardian editor. Viner, it was thought, might take the Guardian more to the left, though the paper backed Yvette Cooper, not Corbyn, in the 2015 Labour leadership election. Milne could reasonably expect to play a prominent and influential role in the new regime. Some friends advised him to turn down the offer, arguing that Corbyn couldn’t last.

But Milne felt an obligation to respond to a Labour leadership for which he had waited nearly all his life. Thanks to a clause in the Guardian’s house agreement that he had himself negotiated some years earlier (it was intended to help save money during one of the paper’s financial crises), he was able to persuade Viner to agree to him taking “unpaid leave of absence” while remaining on the staff. Her decision was widely criticised among Guardian staff. Milne has now become part of the Corbyn story; some members of the political team feel inhibited from writing about a colleague and fear that Milne may complain about them to Viner.

In his new job, Milne has little direct contact with lobby journalists; except on big issues, they are briefed by Kevin Slocombe, a former trade union head of communications. Milne’s responsibilities are to develop a strategy for media relations and to oversee focus groups and private polling. He brings his deep knowledge of the labour movement. As a former chair of Hammersmith Labour Party in west London, Milne organised an election campaign for the then local MP, Clive (now Lord) Soley, and attended annual conferences as a delegate. His biggest weakness, as most lobby journalists see it, is that he is even less flexible in his views than Corbyn.

“His instincts are to be unwavering on every issue,” said one. “He is more Corbynista than Corbyn. He pressed for a three-line whip on Syria and a shadow cabinet that more closely reflected Corbyn’s views. On the day Labour was launching its EU referendum campaign, Corbyn went to speak at an anti-Trident rally. A good spin doctor would have advised him not to go. Seumas actually went with him.”

Another source, close to the leader’s office, criticised Milne for not shutting down repeated allegations that Corbyn and other leading figures in Labour are too soft on, and even sympathetic to, anti-Semitism. “Milne encourages Jeremy to parade his values, saying he’s against prejudice of all kinds, rather than straightforwardly denouncing anti-Semitism.” The same source said: “Milne puts ideology above good management of the team. That is why there have been so many rows.”

Nevertheless, after an understandably slow start, there are signs that he has begun to knock the Corbyn operation into more professional shape. As a tidy dresser – fashionable and youthful-looking, he abandoned Mao jackets for suits some years ago – he understands that radicals should not detract from their message by dressing sloppily. He has therefore introduced what lobby journalists call “Project Suit” for Corbyn, so far getting him into a matching jacket and trousers. He is also trying to educate him in the elementary political skill of saying what he wants to say during interviews, rather than answering every question literally. He wants to refine the Corbyn message into two or three flagship policies. These are unlikely, I am told, to include anything on defence or foreign affairs, areas on which Labour is most divided internally. Milne, contrary to some reports, is not personally very exercised over Trident, but he recognises that it is hard for Corbyn to drop or even downplay the issue, because it was so central to his campaign. Nor is Milne, again contrary to reports, at all keen on mandatory reselection of MPs, with its echoes of the 1980s.

***

In recent weeks, the Corbyn team has become more proactive in setting the political agenda, demanding an inquiry into the offshore funds owned by David Cameron’s father and a reversal of cuts in capital gains tax, even if it has been too eager to call for senior ministerial resignations whenever there is a period of difficulty for the Tories. On economics in particular, it has begun to offer a more coherent critique of the government’s strategy: more confident, in some ways, than what Ed Miliband offered, as one of the former leader’s aides admitted to me.

Some of this is attributed to Milne. A few lobby journalists who remember the ranting, expletive-strewn style of former Labour spin doctors such as Tom Baldwin have begun to warm to his calm, reserved manner. Yet even those who like Milne suggest that his experience of the media is too limited. “He doesn’t understand the rhythms of news,” one reporter told me. “He doesn’t understand what Sunday newspapers want or what the main broadcasting channels want. He doesn’t even engage with the BBC properly.”

When Milne took up the job last October, his more sceptical colleagues at the Guardian predicted he would be back in the office by Christmas. It is perhaps more realistic to expect him back before next Christmas. Rumours of a summer coup by Labour MPs against Corbyn persist and, even if his successor is also on the Labour left, he or she is unlikely to retain so controversial a figure. It is not impossible that sacrificing Milne could be a price that Corbyn has to pay to remain as leader.

Seumas Milne would probably not protest all that much. He has been heard to complain of tiredness and getting too few days off. He is bemused by the way falsehoods and distortions circulate at Westminster and into the media without ever being properly denied. He hates the intrusion into what he regards as his private life.

As he contemplates a constantly feuding Labour Party, a return to his filing cabinets and overburdened desk at the Guardian and to the company of reliable, ideologically sound comrades inside and outside the paper must look increasingly attractive. But in his own view, he will have done his duty to try to advance the socialist cause, as he has done, so often unavailingly, for more than four decades.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster