The Books Interview: Chris Mullin

Many of the best political diaries, including yours, have been written by backbenchers or low-ranking ministers. Why do you think that is?
That I was sufficiently far down the pecking order to have time to observe what was going on around me, and that I didn't feel obliged to justify everything retrospectively, were, I'm sure, factors in making my diaries more credible. If you look at the political diaries that have been most successful - Harold Nicolson's, Chips Channon's, Alan Clark's - they were all written by people who never reached the Olympian heights, and therefore didn't have to waste a lot of time on self-justification.

Have you read the recent rash of memoirs by the leading figures in New Labour?
Yes, I have. I think there's a lot of interesting stuff in them and no one can blame them for putting their version of events on the record. If they don't, no one else will.

Would you say that if there's a villain in the latest volume of your diaries - A Walk-On Part - it's Gordon Brown?
I wouldn't call him a villain, but it's true that I wasn't all that keen on him from the outset. It was always clear to me that, despite his considerable talent, he was not fitted to be prime minister. I didn't realise quite how dysfunctional the relationship between him and Tony Blair was until much later. But if you're looking for reasons to be grateful to Gordon, and I guess we're struggling, keeping Britain out of the euro is one. That's quite a big issue.

Before Labour's victory in the 1997 general election, you believed that Robin Cook would have made a better chancellor than Brown. Do you still think that?
I can't say whether he would have made a better one, but Robin would have been a very capable chancellor or trade and industry secretary.
However, he was kept well away from economic policy, and I think Gordon probably had a hand in that. You'll find somewhere in the diaries Robin saying to me that he was absolutely uninterested in being foreign secretary. Robin was one of the outstanding parliamentarians of my lifetime, something he demonstrated on a number of occasions. He didn't have much of a following in parliament because he had a tendency to be a little bit arrogant and didn't suffer fools gladly. He wasn't widely loved, but was certainly respected.

Is the role of the backbencher simply to be an irritant or gadfly?
I never wanted to be just a gadfly. I do think that there is a very important role for backbench MPs, and that is to hold the government to account. The most effective mechanism for doing that is not in the chamber, but via the select committee system. That, initially, was where my ambitions lay. When Tony Blair asked me if I wanted to be on the front bench in December 1994, I said no, I preferred to be the chairman of the home affairs select committee - which in due course I became. I think he was rather puzzled by that.

Someone like Tom Watson is a very good advert for the select committee system. He's a star. And he has certainly landed a few blows in the phone-hacking affair.

You've long been concerned by the influence of Rupert Murdoch, haven't you?
I always thought the key issue, as far as the media were concerned, was the concentration of ownership. The free flow of information is the lifeblood of democracy, and if you don't have it, then you don't have a democracy. So, in December 1994, I moved a media diversity bill that would have broken up media ownership and restricted it to EU citizens. That would have had an impact on Murdoch, Conrad Black and maybe one
or two others.

Do you understand why Tony Blair felt he had to be so solicitous towards Murdoch before the 1997 election?
I entirely understand. You have to bear in mind that Labour had lost four general elections in succession, and I think Blair felt that he couldn't afford to take any risks with the outcome of the fifth. So it was his ambition, if not actually to get the moguls on his side, then at least to neutralise them. That was probably a sensible strategy.

“A Walk-on Part: Diaries 1994-1999" is published by Profile Books (£25)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister