The lowdown

A View from the Foothills
Chris Mullin
Profile Books, 616pp, £20

There is something very sad about these diaries. For all their wit (some of it laugh-out-loud, as when the Queen, with Prince Philip gearing up for another gaffe, directs his attention to some non-existent pottery), sharp observation and occasional revelations, they show a man diminished by his attempt to get a taste of “real” power. The MP who should always be remembered for his role in freeing the Birmingham Six ends up soldiering through the “pointless activity” that occupies those on the lower rungs of government: opening exhibitions that have already opened, unveiling plaques that will be removed as soon as he has left, and only just resisting an attempt to fly him to Lebanon to express condolences for an assassinated former prime minister.

Only in his third and final job, as undersecretary of state for Africa at the Foreign Office, is Mullin remotely happy. On his way to take up his first job in the Department of the Environment, he feels “miserable at the thought of the avalanche of tedium to come”. He is pathetically proud when he takes a “real decision”: to impose a 10mph speed limit on Lake Windermere, reflecting that one day he will look across tranquil water, free of powerboats, and say: “I did that.” He moves forward “by a centimetre or two” a High Hedges Bill to prevent planting of leylandii.

But, from being a prominent select committee chair and a member of the Labour parliamentary committee that regularly meets the PM, he finds that, in office, he is not allowed on the Today programme, can’t decide for himself whether to have lunch with a political hack, and can hardly get to see the head of his own department (John Prescott), much less The Man, as Mullin calls Tony Blair. In the Times, Matthew Parris observes that “a fearless interrogator and . . . truth-seeker” has been “captured and destroyed”, while the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley says that he “has been buried as effectively as if he had been fitted with concrete overshoes and dropped into the Thames”. Mullin, in his disarmingly self-deprecating way, agrees. “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t compose my resignation letter,” he records.

He moves to International Development, but finds it little better. His boss, Clare Short, is “very hands-on and not many crumbs seem to fall from her table”. Instead, he finds himself with “piles of paper to leaf through, none of which require the slightest action on my part”. After the 2001 election, he lets it be known that, in the absence of a “proper job” as a minister of state level, he would rather return to the back benches and his old select committee post. To his dis­appointment, he is allowed to do so, but almost immediately the mood of the diaries lightens. Within weeks, after a parliamentary committee meeting, he records: “Two and a half hours in The Presence. Were I still Undersecretary of Folding Deckchairs, I wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of him.”

Yet Mullin dreams of returning to office in a more senior and influential position. A CND member and former Bennite, he agonises over Iraq. He sees little argument for war, but first troops “pathetically into the government lobby” and then, on the final, crucial division, votes against the government only because his constituency party insists he should stand by a promise to do so. “Is there a loophole through which I can crawl, principles and job prospects intact?” he asks plaintively.

When Short belatedly resigns from International Development over Iraq, he nurtures hopes that he will succeed her. The position goes instead to Baroness Amos. Might he become her Commons deputy? The appropriate “signals”, as political correspondents call them, are sent to Downing Street. Alas, the whips, mindful of his vote on Iraq, persuade Blair (who is said, implausibly, to have “forgotten” that Mullin rebelled) against it. A month later, he is offered the Africa job. He accepts, while reflecting that, if Blair stands down, “I may have booked a third-class berth on the Titanic.” He is still a undersecretary, but at least this time he gets to address the UN. He is “let go” after the 2005 election.

The puzzle is not so much why Blair, against opposition from the whips and to the disgruntlement of backbenchers who remained loyal through the Iraq votes, allowed him back, as why Mullin so eagerly returned to office. Though not a conventional backbench lefty (he does not object to the privatisation of air-traffic control, for example) he abhorred many of New Labour’s actions and particularly disliked its subservience to a US administration that casually bombed civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.

His diaries continually mock New Labour’s language of stakeholders, partnership, best value and joined-up government. He refuses, even in office, to carry that quintessential New Labour emblem, the pager, declines official cars (a bus to Westminster runs past his front door in south London, he says) and insists on weekends free of red boxes. He continually turns down foreign trips, and can hardly be accused of lusting after the trappings of office.

Yet Westminster compromises even the most decent and temperamentally detached politicians. Nothing is really possible without ingratiating yourself in some way with the leadership. Even select committee chairmanships are the whips’ gift. Mullin is not a Blairite, yet, at times, he seems almost as besotted with Blair as Alan Clark was, in his diaries, with Thatcher. He worries over the PM’s health and reacts rather like a puppy having its tummy tickled when Blair treats his half-tamed rebel with familiar irony, as when he tells him, “I told George [Bush] you are one of his greatest admirers.” Mullin desperately wants to believe in The Man, because he is a winner, Labour’s first in a generation. The voters, as Mullin frequently observes, are outrageously ungrateful for the funds that have poured into health and education, and the government has wilfully lost friends through its obsession with targets. But he has faith in the Blair magic to make things right. Blair’s willingness to give office to Mullin, a member of the mildly awkward squad, validates that faith.

These are not among the great political diaries. They lack, for example, the insatiable lust and withering contempt for colleagues of Clark, or the monstrous egotism of Woodrow Wyatt (though Mullin, in his apparent belief that he has some kind of special relationship with The Man, has his own Pooterish side). By his own evaluation, he can’t hate anybody – except possibly Peter Mandelson – for more than a few minutes. He starts by grumbling about Prescott but eventually starts liking and praising him. Hilary Benn gets the job Mullin wanted at International Development; in equivalent circumstances, Clark would have said something cutting, but the amiable Mullin observes merely that Benn “is a good choice, brilliant and everyone likes him”. However, to borrow the word in his title, Mullin illuminates the foothills of Westminster life and he is unusually frank about the absurdity, irrelevance and even farcical nature of much government activity, providing, I should think, ample raw material for those who believe much public expenditure is wasted. These diaries make engaging, if not compulsive, reading, and will at least serve as a warning to ambitious future politicians about what awaits them.

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 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue