More sinner than saint. She may be the people's politician, but Lynn Barber finds that Mo Mowlam is sadly lacking in "people skills" and has few admirers among close colleagues

Mo Mowlam: the biography

Julia Langdon <em>Little, Brown, 288pp, £16.99 </em>

ISBN 0316853046

When did Mo Mowlam officially become a saint? Was it when she had her brain tumour? Or when she visited the Maze prison? I don't remember her being considered very saintly before - Clare Short was Labour's reigning heart of gold for most of the early Nineties. Julia Langdon maintains that Mo is "perhaps the most popular politician the country has known in the postwar period", but that is plain silly. Mo's sainthood lasted two years at most, and probably reached its apotheosis at the l998 Labour Party conference when Tony's tribute to "our one and only Mo" elicited a standing ovation. After that, it was a swift descent into limbo. It was stupid of her to take the Cabinet Office job when she could have had Health; even more stupid to take it and then do nothing with it; stupid to fly a much-too-late kite in the London mayoral election; stupid to discuss a future book while she was still in office; and terminally stupid to think that her public popularity made her impregnable.

In many ways, she reminds me of Edwina Currie - partly because of her wrong-headed belief that a high media profile would protect her, but also in her tiresome habit of seeming to say, "I am what I am, I cannot dissemble, love me or leave me", which, in politics, inevitably means leave me. She also had a Currie-like habit of flaunting her gender or sexuality or whatever you want to call it - certainly not femininity - by endlessly dropping references to her bra or knickers or periods. It is bad enough that Mo Mowlam got her protection officers to buy her tampons, but what is almost worse (and certainly weirder) is that she told John Prescott about it. I mean - why? No doubt she would say it was a joke, but: a) it is not remotely funny; and b) it must have annoyed Prescott no end. Likewise, her habit of not locking the loo door - why do it?

Early in her career as an MP, she told a journalist - who had not asked - that she did not plan to sleep around at Westminster. But, like Currie, she seems to have insisted that men respond to her "as a woman". That went down very badly with Gordon Brown, when she worked on his City team in opposition, and made him a lasting enemy. It also annoyed her female colleagues. She was never in the sisterhood, and was furious to be given the women's portfolio by John Smith. Thus, even before her recent difficulties, she managed to alienate two important Labour camps.

Dozens of people throughout Langdon's biography attest to Mo's famous "people skills", but what precisely are they? They seem to consist mainly of bestowing hugs on what Langdon patronisingly dubs "the tea ladies of life". But perhaps this is Mo's trouble - she is better at wooing the tea ladies of life than her close associates. Several of her former colleagues and students call her a control freak. Her constituency agent in Redcar, Keith Legg, reports that "she's an incredibly difficult person to work for. She moves the goalposts all the time. She gives you an instruction and then when you've delivered on it, she says no, she didn't want that. And no, she doesn't apologise; she never thinks she's wrong."

Mo also obviously has a real difficulty with intimate relationships, perhaps as a result of growing up with an alcoholic father. He was never violent, but there were frequent loud arguments, and she coped by keeping her head down and throwing herself into schoolwork and games. Likewise, when she came home and found her grandmother dead, she coolly phoned her mother at work and then went off for a long bike ride until the fuss had died down. This pattern of avoiding emotional dramas seems to have continued in adult life - when Laurie Taylor decided to fly up to Newcastle to tell her that he loved her, she received the news calmly, and said she was out of shampoo. Several times in her life, she seems to have ducked out of relationships at the point where they might get too serious - most notably with the journalist Colin Hughes, who left his wife for Mowlam who then dumped him. She describes her love life as "spectacularly untidy", but another epithet might be selfish. It was probably wise of her, given her fear of emotional dependency, to avoid marriage until she was too old to have children.

It was Mo's late mother, Tina, who originally suggested that Julia Langdon write her biography and, presumably, contributed the many charming photographs of Mo as a child that adorn the book. Langdon also interviewed Mo herself, in l998, but not subsequently, and says that although Mo did not try to obstruct her research, she did not co-operate actively. But thanks to Tina Mowlam (who died last year) Langdon had good access to Mo's family and teenage friends - which probably explains why the book is much fuller on her early life than on her later career. (It is distinctly skimpy on Northern Ireland.)

Langdon's technique is simply to quote and quote and quote Mo's friends and associates, without making any attempt to evaluate their sometimes conflicting testimony. Such a non-judgemental approach always seems to me a dubious virtue, and it certainly works to Mowlam's disadvantage when Langdon rehearses, but does not attempt to confirm or refute, the rumour that Mo was involved with British intelligence or the CIA. The rumour first surfaced when she was a Labour activist in Newcastle, and resurfaced when she was a senior administrator at Northern College, Barnsley during the miners' strike. Mo dismisses it as a low smear put about by her far left enemies, but one would like to know how it started. Langdon says the only evidence ever adduced was that Mo had worked for Tony Benn and then moved to America, which (sorry if I'm thick) seems like a complete non sequitur to me.

Also, there are some key questions Langdon doesn't seem to have asked, let alone answered. For instance, only a small point, but I would like to know what A-level grades Mo Mowlam got, because it is quite hard to assess how intelligent she is. On the one hand, Langdon quotes a chorus of friends from school and university saying she was "not academic", and yet she ended up with a doctorate to her name. So how bright is she? I would have thought it was obvious, too, with the child of an alcoholic, to ask how much Mowlam drinks and whether she is apt to form relationships with heavy drinkers. This is not meant as a hint and slur, but simply as an obvious question that deserves asking.

Langdon is unfair as well as prissy, I think, when she writes in her acknowledgements: "There are many references to Mo Mowlam's language and her familiarity with the Anglo-Saxon. I have not used the vernacular in the text, not out of prudishness but from a desire not to weary the reader with repetition." This suggests that Mo Mowlam cannot open her mouth without using a four-letter word, which is untrue. I suspect that - as happens to many biographers - Langdon started off admiring Mowlam and gradually grew to dislike her, but was too pusillanimous ever fully to confront the fact. At all events, it is just as well Mowlam is retiring - this book gives lots of ammunition to her enemies, and little support for her canonisation.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie