Most MPs who start writing diaries do so in order to prove to themselves how central they are to the political process. But by the time the diaries come to be published, they tend to prove the opposite. The effect is either comic or tragic, depending upon one’s point of view.
Who wrote this, for example? ‘I will have a crack at the leadership as soon as I can, partly because I am in touch with real people, partly because I can offer some leadership.’ The answer? Edwina Currie. It comes in her diary entry of 7 October 1988, when she was a parliamentary under-secretary. ‘I look at rivals like David Mellor’, she adds, ‘and I like me better.’
From the outset, the Labour MP Chris Mullin takes the more cautious, and, as it proves, more far-sighted, view that he is, when all is said and done, a dead loss. When he is eventually offered a very junior post by Blair in the summer of 1999, his acceptance is notably half-hearted. ‘To bed, feeling miserable at the thought of the avalanche of tedium to come’, he writes. Waking the next morning, he has decided to go back on his acceptance. ‘My instinct is to decline,’ he informs Blair’s political secretary. ‘I’m no longer a minister’, he tells his wife confidently over breakfast. Blair then rings him back and asks why he has changed his mind. Mullin tells him that he’s worried he’ll disappear without trace. Blair promises he won’t — ‘You are the one person on the backbenches who most obviously should be a minister’ — so Mullin changes his mind again, and accepts. How was he to know, in those early days, that Blair always kept his fingers crossed?
Three days later, he wakes up in a sweat at 3 am, regretting his decision. He spends the next three hours fretfully compiling a resignation letter in his head. But he never writes it or sends it, and thus allows himself to remain what he calls ‘the under-secretary of folding deckchairs’ in the Department of the Environment, under John Prescott. A few months later, he is still there, still regretting his decision. ‘My existence is now almost entirely pointless’, he confides to his diary.
Over the next 500-odd pages, he proves equally incompetent both at staying in office and at staying out of it, so much so that it is hard to keep up. One moment he is in, the next he is out, and the next he is in again; and when he is out, he wants to be in, and when he is in, he wants to be out. To the reader, it is like watching someone who is trapped in a revolving door but who for some reason just can’t stop pushing.
His surname, with its twin suggestions of Mulling and Muggins, is almost too apt. He is the only truly old-fashioned miserabilist in a New Labour government dedicated (‘things can only get BETTER!’) to being modern and happy. He even takes a stridently Old Labour approach to his family Christmas. ‘I did my best to look cheerful’, he writes of seeing his little kiddies opening their presents, ‘but I find it a deeply depressing experience watching children who have everything piling up new possessions.’
Overseeing Aviation, he is charged with privatising air-traffic control, but his old lefty heart isn’t really in it. The only thing that really gets him going is the High Hedges Bill, a pet project aimed at ridding the suburbs of leylandii. But, like poor old Alan Clark’s Fur Labelling Order, it is doomed from the start, hitting its first bump when Prescott admits (‘to much nervous mirth’) that his own garden is home to 16 leylandii. Eventually, someone informs Mullin that Blair is unlikely to let the legislation go ahead. ‘Unbelievable’, he harumphs to his diary.
A sense of excitement eludes him. Appearing on Question Time in Torquay, he concludes that it was ‘a long way to go to be murdered in front of several million people’. He is always relieved when someone more urgent and thrusting like Hilary Benn volunteers to take his place on the Today programme. He winces every time he hears a fresh example of what he calls ‘New Labour claptrap about strategies, visions, challenges and opportunities’ and spends most of his time thinking that things can only get worse. Forced to attend an event called ‘Listening to Old People’ he writes it off as ‘a classic New Labour wheeze designed to create the illusion of consultation’, and sits ‘quietly at the back, praying no one would spot me.’ Eventually, he is tipped the wink by someone in Prescott’s office that ‘the word is that Chris Mullin is not off message, but that he doesn’t know what the message is.’
At the despatch box, he grows tongue-tied, unable to dissemble when faced with a tricky question. Snappy is not his middle name. When Tony Blair asks him for quick advice (‘What do you want me to say, Chris — in a word?’) as the two of them wait for President Museveni of Uganda to get out of his car, he panics and finds himself ‘reduced to blubbering incoherence’. Around the same time, he mistakes the Ambassador of Brazil for the Ambassador of Sudan, asks him how the peace talks are going, and is taken aback when he replies that he doesn’t know of any peace talks. ‘You are the Sudanese Ambassador?’ ‘No, I am the Ambassador of Brazil. Who are you?’
At a third of the length (and Tony Benn’s editor Ruth Winstone has already cut it by two-thirds), A View from the Foothills might have been a comic gem, and a neat portrait of political life one rung from the bottom of the ladder. But Mullin only half-gets his own joke, and can’t resist boring on about people and topics now barely half-remembered and probably best forgotten (Iain Duncan-Smith, the Dome, Ann Taylor). Lots of passages are so outageously plodding and New Labour-ish that it is almost as though he is having us on: ‘There are so many good things happening in Sunderland. A new shopping complex. A state of the art bus station. The metro on its way. A multiplex cinema in the pipeline.’
Equally, gossip that must have seemed ever so exciting at the time — ‘Clare [Short] reported last night she came across Charlie Falconer entertaining Peter Mandelson in the Pugin Room. After Peter had gone, Charlie said to Clare “Must keep him sweet” ’ — has now been rendered obsolete. There are, though, one or two needles in the haystack. For instance, I liked the Queen Mother leaning over to Neil Kinnock at a State Banquet at Windsor, saying, ‘May I say something in absolute confidence?’ and then — sotto voce — ‘Don’t trust the Germans.’ And I laughed out loud when Mullin’s eight-year-old daughter Emma, seeing the recently-captured Saddam Hussein on television, comments, ‘He looks very kind.’