The news over Easter that Lord Adonis, the counterweight to nominative determinism, was standing as a Labour Remain MEP was greeted with a fair degree of scepticism. Many commented that it would be a novelty for him to stand for anything — in his early twenties he became an SDP councillor in Oxford, but that’s the last time he was elected to anything. His career has been based entirely on patronage, mainly from Tony Blair, who plucked him from journalism (he worked for the Financial Times and then the Observer) to run his policy unit, and then made him a peer so that he could become minister for education. (Adonis is still good friends with Blair, and says: ‘He’s unchanged. He is God’s gift to charisma and dynamism.’) He stayed on as transport minister under Gordon Brown but assumed his political career was over when Labour was defeated in 2010. But then — ta da! — Brexit came along and he threw himself into campaigning against it. So far, his weapons have been tweets and speeches, but now he is actually standing for election for the south-west and Gibraltar, and it will be interesting to see how he fares. He spent the Easter weekend travelling all over the south-west, from Plymouth to Penzance, tweeting photo-graphs of railway stations along the way. I hope he doesn’t forget Gibraltar.
We met just before he set off, at the House of Lords HQ at 1 Millbank. He was tail-waggingly eager, and immediately gave me a signed copy of his latest book, Saving Britain (written with Will Hutton), and showed me round his office. It is dominated by a huge blown-up photograph of Gladstone (‘My hero — he comes with me everywhere’) and a lot of photographs of himself in academic dress collecting various honorary degrees (his original degree was an Oxford first, in history) and one of him launching Crossrail with Boris. There is a school photo with him sitting cross-legged in the front row. No photographs of his children that I can see, but one of Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, who was chaplain of Keble when he was a student ‘and a very great mentor’. On one wall there is a huge map of Europe — ‘But without Cyprus!’ he laments (his father is Cypriot) — and the opposite wall has a map of British railways before the Beeching cuts. He is seriously potty about railways. His tie shows a map of the London Underground. ‘What’s your station?’ he asks. Highgate. ‘Let me see,’ he says, searching for Highgate which doesn’t seem to be there. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll hunt it out afterwards and send you a photo,’ he assures me.
His interest in railways dates back to childhood. Most 11-year-old boys want to be engine drivers; he wanted to be chair of British Rail. While he was at Kingham Hill School in the Cotswolds, British Rail announced that it planned to close Kingham station because it was underused. Adonis got a gang of his schoolmates to stand on the platform every day and record the number of passengers getting on and off. They sent the results to British Rail, and Kingham station was saved. We can all thank him for that, and for helping to restore Paddington station when he was transport minister, but perhaps not so much for HS2. Yet he regards that — along with the introduction of academy schools — as one of his two greatest political achievements. He once said: ‘I have three children. A son, a daughter, and HS2.’
Eventually, when we are settled in the spookily empty canteen (the whole building is deserted; he says very few peers ever use it), I raise the question many of his friends have been asking — has he gone mad? Or, more specifically, mad on Twitter. Non-Twitter Adonis is friendly, affable, cerebral; Twitter Adonis is a crazed anti-Brexit hysteric who recently tweeted a photo of Theresa May on her walking holiday with the comment ‘The most terrifying sight in British politics since Chamberlain got in a plane.’ This is not the first time he has compared Brexit to appeasing the Nazis. He has also compared it to the Spanish inquisition. He fell out with his old friend Nick Cohen when he started calling the BBC the Brexit Broadcasting Corporation, and claimed that ‘Brexit and Farage are largely the creation of the BBC.’ Cohen was forced to conclude that Adonis would ‘soon stake a claim to be the greatest berk in the peerage’.
So — is it true that Twitter has somehow unleashed his inner pitbull? ‘No, I wouldn’t say that. I’m learning, is the answer. To do politics now, you have to do social media. I thought I’d left politics when Labour lost the 2010 election and I went off and ran a thinktank for two years and founded the National Infrastructure Commission. It was only because of Brexit that I came back. And I had to learn rapidly how to do politics in the 2010s and it soon became clear to me that you had to be ever-present on social media. And there’s no point in being ever-present unless you express views.
‘Actually I do tweet about other things besides Brexit — I often tweet about the seasons in St James’s Park — but that isn’t enough to engage my followers. They want to know what I think about the big issues.’
He has 110,300 followers, which he claims is more than any other peer — I don’t like to break it to him that Lord Sugar has 5.3 million. He works really hard at his tweeting, putting out three or four tweets first thing in the morning, and then another 30 or 40 throughout the day, which his office staff copy on to Instagram. He says his main problem is getting his thoughts down to 280 characters. ‘What is clear to me is that social media is a skill and you have to keep working at it. But it hasn’t taken over my life. I think I use it, it doesn’t use me.’ Does he ever tweet when drunk? ‘I’m never drunk. I do drink but never more than a glass or two of wine a day if that.’
What does he do when home alone in the evenings? (He divorced four years ago, and his children are both at Oxford.) ‘I’m very rarely at home, because I’m doing my Brexit tour, attending four or five public meetings a week.’ When he is at home, he reads history books. He has written loads of books about politics but nothing about himself. Would he ever write an autobiography? ‘Maybe when I’m 80!’ he laughs. ‘I’m much, much more interested in doing things than talking about myself. I regard myself as a very boring subject.’ Oh sigh. Why do these political wonks never understand that the only possible way of engaging with the young and (dare I risk saying this?) women is by revealing something about themselves? Otherwise they just sound like a school debating society.
And Adonis’s background is actually exceptionally interesting. He is, as he rightly boasts, a model of social mobility. His father came to England from Cyprus in 1959 and worked first as a waiter and then a postman. He married an Englishwoman, Josephine Leadbeater, and had son Andrew — called Andreas in those days — and daughter Michelle. But she disappeared when the children were toddlers and they never saw her again. The Mail tracked her down in 2005 and she said she had been forced to leave the family after she met another man and she thought the children were young enough to forget her. ‘Of course I used to think about them [the children] but after a while you have to move on, don’t you?’
Adonis spent seven years in a children’s home run by Camden Council. Of the 25 children there, more, he says, ended up in prison than in university, and four have already died. But he was saved by an exceptionally astute social worker who spotted that he was bright and eventually persuaded Camden Council to send him to boarding school, Kingham Hill, which got him to Oxford. He had some family life with his father in the holidays, but essentially he was raised in institutions. But he does not regret it. ‘I regard it in a curious way as a kind of privilege to have had that background, because it gave me an enormous amount of resilience and ambition. I know how to survive in very, very difficult circumstances — which is my life story really.’