Pundit, quangocrat, minister-in-waiting: to her critics, Margaret Jay seems too great and good to be true. But beneath the cold exterior boil volcanic passions; Her life has been anything but ordinary. Its events are replayed in three novels
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THE HOUSE of Lords on a centrally-heated winter's afternoon: red leather benches, dark panelling, several old men and women lolling open- mouthed. The atmosphere is somnolent, the heaviness exaggerated by the hollowing effect of microphones on the voices. The speeches are of varying quality, though "orotund" and "rambling" are the first adjectives that spring to mind.

The woman is tall, with shoulder-length, dark-blonde hair. She strides gracefully into the chamber, takes her place on the front bench, whispers to a colleague, smiles. You can feel the charm. When she stands and speaks - about Community Care - she is concise, trenchant and informed. Someone even wakes up.

Baroness Jay of Paddington belongs here. She understands how to work the place, and that's partly because she's always been a part of the establishment. She is the daughter of a prime minister, was the wife of an ambassador to Washington; she has been through Oxford, the BBC and the directorship of a huge quango. Her establishment has always been left field, though. Her father was a Labour prime minister; when she accompanied her former husband Peter Jay to Washington, they insisted she be called the "co-ambassador". The quango she ran for four and a half years from 1985 was the National Aids Trust, not something everyone would have taken on in the early days. And she insists that her chief interest in her current job, leading Labour's health team in the Lords, is in "the way social deprivation undermines our amazing health service".

Margaret Jay is an aristocrat of the left, a baroness of the welfare state. In a future Labour government, she could well be a Minister, and she already has the bearing of a senior public figure. When, talking about America, she says that she doubts whether she would have wanted "to live in a world without the BBC or the National Health Service", she speaks in her authentic voice: liberal, compassionate, egalitarian, meritocratic. The NHS saving lives at one end, the BBC improving minds at the other - with, presumably, intelligent and concerned people wrestling in the thick of it all (as she does) with such tricky issues as euthanasia and pay-per-view sport.

Jay lives with her second husband, a professor specialising in Aids, in a two-storey flat in a white stuccoed house in Little Venice. The pink drawing-room, overlooking Regent's Canal, is elegantly furnished - a chaise longue, a Chesterfield - and dominated by a marble fireplace topped with glass candlesticks. White lilies and pink flowers droop exquisitely beside political biographies. The coffee is waiting, in a pouring-Thermos of the kind normally seen at corporate meetings.

Jay wears a red jacket, tweedy skirt and opaque blue tights, and handles herself with great composure. She is so polished, so finished, that I find myself wanting to be her, to live in this exquisite room without clutter, to be so poised.

This is not a universal response. A lot of people don't like it that she's so great and good and mysteriously influential - the sort of person who gets invited to talk about the Princess of Wales on Newsnight (and who was rumoured to have volunteered to educate her). The journalist Peregrine Worsthorne has written biliously that he doesn't want to be lectured by someone of such moral certitude. And there is something bloodless in her preoccupation with public affairs: when you ask her about her marriage, she starts on the Family Law Bill.

Yet there is another Margaret Jay story. Underneath the seamless career, the public recognition and the ingrained self-command is a private life so turbulent it would have knocked many lives off course. She has had scandalous affairs with three men, each of whom was married to someone else at the time. The wife of the second of these, Elizabeth Neild, speaks of her as of a kind of force of nature: "Margaret Jay is like a comet. She comes round once in a while and somebody gets hit." The Daily Mail once described her in a way that makes her sound like Scarlett O'Hara: "... an appetite for strong emotion. She brooks no opposition when her passions are ignited. Chaos almost always ensues." Such breathless prose and the characterisation of Jay as a fearsome femme fatale probably have something to do with the paradox of the perfect outward self-possession combined with the suggestion of inner emotional storm. She is the sort of woman men suspect of having seething passions, whose composure they long to rumple. In fact, her friend Julia Neuberger says she that has always had "very ordinary expectations of life: she always thought she would have a fairly stable, conventional marriage. She actually likes an ordered life." Maybe so. But Jay's life has turned out to be anything but ordinary. A measure of its drama are the three novels in which its events are replayed. The best of these, Nora Ephron's Heartburn, which was made into a film with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, is being reissued by Virago this summer. It must sometimes have been hard for Jay to maintain her dignifed silence about her private life. But that's the aristocracy for you.

MARGARET JAY was born in 1939, the eldest of James and Audrey Callaghan's three children. Her father didn't become Prime Minister until she was grown up but her childhood was dominated by politics. Her mother "ran elections and the local Fabian society, and she chaired Great Ormond Street Hospital. We had meetings in the house and I suppose things like that somehow filtered in."

Margaret was educated at Blackheath High School for girls, which was direct grant, although she says she can't remember if her parents paid (her own children went to public school). She hated it: she had to wear knee-length socks even in the sixth form. But then she went to Oxford, where she read philosophy, politics and economics and met Peter Jay, another tall, clever child of a Labour politician. They became, in the myth-making, self-important way of the university, its most glamorous couple. "They would pass down the High Street in a blaze of pre-marital glory," recalls a fellow undergraduate. "They were enormously grand. They can't possibly have been that grand again until they got to Washington. They looked more like a couple in their late thirties: very aware of their own significance in the world of the university, and sure they'd be significant afterwards."

Margaret Jay is self-deprecating about all this, arguing that so many of her generation went into the media - Esther Rantzen, David Dimbleby, Richard Ingrams - that they were in a position to spread legends about themselves. All the same, one of the three women with whom Jay shared a house clearly found the period so potent she was moved to write a novel about it 25 years later. The Last Romantics, by Caroline Seebohm, is a story of four undergraduates sharing a house in Oxford and what happens to them subsequently. The title is an allusion to the girls' headlong, unthinking rush into marriages which, as in real life, mostly did not survive.

The Jays' marriage was almost certainly not so very unthinking. They were together for 19 years, had three children and still talk regularly. A friend says that at a deep level they are almost still married: Peter still sends her gossipy faxes. Peter's mother, Peggy Jay, says: "Margaret makes an effort to see me, which I do appreciate. She still speaks to Peter quite often and she is sweet with Peter's new family." (He has three children by his second wife.) The alliance was almost dynastic: the Jays have been called "the worthiest family in England".

Jay herself says she has no regrets about the marriage. She particularly values having had her children when she was still in her twenties, even though that meant moving out of current affairs, where she had worked since leaving Oxford, into the BBC's further education department in Ealing to be closer to home. In 1969, Peter was sent to Washington by The Times. She accompanied him: Peter's career took precedence. (There is an irony here: she is now a baroness, having been a Labour nominee in the 1992 birthday honours, whereas he is one of only two ambassadors to Washington since the war not to have been rewarded with a knighthood).

While in America that first time she worked as a research assistant for Senator John Tunney, a Californian Democrat, and volunteered at a local hospital, really, she says, "as a way of getting an inside view of what went on in the healthcare system". Most Washington wives would sound silly and self-aggrandising if they offered this explanation for a bit of hospital volunteering. But Jay was still a serious journalist: she would twice return to Panorama from America. She would also become, in the Seventies, a member of the boards of two hospitals and a local health authority.

In 1977, Jay left the BBC a second time to become the "co-ambassador", a title that, she admits, "set us up for ridicule". The appointment - already controversial because her father was Prime Minister - became very much more so when she embarked upon her much-gossiped-about affair with the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, which was to provide the raw material not only for Heartburn, but for Susan Crosland's 1994 novel, The Magnates. Bernstein's wife, Nora Ephron, who was seven months pregnant with her second child when she discovered the affair, is surprisingly complimentary about her fictionalised rival: "It would have been one thing if he'd gotten involved with a little popsy, but he'd gone off and had an affair with a person who was not only a giant, but a clever giant." The real barbs are reserved for "Thelma's" husband, a man who "always sees himself as a statistical representation of a larger trend in society" and who demands, when the lovers run away together, "What is this country coming to?" Some of this may have rubbed off: Jay is noticeably keener to discuss issues than her emotions. Yet whereas he conflates the public with the private, she keeps them very separate.

Jay returned to Panorama in 1981, after the relationship with Bernstein had ended, and stayed until 1986, when she was poached by its ITV rival, This Week. In 1985 she made one of the first British television programmes about Aids, which led to an invitation to become a Trustee of the National Aids Foundation and, eventually, to her job as director of the National Aids Trust. This was the culmination of another strand of her career: she has always been a great practical as well as theoretical supporter of the voluntary sector, especially in health matters; she is now chairman of the North Thames Regional Health Authority, as well as of the National Association of Leagues of Hospital Friends.

The National Aids Trust has been accused of targetting Aids money less effectively than it might have done. Jay demurs. "It's one of those things that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. If there had been no great high-level public awareness campaign and then there had been the kind of levels of infection there are in southern Italy and around Paris, there would have been the most terrible fuss." Listening to this quietly robust defence of her work, you feel she would make the sort of minister all political parties like: unflappable, unlikely ever to say anything outrageous, not publicly assailed by self-doubt. It may not be long before a Labour prime minister has the same idea.

If so, Jay will have pulled off an amazing feat: a separation of her public and personal lives that would be the envy of many in the Palace of Westminster. The events of her private life, even after the break-up of her marriage, suggest an impulsive and more vulnerable woman. Shortly before her divorce from Peter was finalised in 1986, she had an affair with an economics professor, Robert Neild. His wife was very bitter: "They were together for a fairly long, very chaotic, period. Then they moved in with one another. Margaret is a brilliant mistress but seems to go wrong when she wants to be a wife. Perhaps she should stick to what she's good at." Not long before, Jay had discovered that her nanny's baby was also her husband's.

In 1994 she married Professor Michael Adler, chairman of the National Aids Trust. (He had been married when the relationship began, with two young children.) She considers herself settled at last. "Marriage is a problematic institution, particularly, I think, for the young. In a sense it's easier for me than for somebody in their early twenties to say I want to be married to this person for the rest of my life - that's a comfortable institutional framework for our relationship. I find it much easier to have a perspective about what will happen to us and our lives."

Friends insist that she is more human than her professionalism allows her to reveal. They talk about her ability to natter about clothes, the way their children call her Auntie Mags, the way she feels things. "She has a good blub," says one, "and then she gets on."

On the morning of our interview, she has already seen off her middle child, Alice, now 27, to Washington, and is about to go on to a function at the Aids charity, the London Lighthouse, of which she is a council member. I am reminded of a passage in Heartburn, in which Rachel, the Nora Ephron character, and Thelma are planning a joint party. Thelma has the Kissingers on her list - the implication being that she would have. And Margaret would: she is a great networker, a gatherer-up of more or less establishment figures, people like herself who are concerned and still have an idea of public service, who are intelligent and interesting and, probably, very powerful. As I leave, I ask her the name of the lone tree in her courtyard, which even on a cold winter morning is filling the air with scent from tiny pink blossoms. She doesn't know. It's a silly question really. It's not the sort of thing she needs to concern herself with. !