Martin Sixsmith: Where facts meet fiction

When he was sacrificed for the sake of New Labour's reputation in 2002, Sixsmith was warned that if he revealed anything, he'd be prosecuted. But now he has written a novel - and the characters are rather familiar. John Walsh gets a private briefing
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Martin Sixsmith is such a calm, agreeable, philosophical cove that it's hard to remember that in February 2002 he was the most famous civil servant in the land. He sits in the café at the Royal Festival Hall in London's South Bank complex, stirring his tea and leaving his croissant half-eaten, the epitome of the well-bred English intellectual in an oatmeal jumper. You would not think, to look at him, that he was a firebrand, a whistle-blower, someone who rocked the New Labour administration on its heels two years ago, by revealing it as a steaming midden of lies, duplicity and doublethink.

Martin Sixsmith is such a calm, agreeable, philosophical cove that it's hard to remember that in February 2002 he was the most famous civil servant in the land. He sits in the café at the Royal Festival Hall in London's South Bank complex, stirring his tea and leaving his croissant half-eaten, the epitome of the well-bred English intellectual in an oatmeal jumper. You would not think, to look at him, that he was a firebrand, a whistle-blower, someone who rocked the New Labour administration on its heels two years ago, by revealing it as a steaming midden of lies, duplicity and doublethink.

The crunch came when Sixsmith's boss, the then-Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, announced to the House of Commons that Sixsmith had resigned as the director of communications. In fact, he'd done no such thing, but the Transport Department was in uproar and needed a scapegoat. Let me refresh your memory about what happened.

Byers's sidekick Jo Moore - the "special adviser" who wrote the infamous September 11 memo suggesting, within hours of the collapse of the twin towers, that this might be a good time to announce bad news ("anything we want to bury") - had come up with a new plan. She was suggesting that they put out some negative railway news to coincide with the funeral of Princess Margaret. "Call me naive," says Sixsmith today, "but creating a situation in which you potentially have the words 'bad news' and 'burial' together seemed like asking for trouble." So he told her not to. He sent an e-mail to Byers and Moore, saying that no news should be released that day. The e-mail was leaked to two newspapers, which promptly got in touch asking what the shameless Ms Moore was up to now.

Panicking, the Government's head of communications denied there had been any e-mail. This was not a wise move; the newspapers had copies. The Government was telling flagrant porky pies. Why was Alastair Campbell covering up for Jo Moore? Was the PM (who had supported her in the past) in cahoots with them? What was going on?

Eventually, Moore had to resign. But Sixsmith was also targeted, as if to suggest that he had been responsible for some wrongdoing. On 15 February, Byers told the Commons that Sixsmith was off. The press chief was supposed to accept his fate and go quietly - but he didn't. He told the world that he hadn't resigned, nor had any reason to. The Government spin machine went into buzz-saw mode. Campbell was furious. Byers was mortified. He had to return to the Commons on 26 February to make an "expanded statement" about The Resignation That Never Was - a document of such looping and incomprehensible self-exculpation that it reads like Finnegans Wake rewritten by Donald Rumsfeld. For two months, Byers insisted the resignation story was true. Tony Blair stood by him until, eventually, the Transport Minister had to resign in May. In the interim weeks, Sixsmith discovered how nasty his former New Labour associates could be.

"I could have written a controversial factual account of what I saw going on, but I was debarred," says Sixsmith. "They said if I wrote anything about what I saw happening during my time in government, they'd prosecute me. And sue me for any money I made from the book. In addition, they were paying me compensation for telling lies about me - and now they said, 'We'll hold on to this money until you agree to sign this gagging clause.' "

But, I say, assuming you're telling the truth about the corrupt practices, wouldn't you win in a straight fight in court? "Yes," he says. "My lawyers were perfectly clear about that. But they said, 'Remember the Government has immense, almost unlimited legal resources. And you do not. This could easily turn into Jarndyce vs Jarndyce and drag on forever, and you don't want that happening, do you?' And I didn't."

So now Sixsmith is "speaking out" in a way that's not debarred - in a work of fiction. It's called Spin, and features a "Department for Society" in a future "New Project" government - a right-wing successor to New Labour, but with strangely familiar figures in power. The PM is an oily, shining-eyed, religious-minded idealist called Andy Sheen, with a wife called Marie, who falls strategically pregnant when the press office needs to feed the slavering tabloids a story. The government's chief spin doctor, Charlie McDonald, is a tough ex-journalist bully, while his media-director sidekick, Geoff Maddle, specialises in stifling unflattering stories. Although Charlie is 6ft 7in and black, and Geoff speaks in East End tones, it's not hard to recognise Messrs Campbell and Mandelson. The Transport Department's Permanent Secretary, Sir Richard Mottram, turns up as complacent old buffer, Sir Robert Nottridge. Elsewhere, Greg Dyke appears as Fred Pond (geddit?), and there are walk-on parts for Piers Morgan and John Prescott. Centre-stage is the shadowy figure of Selwyn Knox, a deranged though plausible moralist who rises to be minister at the Department of Society, and tries to force through a fascistic scheme to stop unsuitable elements of society from raising children. He is helped out by Sonja Mair, a foxy "special adviser" who vamps every quaking male into doing her bidding.

So - will he mind if readers think his book is a roman-à-clef about Stephen Byers having a raging affair with Jo Moore? Sixsmith groans. "It is absolutely not about that. None of the identifications are meant to be one-on-one. I don't think Tony Blair believes, like Andy Sheen, that anything is possible for the good of the Project. But there was a watchword that was very popular among spin doctors: 'What counts is what works and what works is what counts.' Pragmatism was the key. And that's fine as long as pragmatism doesn't stray into illegal acts." He has dozens of examples of spin-doctor legerdemain, especially the Technical Lie. "The trouble is that the Government is full of lawyers, and government departments operate like weasely lawyers arguing over technicalities. A minister might say, 'I have not seen that newspaper report,' because he hasn't see the newspaper with his own eyes, but he's seen a print-out or his press chief has read it to him. They rely on specific wordings that might stand up under cross-examination because they're technically true, but are totally false."

The book is stiff with blackmail, the chief tool of the New Project party's spin doctors. Everybody, friend or foe, politician or media hack, is checked out for guilty secrets. Was Sixsmith investigated with a view to blackmail? "Yes," he says. "In the two months between my going public and the Government apologising and admitting that I'd told the truth, along with the threatening letters there was an implied blackmail." About what? Sixsmith picks his words carefully. "Journalists were told by Downing Street... to investigate my property portfolio. The implication was: how can Martin afford to own a flat in Paris on a journalist's salary?" He has, in fact, done very well out of the property market - well enough to own a private house in Knightsbridge - but it wasn't something that would stand up in court.

Has he set the book in the future to avoid libel? "No, the second half, set in 2011, represents my jaundiced vision of what might happen if current trends continue. I think a lot of policies are being presented to the country that seem very reasonable because the spin is so good. So David Blunkett can say, 'Of course we might take away the children of asylum seekers if their claim for asylum is deemed to be false.' And we think, 'Hmm, yes, how reasonable.' Or taking away the right to a jury trial, or taking away the presumption of innocence - these policies are presented as reasonable, but when you look at them, they're incredibly dangerous. We're told we must invade Iraq because the dossier says so, and we think, 'OK, weapons of mass destruction, we've got to get this guy.' Six months, later, thank you Andrew Gilligan and The Independent, it becomes quite clear that this patina of reasonableness is complete crap."

Although the book ends in melodrama, with incarceration, paedophilia, murder, sex games and shocking revelations about the PM's involvement with Bolivia's favourite export, Sixsmith is too ambitious a thinker to be content with writing a thriller. Spin features a "Dostoevsky-lite" (his phrase) rumination on the perfectibility of man. "And of course Orwell was a role model. I wanted to bring out that Orwellian sense of a world where everything is done because it's supposed to be good for you. You know that tone of voice - that mealy-mouthed, self-satisfied, quasi-religious, messianic tone. The dangerous thing is, they genuinely believe it. They believe we should invade Syria and Iran and Iraq, because it's good for us. But just because they believe it, doesn't mean it's right."

In real-life modern politics, I ask, is there a politician who resembles Selwyn Knox, the crazed eugenicist? Sixsmith looks enigmatic. "There are ministers in the Government who... " he says, then stops and shut his eyes tight. I wonder for a second if he is having a seizure. He isn't. He's doing an economical impression of David Blunkett.

Sixsmith grew up in Cheshire. His mother was a teacher, his late father a local-government official in Warrington. He didn't convince the infant Mart that a gripping career in politics lay ahead - but he did convince him that he'd won the Second World War single-handedly by destroying the Japanese. "As a child I was convinced that he'd won the war, along with his mate Ray Francis, when they were in Singapore and Malaysia. I was sure that, if it hadn't been for them, England would now be ruled by Hirohito."

The Sixsmiths were not well-to-do. "I was the first in my family to go to university. I went to Manchester Grammar School on a scholarship for poor boys. I remember my mother saying, 'You must realise, Martin, that a lot of the boys there will be from very rich families, and many of their fathers will have yachts.' " Sixsmith found solace in journalism. He edited the school newspaper and Cherwell, the Oxford University magazine. A member of Mensa, he was always a titanic swot. Between school and university he studied at the Sorbonne, he got a First in modern languages at Oxford, was a tutor in Russian literature at Harvard and returned to Oxford to write a book about post-Revolutionary Russian poets before joining the BBC in 1980. For the next 17 years he broadcast from key locations in modern history - Brussels, Warsaw, Moscow, Washington. He reported on the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles, on superpower summits in Helsinki and conflict in Haiti and Mexico, on perestroika, Solidarity and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So what made a top BBC journalist jack it in and become a civil servant? Sixsmith betrays a flicker of irritation at the question. "Oh come on, be fair. Think back to 1997 and what an exciting time it was. We'd had all these years of, quote, Tory misrule, unquote, and this was the New Dawn. I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, the evening Bill Clinton was elected for the first time, and there was a feeling that Camelot had come back. In our own little British way, May 1997 was like that. At the time we weren't so cynical about Tony Blair, when he walked down Downing Street and all the people were waving flags. We thought that they'd turned out spontaneously to welcome him. It turned out later they were party hacks.

"And were you there" - his eyes shine with emotion - "were you here at the Festival Hall when Blair came out on to the balcony and said, 'A new dawn has broken'? And the Government said welfare was going to be the main plank of its domestic agenda. It did seem important. If you believe in the welfare state, and in the safety net for the poorest in society, and believe that it's important, not just for the poor but for the middle classes and the rich - if you believe in all that, then getting a job on the welfare side of the new Government isn't quite as ridiculous as it may sound."

Now he's left politics for good, to spend more time with his wife and four children, and write a follow-up novel ("about deceit and corruption in international politics - set in Moscow and Washington, the two places I know best"), how does he regard his five years in government? "It would be naive to say that spin started on 1 May 1997 - after all, Bernard Ingham made a jolly good spin doctor - but I think there's been a change in the way things operate. In the 150 years since the civil service was created - getting rid of patronage, moving in integrity, non-partisanship - there's been a gentlemen's agreement between ministers and civil servants that's worked well. You might say that, since 1997, there are no gentlemen - it's about what works. What will get the Government into power and keep it there? And isn't the civil service a good tool for getting us re-elected?"

Hell, it seems, hath no fury like an idealist who has been let down by the god he once worshipped.


"In Downing Street at that moment, Charlie McDonald and Geoff Maddle were meeting Sonya Mair to plan Selwyn Knox's parliamentary launch of the new Parenting Licence the following Tuesday. After congratulating Sonya on the smooth passage the PL had enjoyed so far, Charlie enquired about Nigel Tonbridge. Sonya said she and Knox had got him under control, but suggested Charlie might want to call him in for a pep talk. For her part, she congratulated McDonald on the disappearance of the Andy Sheen drugs story, but asked how he now intended to get round the problem of Marie's magical disappearing pregnancy.

'Easy,' Charlie said. 'We just ring old Sopwith and give him the exclusive on Marie's tragic miscarriage!'

Sonya and Geoff laughed, but McDonald put his finger to his lips. 'Andy's not very happy about the way we used Marie on this one, but he can stuff it. We did him a bigger favour than he knows, and one day we might have to call it back in from him.'"

From 'Spin' (Macmillan, £16.99)