To some, he's a gadfly; to others, he's one of the most influential figures of our age. Lord Wyatt of Weeford - close friend of Maggie, Rupert and the Queen Mum - looks back on a lifetime of courting the rich and powerful
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The pale stucco house is double-fronted, magnificent, set back from the road and surrounded by walls, trees and tended gardens. A rustling pink-uniformed maid opens the door. The downstairs drawing-room is so opulent that to sit down would be to risk losing yourself, suffocated by chintz, gilded furniture, coffee tables, onyx ornaments, plants and black and gold ceramic table lamps in the shiny shapes of African boys.

An ash-blonde woman wafts elegantly in and out with expensive carrier bags, followed by a dowdier secretary, whose employer has written: "Wives have every reason to be careful of presentable secretaries. It is almost impossible to avoid some form of emotional involvement with them ... Wives should vet secretaries and insist on their being ugly, middle-aged or older and deficient in feminine charm."

The maid scurries upstairs, bearing tea. The secretary whose job requires acceptance of her own plainness follows to announce me formally. And there, in his book-lined study on the first floor, is Lord Wyatt of Weeford, sometime Labour politician and businessman, confidant and fixer to Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch, friend of the Queen Mother and still, at 78, a star columnist on two national newspapers, and the chairman of the Horserace Totalisator Board on a salary of pounds 97,000 a year.

As always, he wears a bow-tie. His figure is portly, although his neck is scraggy now and his face is drawn; he has lost all the rubicund plumpness he has in old photographs. He moves painfully slowly, with a limp, but his voice, though slurred with age, is brusque and clipped.

Within minutes, he has begun to digress, one aside leading to another, and then to another. A question about his first marriage leads him on to the war, then to Alexander the Great ("the reason the Germans are like that") then on, via the British empire, to the European Union (Germany and Italy "are stiff with buried cattle; they just don't respect the rule of law") before he looks up and demands, "Where were we?"

This from someone who is acknowledged as one of the great movers and shakers of our time; an unseen eminence who has inhabited the corridors of power for half a century. Is this, one wonders, the language of power, or is he just rambling? He certainly seems incurious about the effect of his words on his audience. Pressed to expand on a confident assertion that Britain is not in decline, he does not talk about the economy or our international role, but says instead: "It's because of our power of assimilation. I think the immigration was overdone - which was Enoch Powell's fault as a matter of fact, because he brought all these people over to do the jobs English people didn't want to do, then started talking about rivers of blood and so on. But when people come here - it's rather like when Labour people go into the House of Lords - they all become English in the end. I've never had any colour-consciousness in my life. If you take India and Pakistan, if you took the colour out of their faces they'd look exactly like us because they're Indo-European and they just turned off when they got to India and their skins got browner. I'm always very amused when there's a match at Lord's with India or Pakistan because you can't tell the difference between those who are supporting them and those who are supporting us. When they first come they're inclined to support Labour because they think Labour are their friends, but now they vote, you know, they vote exactly the same way as us."

IT SEEMS odd that during her period as Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher drew strength from this sort of thing, but she did. In the 1980s, the Sunday Telegraph called Woodrow Wyatt "the most influential person of our age" - reflecting both his closeness to the Prime Minister, and his almost cabalistic relationship with the other person who most defined that period: Rupert Murdoch. More than anyone else, Wyatt demonstrates the way in which those two great enemies of the Establishment none the less developed an Establishment of their own.

Mrs Thatcher expressed her desire to meet Wyatt, then an ever-more-rightwards- leaning columnist on the Daily Mirror, soon after she became leader of the opposition. He visited her at home. "She told me what she intended to do, and I said, `If you stick to that, I'll back you,' and after that we spoke a couple of times a week, all the time she was Prime Minister."

Their relationship was so exclusive that even those closest to them could misunderstand it. Mark Thatcher once alarmed Wyatt's wife Verushka (the elegant blonde who wafted past on my arrival) by telling her over lunch at Chequers: "You know, my mother rings up Woodrow every morning at 10 to eight." Verushka "started listening outside my door, convinced I was having a love affair with her. I was in love with her, yes, but I suppose in the best platonic manner, because - well, she was a marvellous girl. At that time - well, she still can - she looked rather beautiful. But her skin was glowing and she had very fine legs."

The grandeur of his house in St John's Wood befits someone this important, though the aristocratic flummery can seem rather effortful, a little preening. (Portraits of Wyatt ancestors hang everywhere. Woodrow points out one wearing Windsor court dress and mentions that a member of the Royal Family spotted this immediately when invited to dinner - "so sharp".) Yet Lord Wyatt is not actually an aristocrat (Mrs Thatcher gave him his life peerage in 1987), nor even a plutocrat. His father ran a prep school and he has "never inherited anything except some books from a cousin". The only business he ever embarked on failed. He has had to fund his lordly lifestyle himself. By way of explaining how he affords it all, he says the house is "only leasehold" and that he has done well out of journalism. Doing well out of things, in a slightly hard-to-pin-down way, has been something of a Wyatt habit: Zelig-like, he has turned up at the places and been friends with the people that mattered.

His relationship with Rupert Murdoch was cemented by his role in News International's move to Wapping in January 1986, in which he played a crucial, if mysterious, part in the sidelining of the print unions which led ultimately to their decimation. Eric Hammond, then the leader of the electricians' union, described in his autobiography how by 1984 Murdoch had invested more than pounds 100m in Wapping and another plant in Glasgow, "but both lay idle, because Murdoch's men were unable to negotiate with or buy off the print unions". Wyatt had been on good terms with the moderate electricians' leaders since, during a brief incarnation as a Panorama journalist, he'd run a tub-thumping campaign against Communist infiltration of unions in the 1950s, and uncovered flagrant corruption in both the engineering and electricians' unions. Hammond says that the long series of talks that were to destroy the printers began on 31 January 1985, "set up through Woodrow, now Lord Wyatt, who had acted as Murdoch's intermediary".

Wyatt is still secretive about this period - "Whatever Hammond says in his autobiography is true," is all he will say when I ask him - but his role as fixer appears to have been enduring. In 1989, when Hammond was seeking recognition from Murdoch for his union at Wapping, "I used our mutual friend Woodrow Wyatt to break the ice which was rapidly forming around our relationship."

Since 1983 Wyatt has been a columnist on two of Murdoch's papers, The Times and the News of the World, where it is said that he behaves in the style of one who can speak to Rupert over the heads of editors. According to Bernard Levin, a long-time friend of Wyatt: "I think I'm right in saying that some of what Rupert would like to say comes from Woodrow's lips. They talk together a great deal and I dare say some of Rupert's ideas come into Woodrow's columns."

Much of Lord Wyatt's life, you suspect, has been like this: connections, networks, powerful people, friends. The manner of his advancement can perhaps best be judged from his period at the Tote, the state-run betting organisation, whose chairmanship is in the gift of the Home Secretary. Roy Jenkins ("a close and loyal friend", with whom he had been a fervent supporter of Hugh Gaitskell in the Labour Party) appointed him in 1976. In October 1990, Margaret Thatcher, in her final hours in office and reportedly in the face of some opposition, approved the reappointment, for the sixth time, of the man who had spent the previous 11 years lauding, in large- circulation newspapers, her every thought, word and deed.

When Wyatt's contract came up again in 1993 it was widely expected that he would stand down. His eyesight was poor, he seemed increasingly infirm, and his chairmanship had been sharply criticised in a report on the Tote by Lloyds Merchant Bank. He had also been involved in a furious row over the question of how much of this report, if any, should be published. The Commons Home Affairs Committee had had to wait 18 months to see even its conclusions. Wyatt argued that it contained "inexcusable omissions, naivety, unwise proposals and ignorance," and included "highly offensive ... unjustified statements." When the Committee finally saw it they could not agree. Accepting that Lord Wyatt had been safeguarding the commercial interests of the Tote as he saw them, they added, however, that "we do not believe it was wise for him to have done so in this way." Yet Kenneth Clarke still gave him another two years as chairman. To the racing world's further amazement, Michael Howard reappointed him again in 1995. Lord Wyatt promises he will finally take his pension, which is rumoured to be generous, next spring.

In the early years he was an active chairman. He rooted out the "arsenic and old lace'' corruption whereby the Tote's mainly female employees got together to place bets after the races had been run. He introduced computerisation and set up Tote Direct, a joint venture with Coral that enabled betting shops to offer Tote odds. But John Cobb, the Independent on Sunday's racing editor, says that in recent years, "the feeling has been that the Tote has stagnated."

The nub of the criticism of Lord Wyatt in the racing world has been that he hasn't developed or marketed the Tote in the way that has benefited pool betting in other countries. Only very recently, for example, has the Tote taken seriously the idea of the "superbet" - pounds 500,000, say, for a pounds 1 stake. More nebulously, there has been dismay at Wyatt's autocratic style; he is said to have surrounded himself with yes-men. As the sportswriter John Burrows told The Spectator: "There are two schools of thought about his role in racing. On the one hand, there are those who believe he has used his talent for ingratiating himself with people in power to improve the position of both the sport and the Tote. On the other hand are those who believe he has used his position at the Tote to improve his talent for ingratiating himself with people in power."

THERE are two schools of thought about Lord Wyatt more generally. The first, the one Lord Wyatt in his more bumptious moods would have you believe, is that he has been genuinely influential - a power in the land. His long campaign for home postal ballots for union elections "changed the way unions were organised in this country". His technique as a Panorama presenter in the 1950s, when he was out of Parliament, "set a new style," he said, "making the viewers feel that the interviewees were fallible like the rest of us". He devotes much energy to telling me scurrilous anecdotes about Gandhi and Jinnah, deriving from his time in India as one of a Parliamentary Delegation, and as Sir Stafford Cripps's assistant on a Cabinet Mission ("If I'd talked about Jinnah's whisky-drinking he'd have been ruined ... Gandhi knew that I knew he was a fraud"). These seem calculated to imply that he was the one person who genuinely understood the subcontinent and that the empire could not have been dismantled without him. Meanwhile, he says that his articles "have influenced attitudes and voting patterns more than the total output of the grander and smaller-circulation newspapers."

The alternative view of Lord Wyatt is that he has been a gadfly, a maker of shifts and accommodations rather than a genuine mover and shaker, lacking in some ultimate, gritty ingredient that would have made him a real force in the world.

He became a socialist before the 1945 Labour landslide, when it was difficult for an ambitious young man to be anything else, certainly with any chance of a successful public life. He claims to have been partly inspired by the army - "very fair, you know, and in the war everybody did it, not for money, but for the good of the country" - but much of his inspiration seems to have been personal rather than ideological.

He concedes that he may have been motivated by rebellion. His father - a truculent and overbearing figure who intimidated his son throughout his childhood and, although he died when Woodrow was 13, cast a shadow over his life - once shouted that the socialists had a "confounded cheek, to think they're fit to govern the country. They are traitors and they haven't got any money." His son quickly reached the conclusion that "if my father disapproved of people so strongly, there must be some good in them." His mother, with whom he "never had a conversation that was not superficial", offered only one comment on his election to Parliament in 1945: that his father would have been bitterly disappointed by his association with the Labour Party.

Personal as much as political considerations continued to motivate Wyatt, who started off on the left wing of the party but veered smartly rightwards. By 1948, the Ministry of Defence were already talking about him, in an internal memorandum, as the kind of MP who might well be persuaded to ask a rather distasteful "planted" question about atomic weapons. (In the event, they used someone else.) He believes that Hugh Gaitskell's death prevented him from becoming a cabinet minister (he says Gaitskell promised to make him Secretary of State for War) - suggesting that he sees politics as being as much as about influence and patronage as about ideas. As it was, he was overlooked by Harold Wilson (though he once said he would have joined Wilson's Government if asked - "It is amazing how quickly the mind can adapt") and retired to the backbenches to garner his headlines as an arch right-winger.

Unrooted politically, he also flitted through a fair number of relationships. He has been married four times: the first to Susan Cox, a fellow student at Oxford; the second to his secretary, Alix Robbins; the third to Lady Moorea Hastings, daughter of the Earl of Huntingdon; the fourth to Verushka, a Hungarian widow. In between there were numerous affairs, detailed in his auto- biography, Confessions of an Optimist (published in 1985), with lip-smacking relish. ("To my delight the long waiting had affected her too. She dug her nails into my thighs.")

Nor did he manage to sustain a business: the local newspaper and printing company that he set up with his third wife, Lady Moorea, collapsed soon after the marriage failed. This relationship did produce a son, Pericles, although Woodrow's cousin, Honor Wyatt, has described his dismay when he discovered that his wife was pregnant: "Moorea didn't like babies, couldn't bear them near her, was very cross about the whole thing. No question of an abortion, and no question of Moorea being able to endure the proximity of her infant. In brief, would I take it?'' This rather flaky approach to parenthood eventually led to an arrangement that Honor's childless sister Winifred would take the baby. When Pericles was two weeks old, Winifred collected him (without ever meeting Lady Moorea) and took him to the West Country, where she and her husband David doted upon him and, Honor says, "unwisely allowed their feelings to be parental''. Some four months later, they were moved into a cottage on the Wyatts' Wiltshire estate, where Woodrow would visit the baby. Soon after, when Wyatt sued Lady Moorea for divorce on the grounds of her adultery, he fought a bitterly contested custody battle for the child, which - unusually for the time - he won. He took Pericles back into his household. Winifred and David never saw the child again.

Wyatt seems tempted to explain this distressing episode - "I adore babies, especially my own. It was to do with ... I'm not sure I should talk about this ... I've always been very attached to Pericles and he to me" - but then thinks better of it: "I really can't say anything because if I do I will cause a great deal of trouble." He does say that the arrangement whereby Winifred and David looked after Pericles in the West Country only lasted a few months. He thinks for a while, then adds: "We don't own that house in Wiltshire any more, but I went down there not so long ago, and the name is still on the gate: Pericles' cottage."

As he says this, he seems, for the first time, human. It is impossible not to pity him for his painful memories. But it is also impossible not to wonder what kind of character would make such arrangements for his son. The story of Pericles, like that of Wyatt's politics and his succession of women, suggests someone who is not entirely grounded.

"WHERE are you hoping to go with your writing?" he barks at me at one point. "You're not as famous as my daughter, are you?" A pause, while I register the insult. "And you really should be, at your age." Perhaps this is the kind of behaviour people are referring to when they speak of Lord Wyatt's eccentricity.

Lord and Lady Wyatt's daughter Petronella is assistant editor of the Spectator. She was appointed by the magazine's editor, Frank Johnson, a close friend of Petronella's whom Lord Wyatt has described to me, some half an hour earlier, as "that marvellous chap Frank Johnson, who says he feels uneducated not having been to university. But I tell him: `You must be mad: you're about the most intelligent person I know.'" Johnson also happens to have been the Sunday Telegraph commentator who called Lord Wyatt the most influential figure of the Thatcherite period. Friends, favours, usefulness.

Wyatt's eccentricity has been a convenient mask for self- promotion, making him seem disarmingly Toad-like. Who could take seriously a man who had doorknobs fashioned in the shape of himself and his wife, as he did at his house in Wiltshire? Why worry about someone who can begin an interview by stating with absolute conviction, as he did to me, that he was born with whooping cough because of a comet? Or who claims that the Government's anti-smoking campaign is "the most dishonest thing that's ever been done"?

He freely admits to snobbery - "being a snob is about liking the best" - though he insists that his version of it has nothing to do with class (and cites his friendship with Frank Johnson). But a deep anxiety about class seems to have underlain his reactions to Esher, where he grew up, which "had nothing but a provincial, middle-class approach spread thick"; and to his minor public school, Eastbourne. "Who ever had heard of Eastbourne? If you must be sent to a public school, why not a decent one?" At Oxford, he acquired airs (such as wearing black silk pyjamas until lunchtime), which, in one form or another, one suspects he has never lost.

He keeps in his library the chair on which he sat in Westminster Abbey for the Queen's coronation, emblazoned "ER". When he opens a book to show me that it's been signed by Graham Greene, what I actually notice is the elaborately printed "Woodrow Wyatt" bookplate ("my family have been armigerous since 1780"). And he is absurdly preoccupied with lineage. He talks at length about his Wyatt ancestors, who were architects, engineers and inventors, even to the extent of getting out a family tree and pointing out which was the Wyatt who built Chatsworth, and which the one who invented a precursor to the spinning jenny. He is liable to get caught up, bewilderingly, in excitement about descendants: "Cristina's half-brother Camillo," he writes of his (third) mother-in-law, in his autobiography, "much younger than she, was the current and last Marchese Casati. He was Moorea's half-uncle, son of the old Marchese and his second wife, daughter of an American senator from the South."

HIS snobbery seems to derive from an idea of his own grandeur combined with an old-fashioned, rather affected notion of how this should be expressed. He insists, for example, that women leave the table after coffee at his dinner parties - although after, it is said, much agonising, he made an exception for Mrs Thatcher. He called his son Pericles Plantagenet James Casati Wyatt, the second name because the baby could trace his ancestry back through his mother to the pre-Tudor kings of England.

His premature old-bufferishness has allowed Wyatt to have his cake and eat it. He was a socialist who ate off gold plate and whose wife wrote hints on party-giving in the newspapers he owned. He supported Labour during its golden years and the Tories when only Tories really mattered. He was publicly furious with the writer AN Wilson for disclosing details of a conversation that took place with the Queen Mother over dinner at the Wyatts', but his own conversation is riddled with semi-indiscretions and hints of gossip to come. ("Sometimes when I speak to Margaret now, I am worried ... but no, I had better not say any more.") He would like to see a privacy law, not least because of press intrusion into matters concerning his beloved Royal Family, yet he writes for the News of the World, the worst culprit of the lot.

These days he is also protected by his age. His eyesight is poor, his movements are slow and his speech is slurred. So when he is mildly racist ("they're-just-like-us!") or dismissive of women's after-dinner conversation (too gossipy for the port and abstract ideas), there's a temptation to give him the benefit of the doubt, to think he can't help it, it's a generational thing. But although the "Voice Of Reason" has been relegated from page six of the News of the World, he was influential once - and even from around page 54 he continues to have a platform to try to influence voting patterns for one more election. And he still has that big job, paid for out of taxpayers' money.

These days, however, he seems sadly out of touch. His efforts to pass himself off as having the ear of the powerful ring less true than they would once have done. "I've been saying to the Labour Party for years, you'll never win unless you become like the Democratic Party in America. You've got to try and stop this high taxation; people don't like it. But I am afraid Labour likes taxation for the hell of it, as a sort of punishment."

His political judgements sound naive and contradictory. The electorate, he confidently asserts, will have forgotten sleaze by the time of the election. But they won't have forgotten Labour's proposals for a windfall tax on the privatised utilities. "That could lose Labour the election, if it were close, which it won't be. Major is going to win, and win easily."

This sounds increasingly like the partial bleating of one whom events have left behind. He recently contributed to the debate about morals by writing in The Times that young people were no longer keeping lane discipline in the pool at the RAC club. I ask Lord Wyatt at which of his various careers he considers he has been truly successful. There is a long, long pause.

He never fulfilled his early political promise. He was a junior minister for six months in 1951 but lost his seat, fell out with his party and, after a further stint in Parliament, was eventually deselected by his constituency. His business failed. He had a brief glittering moment in television but didn't pursue it. His chairmanship of the Tote has, latterly, been controversial. He was never, by his own admission, a great journalist (he called his writing "stilted, and full of facts"), and though his columns once mattered, they do so less and less. When he eventually answers the question about his success, it is by citing his influence on trade union legislation. But this was second-hand action, the work of the courtier rather than the courted; the glory went to Mrs Thatcher. Once again, I find myself feeling sorry for him.

Woodrow Wyatt set out as a politician and so, one must presume, once wanted to make a splash, a difference to the world. Instead, he has achieved comfort and connections - and, one suspects, disappointment. Some lack of conviction, of bottom, stranded him on the sidelines and forced him to deal through others, to be complaisant and to trim. He became a conformist without a cause, ending up as a go-between and flatterer, rather than the figure of passion, principle and action he once imagined himself to be. !