Interview: Of course he's Mr Right...
Deborah Ross talks to JOHN REDWOOD
Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking I'm completely out of my tree. You are thinking it's hard enough to like John Redwood, let alone develop a motherly pash on him. He's a cold fish. He doesn't get jokes. He's rubbish at relating to people. ("Your strange human emotions confuse me, Captain.") Plus, to cap it all, he has the disdainful look of, say, Kenneth Williams in a particularly disdainful mood. And that's when he's feeling jolly. Yes, all this is true enough, to varying degrees. But, mostly, Redwood is just hopeless. Which makes him quite vulnerable. And endearing, in a strange kind of way. He is tall, with dark eyes, wonderful legs and highly polished black shoes. He speaks in an exclamatory way, emphasising certain words without warning. "I think! that what the Tories have! to learn is how to like each! other." The volume is such that you can never doze off, which is a shame, especially when he's banging on about party unity or Europe.
He also has an extraordinarily literal mind. Did you like books as a child, John? "Yes, very much." Is there a book you particularly remember enjoying? "As a very young child?" Not necessarily. "As an older child, then?" A book from any period of your childhood. Just one you happen to remember clearly. "As a very young child then?" This goes on for some minutes before, finally, I learn that he liked Brer Rabbit before progressing to sea adventure stories set during the Napoleonic wars. No, he never then acted these out because "we never had a pond big enough". Clever as he undoubtedly is, I don't think John Redwood could be described as a man of imagination. His smile is always accompanied by a startled look in his eyes, as if he's astonished he has managed it, which I find quite touching. Plus, he has the stiff body movements of someone who, perhaps, spent his boyhood being told to wash his hands, take his elbows off the table, and don't play there! You'll get your sailor-suit all mucky! I would like him to come and live with me so that, of a morning, I could open the back door into the garden and say: "Now, don't come back until you're really muddy." In short, he looks as if he has never let himself go and doesn't know how to. Certainly, I can't imagine him ever doing the conga on holiday.
However, when I eventually put this thesis to him, he is entirely horrified. He knows quite well how to have fun, he insists, and has a lot of it. He likes walking, he says. And wind-surfing and chess and Shakespeare and shopping on a Saturday morning at the new Waitrose in his Wokingham constituency. "They've built a lovely one," he says. No, he doesn't watch telly that much. He doesn't have the time. But, that said, he always does his utmost to catch Top Gear. It's his favourite programme. "That Jeremy Clarkson is superb,' he enthuses. Really? "Yes, he's absolutely hysterical. He recently tested luxury estates. did you see it? Oh, that's a shame. It was s-o-o-o funny. The Mercedes came bottom. He was merciless. I don't rate Mercedes cars myself ..." I think, when the adoption papers come through, I will put in a clause that I remain in charge of the remote control. Anyway, John Redwood is, on the car front, very much a Jaguar man. Always has been, always will be. He has two at the moment, a confession which leads him and the photographer to talk excitedly about E-types, and '65 being a good year, and four-point-two-stroke-six engines, whatever they may be. He actually has a photograph of his Jaguars on the mantelpiece. "There they are, my two lovely ladies," he boasts. His wife, Gail, is also in the picture. "Or should I say my three lovely ladies, ha ha."
And, yes, this brings me to yet another reason why I'm so fond of John Redwood. He's just such a brilliant maladroit. He is, it is said, perhaps even the brainiest of all the Tories. But his social skills are so wanting he always ends up looking at best, weird, and at worst a complete twit. Certainly, he can't spot a political mine-field until it blows up in his face. There was, of course, that bottom-clenching moment when he was Minister for Wales and was caught on camera trying and failing to mouth the words to the Welsh national anthem. Then there was that Monday morning in June 1995 when, at a press briefing to launch his first leadership bid, he allowed a goggle-eyed Teresa Gorman in something very green and low-cut to stand directly behind him. When I tell him that, if nothing else, he will go down in history as the only man to have launched a campaign from Ms Gorman's cleavage, he laughs heartily. Surprisingly, he laughs a lot, which is nice even though there's usually, initially, a pause of at least a few seconds while he works out whether something is funny or not. Once his laughter has subsided he says, pleadingly: "What could I do? A number of people invited themselves to the conference and, as I needed all the support I could get, I didn't think it a good idea to shepherd them off." So he opted for a good nestle in Teresa's bosom instead? "I can assure you," he announces primly, "that there was a modest gap between us." Joke, John, joke. "Oh ha ha! Well, let's put it this way. My wife wasn't jealous. Ha ha!"
Of course, he is now running for the leadership of the Conservative Party again. Most people doubt he will get it. Most have their money on William Hague, who looks like Clive Anderson's plainer younger brother but is still reckoned to be more charismatic. If Redwood fails this time, what then? "I've no idea. I do so much want to get it. I'm going all out to get it." He is very single-minded, ambitious, determined. He wants to be in No 10 more than anything. So I wonder whether he found it hard watching Tony Blair move in. "I didn't watch it. I was too busy," he says. Oh come on, I say. The pictures were beamed all over the place. You can't have missed them all. OK, he finally concedes, maybe he did deliberately choose not to look. "I would have found it upsetting, yes."
We meet at 2 Wilfred Street, a dainty, oatmeal-carpeted house in Westminster which is in fact the headquarters of the ginger group Conservative 2000 (it exists to represent the views of right-wing Tories) but could just as well be the base for the John Redwood Fan Club. There are photographs of John everywhere, plus flattering articles about him that have been framed and hung in the toilet (perhaps, this being the smallest room, they look more plentiful there). There's an admiring letter from Enoch Powell, dated July 1995. "Dear John," it goes, "you will not regret the events of the last month or two. Patience will evidently have to be exercised ..."
John Redwood was born in Dover to the aspiring lower middle classes. His father, William, was a cost accountant; his mother, Amy, was manageress of a shoe shop. Their first home was a council house, but he's never made a big deal of this in the way John Major always did. "It's just not my style. And, anyway, it's who you are now that counts." What's his earliest childhood memory? "As a very young child?" No, John, as a sheep. "I remember sitting in front of a coal fire that refused to burn, and being freezing." He was very bright, very bookish, and skipped a year in primary school before, at 10, winning a scholarship to Kent College in Canterbury. At 15, he joined the Conservative Party because "I believed in their principles". He took a first in history at Magdalen, Oxford, and then completed his doctorate at night while working as an investment analyst in the City. Has he ever known any kind of intellectual defeat? "Oh yes. I always found Latin very hard." He was working for Rothschild and writing articles on the privatisation of nationalised industries when he came to the attention of Thatcher and was invited to join her policy unit at No 10. No, he didn't think twice about leaving the bank even though it meant a huge cut in salary, plus giving up a chauffeur-driven Jag for a Montego. A Montego! Did he weep when he was handed the keys? "No. You don't get the keys. The driver does." He then adds: "I had to work my way up again. I got a chauffeur-driven Jag at the Welsh office, but it wasn't such a good Jag, of course." Having joined the Policy Unit in 1982, he became its "extremely effective" leader (according to Thatcher's memoirs) from '83 to '85 before being rewarded with the safe seat of Wokingham, Berkshire. Thereafter, he ascended through the Tory Party ranks until his resignation from Cabinet when he decided to stand against Major. He says he was "shocked, but not surprised" by the extent of the Tory's election defeat. "On the morning of the election I said to my wife: 'I think we'll get 200 seats.' And I knew I was being optimistic then." Yes, he supposes it is a good thing for him that Portillo is now out of the leadership contest but, that said, he was sad to see him go. "A great loss to the party,' he sighs. I wonder what the protocol is in these circumstances. Do you write a note saying "so sorry, old boy ..." No, you phone. "I have rung quite a few already. I'm gradually getting through the list." Will he ring Major?" Of course." If Redwood had won the leadership back in 1995, could he have saved the party? Yes, he would like to think so. Certainly, he couldn't have done any worse.
He once described New Labour as "just three men (Blair, Campbell, Mandelson, presumably) in a hurry." But, no, he doesn't now feel he has to eat his words. "It'll come true. You watch!" he cries. "The Minister for Meddling (Mandelson) will cause terrible trouble. Departments resent meddlers. There will be a great battle for Blair's ear. You watch! You watch!'
I wonder, naturally, why he so badly wants to lead his own party. Is it because he is only truly alive when he's achieving things, and this would be among the ultimate achievements? Absolutely not, he insists, offended. "I am not pursuing office for the sake of office," he says. "I want to achieve things for the country and the Party." But it's all such a faff, I say, and such a stressful faff at that. All this running about to check who's sided up with whom. All the skulduggery that goes on. No time for Top Gear or Waitrose. Isn't he ever tempted to think, no, not today, I'll take one of my lovely ladies out for a run? At this, he gives you one of his best Kenneth Williams looks before coming back with: "But I really enjoy what I'm doing. I'm very privileged and have a fascinating job. When I wake up in the mornings I think: 'What good can I do today?'"
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