REVELATIONS; I walked out of 10 Downing Street - but I did not look back
Tuesday 13 January 1998
The Place: Westminster
The man: Michael Dobbs, novelist and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party
I felt I was walking through a sticky marsh, without a compass or a road map. I was thoroughly depressed; for the first time in my life I found that I couldn't rise above the misery. The last Conservative Party election campaign, which I was involved in organising, was a disaster, with no clear sense of direction. Two or three years earlier I had been convinced that we were going to lose, but I could not entirely convince myself that we shouldn't. There comes a time in every government's life when it runs out of energy, and the electorate has this wonderful capacity for sniffing out those moments.
It would have been much easier for me to take a great holiday, but I decided to keep on with politics. I had been there right at the beginning, with Margaret Thatcher when she did Francis of Assisi outside Downing Street, and I wanted to complete the full circle and be there at the end, too. I kept on getting involved with politics because I hated being on the sidelines just cheering or jeering. I found it very difficult to let go, and anyway, if I had opted out I suspect I would have regretted it.
I had been given responsibility for negotiations around the Blair/ Major television debate, which in my view was never going to take place. Despite all the press coverage, the parties never met; instead the broadcasters acted as intermediaries. It was shadow boxing. If you landed a punch, by the time it came back through all the middlemen it was scarcely recognisable. I knew the work was important; if the debate had taken place, we would have changed election campaigning for all time; but the frustration just increased my sense of helplessness.
Sleep became something that was almost meaningless to me. I would lie there with my mind nagging away at why things I took for granted didn't work any more - not a healthy thing to do. It certainly affected my personality. Food had always been something I enjoyed, perhaps too much, but I have no recollection of those meals. I was probably clinically depressed, and had been for the previous three or four months. I felt worthless.
On election morning, I went to Downing Street to finish clearing up. It was like a ghost city. Everybody knew a changeover was coming; you could sense it and taste it. A huge amount of shredding had been going on for days and days beforehand. I was going round, saying goodbye and learning some new things, too. I had time, finally, to look in the corners and cupboards and make a few notes.
I knew my life was about to change dramatically. I had had a similar feeling on election night 1979. I was with Margaret Thatcher at her count. We went back to her constituency offices to say "thank you" and drove to Downing Street via the Mall, and I remember very vividly that as we came to the roundabout outside Buckingham Palace we were joined by police motorcycle outriders and two further security cars. It became a great convoy, and I knew my life would never be the same again.
As I looked at No 10's familiar rooms for the last time, I remembered John Major taking me round the Cabinet Room; it was fascinating to have some of its history pointed out by him. There is a patio just outside which still has the same tiles from 250 years ago; we know because there is an oil painting showing exactly those tiles in the corner of the view.
I walked out of the front door of 10 Downing Street but I did not look back. After almost 25 years working for the party, it was the closing of a great chapter in my life. Part of me knew that some very difficult times were ahead, but I just had to get on with it. Politics means a great deal to me, but for the first time ever it was all going wrong. What was worse, I had no experience of losing elections. I went back to my apartment in Pimlico, which I had taken for the campaign. Although it was perfectly comfortable and very practical, I had grown to loathe it. I have very strong feelings about homes and this one felt like a prison cell. Away from my family - my kids are just eight and 10 - I was lacking the anchors in my life.
I was at Conservative Central Office when the exit polls and the computer projections were coming through. The general discussion was about their unreliability, but I thought it was all complete bollocks, and that we had been completely thrashed. I could not stand listening to everybody's justifications so I went for a long walk around Westminster. I was very, very angry: good friends would lose not just their jobs but also their complete way of life. I understood what was about to happen. I was not going to like it, in fact it would hurt hellishly, but it was something that just had to be. All the youthful excitement of 1979 and my naivety had gone. I felt frightened but also strangely liberated. I told myself that in spite of all the darkness there was still a chink of light - my writing. I knew I could savour my pain, tuck it away and use it in a future book.
Following my walk through the dark streets of London, I returned to Central Office and discovered that the results were even worse than my nightmares, I thought we would lose by only 100 seats. I desperately needed something to help me make it through the night and distract me from the awfulness; so I gave television interviews. Starting with BBC and ITV, I moved on to Sky and finally ended up on cable TV to the Middle East, with my explanations of how the change in government would impact on their politics being simultaneously translated into Arabic. My personal and political lives were connecting rather splendidly, and both going down the toilet.
Next morning, I woke up knowing that I had to rebuild my life, which was difficult because politics is so all-consuming. Just a couple of months before the election, my wife was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist. She suggested I should strip away the clutter and decide what was truly important to me, rather as she did when choosing her new spiritual life. In the end, it took me about 30 seconds to switch my computer on; while everybody else was watching Blair march into Downing Street, I started working on my book again. The election had made me miss my deadline. By writing, I could escape from my depression into another world which I invented. It was the beginning of the rest of my life.
One of the reasons I chose to write The Buddha of Brewer Street, my latest Goodfellowe MP political thriller, was because I wanted to find out more about my wife's new spirituality. I've dedicated the book to her using her new name: Naljorma'o-Sel Nyima Cherdrol Khandro. The first time I used her new name was a very important step, because it was my recognition of who she now is. I admit that for a while I struggled against it, because it was a huge change that had nothing to do with me. However, I have only slipped once and called her Amanda - most probably when I was angry with her.
I'm sorry that I haven't been able to follow her down her chosen path, or maybe it was predetermined by her previous lives. There are now all sorts of things we cannot share together. However, there were times when she was excluded from me during my politics. Men can be very arrogant in looking at their wives: "I'm the breadwinner, so what I do is justifiable." But if my wife does something that is just as important to her as my profession is to me, I shouldn't look down my nose at it just because it does not put food on the table. There should not be double standards. I'm truly delighted for her; it adds so much to her life, and therefore to the lives of everybody around her.
It took two months to recover from my depression. It is only now that I can admit to myself just how awful it was. However, breaking out of the political straitjacket has given me a freedom I haven't had in years. I've noticed the changes in quite subtle ways, and slowly I've started thinking about what life is really about, and my responsibilities in it. Electioneering in particular squeezes out the chance to step back and see more than the headlines of the day. I've started listening to other people's points of view, which sadly is something I rarely did in politics. Before, it would not have been possible, not just because of a lack of time but because of my mind-set.
At 49, if I'd stayed in the corporate environment, I'd be like lots of other people, with my head down waiting for early retirement. In what should be the best years of these men's lives, they are achieving less and less and their horizons begin to narrow. In contrast, my writing has encouraged me to open my mind. The election defeat, in particular, helped me to realise how politics was putting the brake on this process. As deputy chairman I had to tell people not what I thought, but what I was supposed to think. In politics, you are supposed to have answers to everything, but I've discovered that I have answers to less and less. I wish there were a way of combining a spiritual life with a political life, but I just don't think that it's possible.
Today I'm much more self-aware and less driven by other people's expectations. I'm not less ambitious - writing is a job as well - but the events of 1 May have made me interested in new areas of life that before I had passed by.
`The Buddha of Brewer Street' is published by HarperCollins on 19 January, price pounds 16.99.
Interview by Andrew G Marshall
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