Let's get the hair out of the way first. A month ago, The Times and Spectator columnist Matthew Parris caused something of a stink by coming out as a shampoo refusenik. For 10 years, he declared, he had been washing his hair with nothing but warm water and finally he was ready to report back on the results. "My hair is as light and fluffy as a kitten's coat," he wrote, no doubt causing some of the newspaper's older readers to choke on their Bran Flakes. "One day I shall be hailed as a lonely prophet of the nonsense of shampoo." A week later, the BBC's Andrew Marr announced that he was following suit. Soon, newspapers' diary columnists were weighing in.
Sitting at a rustic dining-table in his Thames-side apartment, within walking distance of News International's Wapping HQ, Parris, 55, invites The Independent to smell his hair. Although the offer is politely declined, for the record - from a distance of a few feet - the writer is certainly odour-free. Indeed, if anything, I tell him I can detect a faint whiff of soap in the air. "Cats or rabbits don't get greasy fur and they don't use detergent," he giggles. "I mentioned this to Andrew ages ago and he said he would give it a try. Although his hair is more..." he searches for the gentlest word to describe Marr's thinning locks "...strategic than mine, he's finally become a disciple."
Kitten-like hair notwithstanding, Parris - one of Britain's shrewdest political observers and the recipient of numerous awards, including the Orwell Prize for journalism - is looking somewhat drawn and sleep-deprived. It turns out that he has stepped off a plane from Borneo just hours earlier, besides being "still reeling" from a bruising recording of Radio 4's Great Lives history series, which Parris is presenting, in which the essayist Christopher Hitchens, who had picked Leon Trotsky as his subject, stormed out of the studio halfway through, railing that "as a bleeding Tory" Parris could never understand the Russian revolutionary. In addition, so far today he has dashed off his Spectator column and attended The Times' morning conference.
There's something endearingly fogeyish about Parris. For one thing, he admits he hasn't really taken to The Times' compact format and - refusing to toe the company line - says he still prefers broadsheets on principle. "Personally, like a lot of Times readers, I found the compact, as I think we're supposed to call it, a bit hard to get used to. I still like broadsheet papers, but then what I like to do is spread the paper out on the carpet and read it. Commuters haven't got the luxury of being able to do that. I could see from fairly early on that the compact Times was working. Nevertheless, I'm a creature of habit and I think, like a lot of people, I rather miss the broadsheet."
He's also something of a mischief-maker. Infamously, he once revealed the former cabinet minister Peter Mandelson's homosexuality to a flummoxed Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, in the aftermath of Ron Davies' "moment of madness" on Clapham Common in 1998. I ask him whether he regrets his own moment of indiscretion. "I can't decide whether to regret it or not, or rather I can't decide whether to say that I regret it or not," he replies, intriguingly.
Does he like Mandelson? An anxious pause. "I find him very engaging and I don't dislike him. But I would always be a little wary of him," he counsels. What went through his mind when he blurted it out? "Nothing at all. No one will ever believe me but I genuinely thought his homosexuality was in the public domain. That was because I moved in company where no one had any doubt about it. I didn't realise there was another Britain that didn't know about it, or that there was a sort of unspoken agreement among those who worked with him in journalism and politics not to talk about it in front of the children." His eyes twinkle. "I knew that any talk of his private life irritated him and I always enjoy irritating Peter."
The incident prompted a notable bout of panic and a flurry of jittery memos at the BBC. "Oh, they went completely crazy about it," he recalls. "The BBC - and Peter Mandelson's own response - rescued me from the consequences of that mistake. If Peter had reacted with wounded dignity and if the BBC had simply apologised to him, then I think I would have looked like the villain of the piece. But Peter getting so angry and becoming convinced that Jeremy Paxman was pursuing a vendetta against him, and the crazy memos at the BBC banning all mention of Peter's private life, began to make me look like the brave whistleblower in a Captain Dreyfus-like case."
For a decade, The Times - especially under its previous editor, Peter Stothard - has been a New Labour stalwart. I wonder whether that has ever made Parris, a lifelong and unflinching Conservative, squeamish? "I think those good links with Downing Street have served The Times and its readers very well," he says carefully, "particularly during the years when Tony Blair was very much surfing the wave, when what he said - and what the people around him thought - mattered." He adds: "I've never felt obliged to agree with the editorial line of the newspapers or magazines that I write for."
Does he think Gordon Brown can also, like Blair, count on the support of The Times? His answer foreshadows the remarks The Times' owner Rupert Murdoch will make to The Australian newspaper a day after our interview. "I don't think anyone should assume that papers like The Times are Labour tribal, or indeed have loyalty to any political party or any particular leader."
Parris's own political views were forged in the 1970s, as a "keen" member of his local branch of the Conservative Association. "Like a lot of people then, I had a sense of Britain going completely off the rails," he says. "There was a lack of ambition about the country, as well as a feeling that everyone could see that we were heading nowhere and no one wanted to do anything about it. Part of the problem was collectivism - organised labour and collective solutions - as well as the high taxation that went with it." However, he is not, he stresses, a Conservative "out of any love for the Conservative party" but rather from a distaste for Socialism.
A former clerical aide to Margaret Thatcher, Parris has a visceral loathing for New Labour and Tony Blair in particular. "Blair has never got the idea of argument. He thinks there are luminous and self-evident truths, which reasonable men and women will concur upon if they think about them for long enough. It's sort of an Athenian idea of democracy. It's been fun writing about him, for me particularly, because I feel I saw through him right from the start. I knew he was basically delusional, a confidence-trickster. Most people fell for the magic at first, so I've liked going against the grain. I now, of course, find writing about Blair more boring because everyone thinks the same way about him."
As you would expect, Parris cuts "Dave" Cameron rather more slack. "Cameron has a flair for packaging, which matters, especially if you've got something worthwhile to package. I'm not yet at the stage of knocking him for paying attention to all that because the Conservative party has been really bad at it." But he feels very differently about the party's neo-con foreign policy instincts. Parris was a vehement critic of the military interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and, above all, the Iraq war. In a Times in May, he rounded on the "Pentagon-loving" elements among Cameron's Tories.
"My own hunch is that David Cameron himself isn't really that interested in foreign policy. But [shadow Chancellor] George Osborne is a neo-con, and [Times columnist and MP] Michael Gove, who is quite close to them, is a serious neo-con. I like Michael very much and he's one of the cleverest writers of his generation, but he's absolutely and quite crazily wrong on a range of key foreign policy questions. He is blessed with wonderful gifts of communication and there is a real danger for the Conservative party if Cameron listens only to the neo-cons.
"When I write I'm not normally trying to achieve things, but in the Times article you mention, I really was wanting to be part of those people who want to head Cameron and the Shadow Cabinet off from taking a hawkish - and dangerous - line on foreign policy."
Born in 1949 in Johannesburg, Parris, the son of an electrical engineer, grew up in Africa, Cyprus and Jamaica. He read law at Cambridge and studied international relations at Yale University, before joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a fast-track diplomat. However, he resigned when he decided he "didn't fit the civil-servant mould". After being turned down as a diesel-fitter for London transport, he joined the Conservative Research Department, where his boss was Chris Patten. From there he was seconded to the Leader of the Opposition's office as a clerk.
In 1979, he beat rival candidates Michael Howard and Peter Lilley to serve as Conservative MP for West Derbyshire. He planned, he says, "to be Prime Minister", and really did think when he entered politics that it was "likely that [he] would end up in the Cabinet". When he realised that this was unlikely to happen, he began to cast around for alternative careers. Having presented a well-received edition of World in Action in which he lived on the dole in Newcastle for a week, Parris was hired as Brian Walden's replacement as host of Weekend World. But when the programme was axed two years later, he was installed as The Times' sketch-writer.
Parris, widely considered to be one of the finest parliamentary sketch-writers, remained in the job till 2001. He left, he says, because he had a feeling that he would eventually "turn stale in Westminster" and wanted to explore other areas of journalism. Indeed, he has since become an accomplished travel writer, while also filing dispatches from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
His outing of Mandelson cost him his lucrative weekly column in The Sun, axed 10 days after his Newsnight appearance. "I didn't like losing that column," he says. Does he think the two events were related? "Nobody knows for sure," says Parris. "[Then Sun editor] David Yelland said that the column was dropped to demonstrate that The Sun was not in favour of outing people. Others said that Peter talked to Elisabeth Murdoch and that it happened that way. On the other hand, I talked to Rupert Murdoch and seemed to get a very different reaction, which was that he personally had nothing to do with me losing the column."
What did he make of the notorious 1998 Sun leader column, headlined "Tell us the truth Tony, are we being run by a gay mafia?" "Oh, I don't take tabloid headlines or stances very seriously," he says. "Tabloids come up with a wheeze and they might think they believe it when they say it, but by the following week they've forgotten it."
There are probably "50 or 60 gay or bisexual MPs", Parris estimates. "When I was in parliament none of them were out. Now I suppose 10 of them are out, which leaves the remaining three-quarters still not talking about it. Most gay men marry and it then becomes difficult for reasons other than questions of conscience to talk about things." Was he ever tempted to get married? "No, I wasn't."
I wonder if Murdoch, who is hardly renowned for his liberal views, has ever expressed an opinion about Parris's own sexual orientation? Despite nearly two decades at The Times, the writer has only met the News Corporation boss across the dinner table twice. "He's never said anything to me [about being gay] and I wouldn't expect him to. I think of him as a very professional newspaperman. He may have all kinds of odd opinions or ideas of his own, but he wouldn't let them get in the way of business on the whole.
"In fact, the closest thing to a collision that has ever occurred is so slight as to have hardly scratched a fender. I wrote a column once about male stripping. My page editor phoned me after I'd sent the copy over and said: 'Would you mind if I ran your piece next week because Mr. Murdoch's in town this week and he doesn't like that kind of thing?'" Parris laughs. "If that's the limit to the sort of proprietorial interference with which I have to put up, then I'm perfectly happy with the situation."
'A Castle In Spain' by Matthew Parris has recently been published in paperback by Penguin. Radio 4's 'Great Lives' begins next monthReuse content