Michael Dobbs: The Tory peer on 'House of Cards', where Margaret Thatcher went wrong, and having a Labour-supporting son

'Election night was one of the most exciting nights of my political life'

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The Independent Online

Where are you today?

I'm sitting on the terrace of the House of Lords, by the river, in the gentle sunshine, watching the Clerk of the Parliaments tuck into an enormous cooked breakfast.

You've done well to end up there. What first attracted you to politics?

Alcohol. I was having a drink in the pub and somebody mentioned to me something called the Conservative Research Department. I popped in to pick up some leaflets and two hours later the director had offered me a job. I said, "How much are you offering, in terms of pay?" He looked across the desk and said, "You require a salary?" That was the start of my crazy career in politics.

Do the politicians you've met along the way share any particular traits?

You have to have a bit of ego and a hell of a thick skin. It helps to have a few principles and values as well. You also have to accept that there'll be times when somebody's going to come along with a bucket of shit and pour it all over you. If you can put up with that, you've got a chance at being a politician.

And who was a real-life exemplary power player?

I was Margaret Thatcher's chief of staff. She was the most extraordinary, powerful politician who created all sorts of change for this country. But like almost every other prime minister for a century, she was forced out. It is strange that even though she climbed to the top of the tree, she ended up getting it wrong.

Kevin Spacey is terrifyingly thuggish as Frank Underwood, the protagonist in House of Cards. Do you know who he based his version on?

I can only guess at that, as I haven't sat with Kevin and analysed it in great detail. But he had just come off a supremely successful world tour of Richard III. I don't think he had to do much reappraisal before he slipped into FU.

Do you think House of Cards is in fact better suited to US politics?

American politics has more power, and it has more money. I think that encourages the darker side of politics. So in a way, House of Cards is an even more natural fit to the US system than the British one, because it does concentrate on that side of things. Remember it's a drama, not a documentary – it misses out the vast majority of politics. It sits very neatly in Washington DC and the cultures of power there. But it would sit just as neatly, I suspect, in the Kremlin. Although I don't suppose there, for instance, Mrs Khrushchev would have had quite the same sort of impact as Clare Underwood would have.

How did you spend election night?

I was at Conservative Party HQ with campaign strategist Lynton Crosby, watching the results come in. It was one of the most exciting nights of my political life. Seeing what the party's predictions were for all the seats, seeing what the straw polls on the day were predicting, and then seeing the actual results come in. It was electrifying.

Was the result a surprise to you?

One of my sons is a very active campaigner for the Labour party. He's a young man and I regard him as being foolish in some of his ways – in his football team and his choice of political allegiance. I bet him that the Tories would win by six per cent and I was wrong. It ended up being six and a half per cent, I think. Like many other Conservatives, I can say that on the ground it felt different from what the commentators were telling us.

So how do your son's allegiances differ on the pitch?

He supports Chelsea, I'm an Arsenal man. I always have been – ever since I was born next to the Spurs training ground.