Michael Dobbs: You Ask The Questions

The author and political chronicler answers your questions, such as 'What's it like in the bunker at a time like this?' and 'Can Gordon Brown survive?'
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The Independent Online

Which politician do you think has behaved in a most Urquhart-like fashion in the last week? ANGELA HART, BASINGSTOKE

Step forward the Prince of Darkness himself, Baron Mandelson of Foy and several other places besides. Yet he's come out of it all as Deputy Prime Minister. His survival skills and ambition are extraordinary, an inspiration to all politicians who harbour a grievance. Watch your back, Gordon.



You were in Downing Street with John Major to the very end. Were those days like these are for Gordon Brown, do you think? Can you describe what it's like in the bunker at a time like this? JOHN FRANKS, READING

The process is soul-destroying. Everything you've ever worked for is being screwed up. It's all very personal, you feel humiliated, people avoid you, your instructions fall on deaf ears. It's said that all political careers end in failure, and you came into Downing Street believing that somehow you might be the exception, yet suddenly you discover that Robinson Crusoe had more friends. The sense of betrayal that comes through being rejected is overwhelming and usually lifelong.



Do you feel sorry for Gordon Brown? Has he been unlucky, or do you think he had it coming? LEWIS MILTON, CIRENCESTER

I think Gordon Brown is a disastrous Prime Minister, yet I've got real personal sympathy for him. He's a serious politician with a conscience (unlike Tony Blair), yet we're watching him being ripped apart inside. His chewed fingernails, his dark brow, that scary smile, tell of a man in great personal pain. It's like watching a Greek tragedy, knowing there can be no happy ending.



Do you think Brown can survive as Prime Minister? HOWARD PRENTICE, NORTHAMPTON

He's a dead duck who hasn't yet sunk. I suspect he'll float along, tossed by the currents, until election day in a year's time, because successful plots require a clear and credible leader and I don't see a Heseltine-style figure emerging yet among Labour ranks. Question is, will his health survive?



Will you be writing anything inspired by the last week's astonishing events? JOANNE HERRING LONDON W6

I've got a BBC Radio 4 play coming out in the autumn dealing with Maggie Thatcher's last days in Downing Street which might capture some of the emotions, but it's still too soon to tell just how profound the crisis surrounding Gordon Brown is. Basic Rule: To write political fiction, take reality, then water it down in order to make it credible.



What would be a good title for a novel based on the current political tumult? HELEN KYTE, BATH

I've just got a new paperback out called The Edge of Madness. It's not about the events of last week, but it might have been.



Do you think Francis Urquhart would have made the kind of extravagant expenses claims we've seen in reality? If so, what sort of things might he have charged for? TOM WILLIS, MANCHESTER

FU was too canny to have been caught in any obvious fiddle. If he indulged at all, it would have been in a supply of fine malt whisky, something old and out of a sherry cask and entirely necessary for his duties of seducing young journalists. It's his wife, Elizabeth, who might have led him astray. I can see her driving round in a car that was an environmental hazard, adorned with the vanity number plate FU2.

Do you ever get sick of Francis Urquhart's iconic status? KERRY WALKER, LUTON

Never. I'm proud to have helped create such a thing. But FU's strength has much to do with other people, particularly the actor who played him – the wonderful and much missed Ian Richardson.

Do you ever wish you were still in politics, instead of writing novels about it? What made you give it up? ONUR ERDEM, CARDIFF

I love writing and I'm better equipped temperamentally to deal with its challenges than those of politics (there's too much Irish in me; I keep wanting to tell a fool he's a bloody idiot). I always wanted to be an MP, and there is part of me that regrets not ever having sat on those green leather benches, just to see whether I would have been any good at it or simply a complete disaster.



Do you still consider yourself a Conservative? SIMON FIELDING, CAMBRIDGE

I'm deeply suspicious of government. We have too much of it. I despise politicians who pretend they have a solution to all life's ills, who don't have the guts to stand up and say there are some problems they simply can't deal with. I hope that still makes me a Conservative. But I think the Conservative Party made a huge balls-up of the Iraq War; they should have stood up and questioned it right from the start, and not so easily accepted the lies and distortions we were fed.

Will David Cameron make a good Prime Minister? JENNIFER BLACK, LONDON

He has courage, great ability and a very supportive family. Just how good he'll be, we'll have to wait and see – but he will be Prime Minister.

Your books are often seen as prescient. So, tell us: what's next on the political agenda? ALINE STEIN, SOUTHAMPTON

I have no crystal ball. I simply believe that if politicians have been up to something solidly for the past three hundred years, they're probably going to repeat those mistakes over the next three. So wait for several new sightings from the Treasury of green shoots that turn out to be an infestation of weeds, and John Prescott auditioning yet again for the lead role in a remake of Rambo. There will also be an outrageously funny sex scandal some time this summer. Sadly, the one thing that won't change in a hurry is the war in Afghanistan.



You must have a Machiavellian streak yourself to have risen to Conservative Party Chief of Staff under Thatcher – you were even called "Westminster's babyfaced hitman" What was your most ruthless action? GARETH INMAN, TRURO

Sacking friends who weren't up to the job. It may have been ruthless, but in the long-term it was also a kindness.



You survived the Brighton bombing. What memories do you have of that day? SARAH JOHN, INVERNESS

Waking up in the middle of a night filled with choking dust and alarms, slowly realizing I was extraordinarily lucky still to be alive and unharmed, knowing that my good friends Norman and Margaret Tebbit in a nearby room hadn't been so fortunate, the pain of waiting to find out their fate, the courage of those who refused to be deflected by it. The abiding sense of loathing for those who were responsible.



Churchill is such a widely written-about man. Why did you want to write about him? What do you think hadn't already been said? VIV YELLING, BIRMINGHAM

Most historians concentrate on what Churchill did. I wanted to write about the man, and try to understand him as though he were sitting in the room beside me. He was a deeply troubled individual, and in order to understand the public figure you have to understand the turmoils of his private life. And, truth be told, I've done more original research into the man than many historians.



Who are your favourite writers? IAN PUGH, CANTERBURY

There's no such thing as "favourite". Perhaps the greatest joy is discovering writers you haven't known before - and those I've read recently read for the first time with huge pleasure have been Jane Austen, Michael Morpurgo and Chris Mullin's recent autobiography.

What's it like to move from the constant action of politics to the writer's life? ALEXANDRA HURT, London NW3

As a politician you want to run the world. As a writer, you do – and if you don't like the world you've created, you can always go back and change it.



Are there any jobs you haven't held you think you might still like to try? NEIL BROWN, LIVERPOOL

I would love to be Foreign Secretary at this point in our affairs. I'd do a much better job than the current incumbent, David Millipede. I can admit to such vanity because it will never happen, of course, but I have a vivid imagination and can rest content with simply thinking I am.



Michael Dobbs, Wesminster insider and author of a series of internationally best-selling series of historical novels based on Winston Churchill, will be appearing at the Althorp Literary Festival on Saturday. Details at www.althorp.com/literary.php

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