Mo Mowlam: 'People like me. I've no idea why'

From Labour darling to outcast, and now lads' mag sexpert with her own stage show, the fearlessly outspoken Mo Mowlam has retained her legion of fans. Except Tony Blair
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"Are you getting enough crumpet?" asks Mo Mowlam, as she ambles into the low-ceilinged living-room of her farmhouse on the Kent coast, reading from a sheaf of faxes in her hand. Although the question is not directed at me, given the former Northern Ireland Secretary's current role as the agony aunt of the lads' magazine Zoo, it could well be. A casual query about how satisfied I am with my sex life could be construed as perfectly legitimate research on her part.

"Are you getting enough crumpet?" asks Mo Mowlam, as she ambles into the low-ceilinged living-room of her farmhouse on the Kent coast, reading from a sheaf of faxes in her hand. Although the question is not directed at me, given the former Northern Ireland Secretary's current role as the agony aunt of the lads' magazine Zoo, it could well be. A casual query about how satisfied I am with my sex life could be construed as perfectly legitimate research on her part.

At 55, Mowlam is looking exceptionally well. When she was being treated for a brain tumour (before her illness became public), the late Lynda Lee-Potter compared her to "an only slightly effeminate Geordie trucker". Then, in 1997, Mo, the nation's favourite politician, seemed unstoppable, whether conducting drawn-out negotiations with some of Britain's most intractable politicians or getting Elton John to play Stormont.

Mowlam out of power is no less energetic. As well as agony-aunting for Zoo, she travels in aid of the charities she supports (Macmillan Cancer Relief and her own community-support charity MoMo) and is an occasional journalist, and is chairing Emap's bid to set up a radio station in Belfast. If successful, she will be the rather unlikely chairman of Kerrang! Radio. Has she ever read Kerrang! magazine or been to their awards? "No. Should I have?" I explain that the brand is associated with heavily made-up rockers who wear enough leather and chains to fill a well-equipped bondage parlour. "Doesn't bother me," she grins.

How did she come to be involved? "I was looking for non-executive directorships. I went to about 20 places, and Emap was one of them. It went from there." But don't former cabinet ministers have to beat away directorships with a stick? "Well, I didn't have any," she replies, "and I wanted some because it's good money."

It seems a far cry from the days of ministerial limousines and grace-and-favour apartments. But her husband lost his job in the City five years ago so, she says, the onus is on work. "We have a role reversal," she explains. "I earn the money."

On cue, Mo's husband Jon Norton brings in a tray of coffee. The two met on the "prawn cocktail offensive" Labour launched in the City in the early Nineties. Jon was a banker, but after losing his job he turned his hand to painting, and to looking after Mo. "He does the house, all the shopping and cooking, walks the dogs and picks up the newspapers," she says. "Then I come down like lady muck and have breakfast. It's a very fair system."

I'd assumed Zoo had approached her to write the column - but no. "I used to do one on Closer, but that ended. So I got a load of magazines and saw which ones had an agony-aunt column and which didn't. Then I wrote to ask if they'd like one. When you're looking for a job, you have to do everything, don't you?" That now also includes her one-woman show, An Audience with Mo Mowlam, which starts a nationwide tour this Sunday at the Hackney Empire.

Why would ordinary customers want to pay to see her? "Because they like me," she replies with great assurance. "I mean, I am liked very much. Goodness knows why."

Yes, people do like Mo Mowlam. The plain-speaking Northern Ireland Secretary who bravely overcame her illness; who took off her wig during negotiations, and called that most granite-faced of republicans, Martin McGuinness, "babe"; who always seemed honest and open.

At one point, she was accorded a standing ovation when the Prime Minister mentioned her in his speech to the Labour Party conference. When she fronted a political broadcast, the party received a record number of membership applications.

Not everyone in the party liked Mo, though. Eased out of the Northern Ireland Office against her will and shunted into the Cabinet Office, she stepped down from government and Parliament in 2001. She claimed to be the victim of a whispering campaign that suggested she had "lost her marbles" as a result of her (successful) medical treatment. Other jibes hinted at a lack of personal judgement; the New Statesman quoted a nameless adviser who said she'd gone to a union conference "and had a good time with the whole executive, one by one".

In 2002, she published Momentum, a memoir chiefly concerned with the process leading to the Good Friday Agreement. It will be remembered for her blunt comments on colleagues and her rounding on "all the rubbish" that had been written about her. At the time, she insisted she was "still loyal" to the Prime Minister, that he was "decent", and that, "hand on heart", she would say he was "the best man to be Prime Minister".

Now it's a different story. "I don't necessarily want Blair in," she says. "I thought those issues which we dropped would have been perfect for Charles Kennedy - he could have gained some of the Labour voters who were disillusioned. But he didn't. And whoever said there was something of the night about [Michael] Howard was right. And I couldn't vote Tory anyway." Is Blair the least worst option, then? "Yes," she replies. "That's why there's no vision, no hope and no ideal for people to grab on to."

It's hardly a ringing endorsement. But Mowlam clearly feels she's been left out in the cold. In an interview after Momentum appeared, it was stated that she had been offered a seat in the Lords. "I'm thinking about it," she was quoted as saying. What happened to the peerage? "Nah," she says, blithely contradicting herself. "I've never been offered a peerage. I don't want one, and no one's ever offered me one." In another interview, she said she hoped that the Government would want her back in some form. "No one has approached me yet," she said, "but I've only been gone a year."

She's been gone four years now, and the approach still hasn't come. What will she be doing during the election? "I've already agreed to help out our local MPs," she says. But she knows I'm thinking of a bigger stage than Sittingbourne and the Isle of Sheppey. "I don't know. If I'm asked I'll think about it. But I haven't been asked."

So this could be the first election for 20 years when she hasn't had an active, important role campaigning for the Labour Party? "That's life," she says. "I don't think Blair's got any intention of asking me. He doesn't ask people to do things. He doesn't listen to people." Has she spoken to him recently? "No. I've put messages in. For example, I'd be willing to help on the European campaign, which I feel very strongly about. But I've heard nothing back."

If there was a time when Mowlam might have been readmitted, it has surely passed. Her habit of speaking freely wouldn't endear her to those whose patronage she would need. I mention Lord Birt and his role in thinking great thoughts for the Prime Minister's consideration. "I call blue-sky-thinking 'wanking'," she says, "because to me there's not much difference."

She's similarly immoderate on Blair. "Tony's gone ridiculously far. He's adopted policies and talks in a manner that is no longer Labour. That's why I couldn't defend what we were doing to my constituents, which is why I had to leave. They would have known I was talking through my arse."

Out here by the coast, in a farmhouse at the end of a track, Mowlam is a long way from the bustle of Westminster. She and Norton sold their houses in London and Redcar, her former constituency, and moved in six months ago. It's not surprising that she seems removed from the political scene, and a little irritated by her distance from a movement that defined her.

But maybe she was never properly part of the New Labour project in the first place. Her views on women in government, for instance, are not necessarily what one would expect. "I think it's very difficult to be a woman with children in the Cabinet," she says, when we talk about the departure of several high-ranking female ministers. "I take my hat off to [Education Secretary] Ruth Kelly. She's got an important job, four kids, and a constituency to look after.

"She's probably capable of it. But I think those are too many jobs for one person. It's too difficult for most women, who find it much harder to play the political game than men do. Women have found it uncomfortable, I think that's fair to say."

What does the future hold for a former cabinet minister such as Mo Mowlam? As well as the shows, the Zoo column and the radio station, she is writing a book with her husband that will advocate the legalisation and regulation of drugs. She did undertake one task for a government department recently, to give a talk to ministers and senior civil servants - in Albania. "The Foreign Office asked me to go," she says. "They couldn't find anybody but me to do it."

She's also improving her culinary skills. "I can do lemon meringue pie, bread and butter pudding, jam tarts," she says. "I was thinking of doing lemon meringue today if I have the time. Or I might make a jam tart." She puts on a sing-song northern accent: "I doon't knoow."

This talk of food reminds me of the first time I met Mo Mowlam, many years ago at a cocktail party, when she was in the Cabinet. Finding our conversation disrupted by fans who wanted a word, Mo grabbed my arm firmly and said: "Head for the hummus and keep talking." It was a typical move from a woman who proclaimed that her role was to modernise the Government, no less. Decisions about jam tarts just aren't as exciting, or, I suspect, as fulfilling.

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