Focus: The Mo I knew: reckless, funny, a maker of enemies - but a world-class practical joker
Mo Mowlam was one of Britain's most popular public figures. But, says Andy McSmith, who knew her well, she was even more engaging in private
Sunday 21 August 2005
I know because weeks afterwards I asked a friend about a new arrival on the Newcastle political scene called Mo Mowlam and was surprised to be told that I had already met her, spoken to her, and written her off.
There was, in those days, a left-wing bookshop called Days of Hope. I was in the shop when an alert, athletic, handsome woman came in, identifying herself as a lecturer at Newcastle University.
She was interested in the people who frequented the bookshop and wanted to be involved. But there was such a flagrant undertone of "what's in it for me?" in her line of questioning that I took against her. I had quite forgotten this when I was reminded of it, weeks later, when Mo was making a name for herself.
This bad start could have become worse because in 1981 there was a fierce contest to choose the Labour parliamentary candidate for Newcastle Central, in which Mowlam was a front runner. While under way, someone well placed in the Labour Party, from outside Tyneside, urged me to avoid any dealings with the person called Mo, because she was thought to be a CIA agent.
I did not believe this libel, and my antagonism towards its subject turned eventually into a long friendship. Mo's death last week hit not just me, but the whole family. My children will remember her as a kindly, tolerant lady living with her artist husband in a converted farmhouse in Kent, where children were allowed to run around at will and play with a high-spirited dog named Jack.
But the tributes to her that have poured in during the last two days, rightly emphasising her friendly charm and popularity, have obscured the fact she collected enemies throughout her career. She worked for Tony Benn after graduating, but fell out with him, and later with Arthur Scargill. After her election to the Commons, she fell out with Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair. The mistrust she stirred up among Ulster Unionists has been noted. In some cases this was political. David Trimble, I think, liked her but thought her too sympathetic to the republicans. Others found her informality and her swearing repellent. When I asked one Ulster Unionist MP what he made of the Northern Ireland Secretary, he said: "I asked a colleague, 'Have you been touched by Mo Mowlam?' and he said to me 'Mercifully, the Devil has not brought me that experience, yet'."
Mo made enemies, in part, because she was everybody's friend. Political parties are made up of cliques whose members are alert to the "us" and "them". Mo's modus operandi was to move in on a clique, meet and charm everyone, then go off to do the same in another clique. This could leave people who had thought her a friend feeling betrayed. No doubt the canard about her being a CIA agent began because members of the Bennite left mistook her for one of their own and, on discovering that she had contacts far removed from the left, assumed she was a spy.
I cannot pinpoint when I changed my mind about her. I noticed, over time, that she was very daring. She would walk into difficult political situations and was very resilient about the knocks and setbacks of political life. When she talked about her failure to win the nomination in Newcastle Central, it was as if she was describing how she had been through some bad weather, rather than at the receiving end of very nasty political manoeuvring. I came round to thinking that she did what self-serving careerists do because she had to, to get on, but at the core there was something genuine about her.
One of her attractive qualities was that she did not assume everyone was under an obligation to like her. She knew I did not care for her at first, and set out to change it.
During that time in the Days of Hope, I mentioned my wife, a librarian, was often exasperated by trivial questions asked by the public. Mo decided it would be fun to ring up and ask how many segments there are in a caterpillar. Her first attempt failed because Sue recognised her voice, so she hijacked a customerto make the call. How do you dislike someone who goes to so much trouble to brighten up a day?
The charm, of course, did not always work. Having fought to prevent Peter Mandelson from succeeding her as Northern Ireland Secretary, she felt sorry for him when he was forced to resign, bought him breakfast at the Savoy and then was deeply put out when he did not ask her about her health or plans, but spent the meal talking about himself.
But her finest hour was when the Northern Ireland peace process hit the rocks because unionist gunmen were boycotting it and Mo decided to meet them in the Maze Prison. Officials advised against it, but to quote the words she used in private, her reaction was "fuck 'em". I can picture her mindset as she entered the jail: "You may be heartless, misogynist murderers who hate the British government, but I will make you respond to me. I will, whatever you think." And it worked.
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