Mowlam: a political star in an age of dull conformity

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Indy Politics

The former Northern Ireland secretary had been in a coma for two weeks after stumbling and hitting her head at her home. She had experienced difficulties with her balance after a gruelling course of radiotherapy to combat a brain tumour eight years ago.

She was taken to King's College Hospital in south London and was transferred last week to the Pilgrims Hospice in Canterbury. She had asked in a living will not to be resuscitated and in the last few days food and water were withdrawn.

Mowlam projected a mischievous, idiosyncratic and engaging personality yet her political genius was to seem more recklessly indiscreet than she really was. For most of her career she was admired for her unpredictable candour while toeing the party line. She managed to be the Blairite loyalist who spoke her mind.

In the late 1990s her popularity soared to such an extent that she famously received a standing ovation in the middle of Tony Blair's annual speech to the Labour conference. Blair had paid tribute to her role as Northern Ireland Secretary and to his amazement the conference got to its feet. After Mowlam left the Cabinet she drew huge crowds from across the political spectrum when she toured the country to promote her memoirs. In and out of the Cabinet, Mowlam was a political star.

Mowlam worked as a lecturer and university administrator before being elected MP for Redcar in 1987, where she became part of the growing band of Labour Party modernisers from the North-east. Nearby MPs included Blair, Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn. Peter Mandelson joined them in 1992 as MP for Hartlepool. She was more self-confidently exuberant than any of them.

From the start Mowlam displayed a calculated lack of self-consciousness. Not long after becoming an MP she dared to knock on the door of the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, and stride in for a chat on the state of the party and politics generally. She knew what she doing. Kinnock was on the lookout for bright and telegenic MPs as he sought to widen the appeal of his party. Soon Mowlam was appearing on the BBC's Question Time, combining a flirtatious mischievousness with a serious message. She was one of the so-called modernisers who argued that Labour had changed, but must reform further.

Her ostentatious disdain for hierarchy boosted her own seriously formed ambition. The fun-loving vivacity quite often had a political purpose.

Under Kinnock's leadership she was also valued for her gifts as a political fighter and strategist. In 1991 she spearheaded Labour's campaign in the pivotal Langbaurgh by-election in North Yorkshire. She wooed the media and Labour received a better press than it probably deserved at the time. At her peak, Mowlam was the perfect spin doctor. The journalists were too charmed by her apparent jovial eccentricity to recognise the artful manipulation.

After the death of John Smith, Mowlam became one of Blair's main cheerleaders. Blair worried about her indiscretions but, apart from a proposal for the Royal Family to modernise itself, she stuck largely to the New Labour script. This was because she believed in the Blairite project. It was from the mid-1990s that she appeared endearingly candid when she was being wholly loyal. Her approach was the opposite of those politicians who sought to affect loyalty as they caused political trouble.

Her troublemaking was confined to those issues where it was relatively safe to speak out. As a cabinet minister she admitted to smoking cannabis. She made the admission with typical gusto, mocking Bill Clinton for his insistence that he did not inhale. She told an interviewer that she had tried cannabis and did inhale. But the context suggests once more that she knew the risks were minimal. A few days before she gave the revelatory interview, several senior Conservatives had admitted openly to smoking cannabis in deliberate defiance of their strait-laced home affairs spokeswoman, Ann Widdecombe. Mowlam confessed at a time when even for senior Tories it had become the political fashion to do so. She joined in the fun, stirring the controversy in the Tory party. There was method in her spontaneity.

Mowlam's political guile was most tested in the challenging terrain of Northern Ireland. For several years she was shadow Northern Ireland Secretary and had grasped the complex nuances of the stuttering peace process by the time Labour came to power. In post she helped to re-energise the process, winning the trust of leading nationalist politicians. On the day after Labour's election win Mowlam toured Belfast city centre and was greeted as a political hero rather than a new minister starting out on a long and tortuous road. Once she had settled in the thorny post she dared to challenge several taboos. These included her symbolic and ground- breaking visit to the Maze prison.

From the beginning, her style unnerved Unionists who were wary of her rapport with nationalists. Some of them could not cope with the fact that they were dealing with the first female Northern Ireland Secretary, especially one as tactile as Mowlam. In an interview for me in the autumn of 1997, she said: "I give the Unionists a hug when I meet them and I think some of them think I also go around hugging terrorists. Well, let me state categorically that I have never knowingly hugged a terrorist in my life."

But Mowlam never accepted a harsh political fact. Northern Ireland secretaries have a limited life span if they are not trusted by one side. By the summer of 1999 she had more than outlived her usefulness in that particular role and was becoming part of the problem. She did not go quietly. Before the much-heralded reshuffle, she publicly declared she was going on holiday and hoped to return in the same post. Blair still moved her. Mowlam was demoted to the Cabinet Office, a non-job that tended to finish political careers. She never forgave Blair and their relationship was tense for the rest of her career. Within months of starting her new job, she admitted publicly in a BBC interview that she was not enjoying the post. She never enjoyed political life again.

Two myths surfaced about Mowlam during her final period as a minister. One was that Blair never forgave her for the ovation that occurred in the middle of his conference speech. The opposite was the case. Blair wanted more cabinet ministers with a broad appeal. He was secure enough not to resent her popularity. Blair regarded Mowlam's popularity as a potential asset, but by then he despaired of her as an effective cabinet minister.

She thought Blair and his entourage set out to poison her reputation with private briefings. That was the other myth, for which I was partly responsible. I wrote a long article for the New Statesman about Downing Street's growing criticisms of Mowlam's performance as a cabinet minister. My information about Downing Street's view had been obtained informally over several months in a range of conversations that I had instigated. I do not believe that Blair and his staff had set out to rubbish her. I told her so, but she was convinced that the knives were out.

Her brain tumour was diagnosed when Labour was still in opposition, shortly before the 1997 election. She responded with noble courage and a political doggedness that bordered at times on wilful obstinacy. At first she continued in public without any reference to the illness. Only when snide comments were made in the media about her increase in weight did she reveal the illness and the fact that she needed to wear a wig. She insisted before the election in 1997 that she had made a full recovery. The wig though remained in place, although she joked often about how she would take it off to puncture the tensions of meetings in Northern Ireland. At no point did she display any self-pity, although her story was tragic: after bleak years in opposition she fell ill on the eve of power.

After her historic period in Northern Ireland, a spell that included the Good Friday Agreement, she struggled to make an impact in the Cabinet Office. Even so she could still be brilliant on television and radio, effortlessly mocking the misplaced pomposity of some interviewers. Labour strategists noted that when Mowlam was in election broadcasts they were overwhelmed with requests to join the party. With typical cunning she announced her resignation from Cabinet several months before she left office. Cheekily. she had hit upon a third way in resignations. She was hailed when she announced her departure and hailed again when she finally departed some time later.

She married Jon Norton, a merchant banker, in 1995. After she left the Commons they moved to Kent where she declared buoyantly: "Jon paints and I write". She worked on her autobiography in which she concluded: "I always looked on the bright side of life - one of the characteristics that helped to produce results in Northern Ireland."

Mowlam was only a cabinet minister for a relatively short period of time. But, unlike many longer-serving ministers, she became part of history. A few weeks ago, the IRA announced that it was giving up its armed struggle. She had played her part in that announcement, the fun-loving minister who recognised that politics was a serious business and could change people's lives.