A match for the hard men

Profile: Mo Mowlam; The 'kissy kissy' Secretary of State is big enough for Ulster's toughest politicians.
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The Independent Online
Before last Thursday's Cabinet meeting Marjorie Mowlam was to be seen in the office block in Millbank that the Northern Ireland Office shares with MI5 wearing a white Nike baseball cap. Her officials saw a hint of growing conservatism. "She was wearing it the right way round," they reported.

Since becoming Secretary of State nine weeks ago, Ms Mowlam has lived up to her reputation for informality, and eccentricity. She is the only member of the Cabinet who can tell jokes that are as dirty as Frank Dobson's. Mo - everyone calls her that - answers her own telephone, and uses her red box to carry her make-up. Before the general election she revealed that she had a benign tumour on the brain. The treatment had left her bald; she proves the point by removing her wig during meetings, most memorably at a press conference in Washington DC.

Her personal and political skills have served Ms Mowlam well in Labour politics, but this weekend is going to test them like never before. Last year at Drumcree 60,000 Orangemen provoked a bloody breakdown of law and order, and imposed barely tolerable strains on the ailing peace process. For months Ms Mowlam has worried about a repetition of those events. Last week she commuted between London and Belfast where she spent hours negotiating with nationalist residents and members of the Orange Order. She had hoped to announce a compromise of some sort well ahead of the march, but at the eleventh hour she was still trying to persuade obdurate Ulster politicians to stave off disaster.

This is hardly the ideal recuperation from radiotherapy, accompanied by steroid treatment. But there is another political difficulty in this most burdensome of government jobs. It is rarely spoken of, but a diplomat and admirer - and a woman - points out: "It's something she has to deal with, but, because she is a woman, there is a suspicion that she is not tough enough. It's out there."

She is a survivor. Pneumonia almost killed her when she was three months old. That was in 1949 in Watford, the family soon moving to Coventry. She was the middle child in a family she describes as lower middle class; both parents worked at the GPO. When she was 11 they moved to Coventry, but her upbringing was overshadowed by her father's alcoholism. (He died in 1981.) She attended Coundon Court comprehensive where she excelled as an athlete and became head girl, and success at school must have been a release from the emotional and financial troubles at home. She went on to Durham University, which was chosen partly because of its distance from the Midlands.

Student life in Durham in the late 1960s was liberated. She smoked joints - and unlike President Clinton, Mo Mowlam inhaled. Her room was decorated with tin foil and a picture of Jimi Hendrix half naked. She took a degree in social anthropology and when her boyfriend, a student of American literature, went to Iowa University, she went with him, and did an MA in political science before completing a PhD. She then taught in Florida before returning to Britain in 1979 to become a lecturer at Newcastle University. She left there to become senior administrator of Northern College in Barnsley.

She had joined the Labour Party in 1969, and in 1983 she was a volunteer in Neil Kinnock's leadership campaign, and had made her mark with his aides. Then in 1987, she had a stroke of luck when she unexpectedly won the nomination at the last minute for the safe seat of Redcar. It was not the first time she had tried and, when she got the seat she was unemployed, having resigned from Northern College over political differences. Like Mr Kinnock, she was located on the soft left - a CND supporter who also wanted to modernise the party. It was the fashionable position at the time, and in 1988, identified as one of the brightest of the new intake, she was given a junior job on the team shadowing the Northern Ireland Office. A year later she was moved to trade and industry where she specialised in City and corporate affairs.

Ms Mowlam achieved a rare double by being elected to the Shadow Cabinet and to the National Executive Committee, a demonstration of her popularity in the party. She used a good memory to political effect. One Labour activist notes: "Whenever I meet Mo she knows who I am, what I do and when we first met. There are other members of the Cabinet to whom I have to introduce myself each time we meet."

After the election defeat in 1992 she continued to prosper under John Smith. At his untimely death Ms Mowlam was an early and vocal supporter of Tony Blair for leader. When Blair arrived back in his office from Scotland where he had been campaigning, she was one of four people waiting in his office to pledge support. Her prescience was slightly marred by one of her indiscretions. Returning by train from the Eastbourne by-election, she confided to John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, that Blair was concerned about the lack of living space in No 10 Downing Street.

Her personal life was neither smooth nor conventional. She married only recently, and for years spinsterhood seemed to beckon. Not that she lacked close company; she had affairs, including one with Colin Hughes, now deputy editor of The Independent. Her theory is that the insecurity of her early life made it difficult for her to become too deeply involved in a relationship, or to provide the commitment for marriage. She and her husband John Norton lived together for four years before marrying, in a register office rather than a church - if Ms Mowlam has religious convictions she keeps them to herself. Mr Norton, who is five years her junior, is a merchant banker and Labour sympathiser. He has been divorced and has two children, Henrietta and Freddy.

After Ms Mowlam became Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, some colleagues thought they detected the slight disenchantment an ambitious politician feels for an unrewarding job, but she was crucial in re-orientating Labour's policy. Mr Blair had already dumped one crucial element by announcing that a Labour government would not be a "persuader" for a united Ireland. Labour took a bi-partisan approach towards Ireland, the quid pro quo being constant briefings from ministers. The relationship with the lofty, patrician Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew, bore the marks of a classic Mowlam operation. The old Etonian and ex-Guardsman was disarmed by her informality, as when Ms Mowlam arrived in his private office complaining about having to change her tights in a taxi. During the general election campaign, Sir Patrick proved unable to criticise his shadow. Indeed, he informed reporters that she should make a wonderful secretary of state. Party workers were horrified.

Ms Mowlam also built bridges to the Ulster Unionists, addressing a meeting in the constituency of Willie Ross, one of the most conservative of the Unionist MPs, and becoming the first Labour spokesperson to speak to a UUP conference fringe. She went out of her way to cultivate the previous leader of the UUP, James (now Sir James) Molyneaux. MPs clearly recall the spectacle of Mr Molyneaux, a bachelor septuagenarian and Second World War fighter pilot, being embraced by the new shadow minister. It was described at the time as a mild form of sexual harassment. This honeymoon period was partly prompted, however, by the fact that her predecessor, Kevin McNamara, was regarded with acute suspicion by Unionists.

The relationship cooled last year. Her informality and her tactile manner proved to be a challenge the male, middle-aged culture of Ulster Unionist politics could not meet. When she was no less familiar with their opponents, it fuelled suspicion about her sympathies. As one Unionist put it: "Her touchy-touchy, kissy-kissy style is one thing when she's dealing with someone from the voluntary sector. But it's slightly different when she's kissy-kissy with Bertie Ahern."

The Most common criticism of Ms Mowlam is that she tends to be all things to all men. She does not surround herself with cronies from any particular group, and she is difficult to place within the party; one party worker describes her as "an archetypal moderniser" , another as a "an ally of the left in the Cabinet". In fact, she confesses that she encourages this uncertainty. In an interview with the Daily Mail she described herself as a chameleon, adding that people say "that I stuck close to Kinnock, then Smith, then Blair, and that I can switch my personality to suit whatever audience I'm with. There's an element of truth in that."

Her critics claim that Ms Mowlam's frankness will get her into trouble - as when she called on the Royal Family to sell Buckingham Palace. But she has yet to trip up over Northern Ireland, where precision of expression is vital, and her warm reception in Belfast two days after Labour's election victory demonstrated her ability to break down barriers. When she eats in a Belfast restaurant, she is apt to work her way round all the tables, stealing chips from diners' plates while chatting to them. An ally says: "Her style makes it very difficult for people to refuse to engage with her."

By dint of hard work and shrewd positioning Ms Mowlam has assembled a strong hand in difficult circumstances. She helped forge New Labour's new policy towards Ulster, she has wooed the Unionists, she is close to the prime minister and on good terms with Dublin. Her familiarity with the United States has helped to put Ms Mowlam at ease with an administration which may play a pivotal role in Ireland. The next few weeks will be a severe trial of her judgement in a job in which she is terribly exposed, and it would be a brave person who predicted, this weekend especially, an era of peace in Northern Ireland. But, as one colleague put it: "Mo has as good a chance as anyone of pulling it off".