Is he fibbing? I can't possibly comment

Michael Dobbs, onetime deputy chairman of Saatchis and now of the Tory party, tells a ripping good yarn. His books aren't bad either

Hunter Davies
Tuesday 31 January 1995 01:02

After almost two hours with Michael Dobbs, deputy chairman of the Tory party and creator of Francis Urquhart, television's marvellously wicked Prime Minister, the dreadful thought struck me that great chunks of what he'd said I couldn't quite believe. No, I'm not saying he's a liar. I'm not that daft, your honour. Let's say he sometimes simplifies the truth. Mr Dobbs tells his story by smoothing away the creases and ironing out wrinkles so that afterwards you suspect it can't have been quite like that, quite that easy. Otherwise, every Tom, Dick and Harry would be a best-selling author and/or Tory mandarin, wouldn't they?

Here, for example, is how he chanced to get his first job with the Tories. This was in 1975, when he was aged 27, and had just returned from five years in the US. He had no contacts, knew nobody and was wondering what to do in life. Now read on.

"I met this stranger in a pub who told me about the Tory Research Department. I'd never even heard of it, so I rang up and asked if they had any pamphlets. The next day I went round to pick them up, driven by my dad, who parked outside on a double yellowline. I was told, `Go in please, the director is expecting you.' I thought there must be some mistake. I was in jeans and a tartan shirt at the time, but I thought, well, I might as well see the director. We started talking and I found he was filling inan application form. I came away two hours later with a job."

Oh come on. There must have been more to it than that. "No, honestly, that's exactly how it happened." Then what about your dad? "He was still outside, asleep in the car."

Mr Dobbs senior, now dead, sounds an interesting cove, at least the way his son tells it. He was a salesman for a brewery, a policeman, pig farmer, nurseryman, toymaker and director of a marketing company as well as spending spells unemployed.

Sounds a bit like you, I ventured. "How do you mean?" Well, you've never had a proper job.

Michael laughs heartily. That's one of his endearing qualities. Like Kenneth Clarke, and with a similar voice, he appears at first sight an open, amiable fellow, takes a joke, takes a drink, no airs and graces, very young and boyish-looking, still with asuspicion of freckles. It's only when you observe his eyes you realise, also like Ken Clarke, that he can be more calculating than you might expect.

He was born in Hertfordshire on 14 November 1948, so shares the same birthday as the Prince of Wales, "in fact the same hour". From the local grammar school he went to Oxford, the first in his family at university, getting a place at Christ Church. And did you feel socially at ease? "There were maharajas and earls there, but I didn't feel out of place." Because of your innate confidence? Another hearty laugh. "Oh I didn't haven't much confidence then. But it wasn't snobby at all. In fact, I was elected president of the JCR in my second year."

He had no interest in politics then, despite the fact that his father had been a local Tory councillor, who then went independent. "I was given a life membership of the Conservative Association at Oxford, from a friend who wanted me to vote for him, but I never went to one meeting. I thought student politics were silly and irrelevent."

He got a third, a good third, he says, another smile, then went off to Boston to do graduate work, actually got a PhD, though the real reason he'd gone was in pursuit of an American girl he'd met at Oxford. "She lived in New York, which on my map of the US looked right beside Boston, which was a bit of a mistake."

One reason for returning was that his two brothers had both emigrated, to his mother's distress. He also felt at heart an Englishman. Having found a job, he worked hard, helping Mrs Thatcher to win the 1979 election, and was told he'd get a position withher. "I was even shown the desk at No 10 I would sit at." All weekend he sat by his phone, but the call never came. "It was a particularly cruel experience and very painful, but it was a good lesson in politics." You mean in deviousness, because some enemy carved you up? "I still don't know the real reason, though I tend to favour the cock-up theory in politics. That explains most things."

So he decided to look for another job, one with decent money as he was only on £4,000 a year and had taken on a mortgage. "I'd met a bloke called Tim Bell while working with the Tories. In fact, we once raided the director's champagne fridge together andspent an evening getting through three bottles, putting the world to rights ... Anyway, I went to see Tim to ask for advice, not knowing who he was ..."

Hold on. He was the big cheese at Saatchi and Saatchi, hired by the Tories to help them to win, you must have known his job. "Not really, he was just someone I'd bumped into. I asked him if he could suggest someone who might give me a job for a lot of money and not much work and he said, `I will'."

Gosh, isn't life easy. His salary tripled and he went on to become deputy chairman of Saatchi. Along the way he returned to the Tories, working as chief of staff to Norman Tebbit during the 1987 election. This, he says, was one of the unhappiest periods of his life. He was caught in the crossfire between Tebbit and Thatcher. He never fell for her, sexually or otherwise, which apparently many young Tory chaps did, and she suspected he was stirring up things on behalf of his master. So in 1987, with another election won for the Tories, he found himself looking for something new to do. Which brings us at last to M Dobbs the novelist. "That again was an accident. No, honestly. I just did it as a bet.

"After the election, I went off with my wife on holiday to Gozo. At the airport I'd bought a blockbuster novel, which I read and thought was rotten, saying I could do better. `Go on then', said my wife. `I bet you can't'.

"I'd never written more than 800 words in my life, and didn't know if I could write a whole book. Several publishers had approached me to write some memoirs, Working with the Swinging Handbag, that sort of thing, but I would never do a `kiss and tell' book. I realised my knowledge of politics would make a good background for a novel, so there and then, sitting by the pool, I jotted down some ideas, and 24 hours later I had the plot of House of Cards."

Easier and peasier, but he does have the grace to admit he was greatly helped by the BBC adaptation, by the brilliant acting of Ian Richardson and the sharp dialogue of Andrew Davies - far better than in that first novel. He has jumped into the mega-bucks class with his third Urquhart novel, The Final Cut, which will be televised this autumn.

"This will be the final one, the end of Urquhart. I discussed it all with Ian before I started writing." You let an actor influence your book before you'd even written it? "Why not? He has created the character of Urquhart as much as I have. He wants it to be the last, because he doesn't want to be typecast, and I agree. Best to go out when the public wants more."

Even Urquhart's best-known phrase - "you might think so, I couldn't possibly comment" - has been credited to Andrew Davies, the scriptwriter. "I congratulated him for thinking of it, but he told me he'd got it from the book, which was news to me. I wasn't aware of it. Now I do use it deliberately.

"You must remember I was a complete beginner with my first book, and eager to learn. This may sound pretentious, but I've also learnt a lot from Shakespeare, especially Julius Caesar, for the new book. I still aim to write political thrillers, and I see myself as an entertainer, but there's no reason why I shouldn't get better all the time - improving my dialogue and descriptions. I don't expect to win the Booker, but I don't intend to keep writing the same sort of book."

He now lives in style in Dorset, where he drives an old Bentley. He met his wife, Amanda, at the Tory Research Department and they have two young children, William and Michael. (They were going to call the second son Henry but decided the comparisons with Prince Charles had gone too far.) Amanda is a Buddhist, with her own shrine at home, which doesn't sound, well, terribly Tory party.

"It's not a fashion thing. She hasn't suddenly taken it up. She was brought up in the Far East and has always been interested in Buddhism."

If it's head down on the wordprocessor from now on, knocking out the words, it seems strange he agreed to become a deputy chairman of the Tories. They do seem to have been rather horrid to him in the past, at least Mrs Thatcher was. "John Major asked me.I happen to like him very much on a personal level. It's a part-time job, unpaid. I do three days a week, speaking at grass roots, getting Central Office ready for the next election." Will you win? "We can do. Opinion polls are unreliable. Like by-elections, people use them to give the Government a hard time."

As an author of political thrillers, it is no doubt useful to remain involved in politics. His steel eyes narrowed at the suggestion. "That didn't come into my reckoning. I actually do care about politics. My two brothers who emigrated, and never returned, did it as a direct result of the mess the Labour government made."

But modern politics is rather nasty, isn't it? "It's true that most politicians today are seen as more dishonest and dishonourable than they were 25 years ago. I happen to think most politicians are still motivated by good reasons. They could earn much more outside Parliament. What worries me is the media pressure they have to suffer, with every aspect of their personal life liable to be exposed. One result will be that good people won't come into politics. You see this in America, where the quality of leadership has got worse since Watergate."

Are you saying baddies should not be exposed? "I'm saying there should be a balance. I believe in most cases that a politician's personal life should not matter. Once, newspaper proprietors held back and respected privacy, now editors compete to splash personal details on the front page. No wonder politicians are hardly respected any more."

You yourself have not helped much to improve the image of politicians. "Yes, I played my part during elections, encouraging papers on certain stories." And in your books, with your wicked PM. "Ah, but that's fiction."

Talking of fiction, which was the rubbishy airport novel that made you turn to writing - a J Archer by any chance? "People keep going on about the two of us. We are as different as chalk and cheese, though I'd be happy to sell as many copies as he does."But was it one of his? "I'm not saying. You won't get me to slag off a fellow author - or authoress." He doesn't actually deny it, so that leaves us free to think so, though he certainly couldn't comment.

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