Who's afraid of the big, beautiful baroness?


Deborah Ross
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:36

I must say I think Margaret Jay is quite something. Actually, her proper title now is Baroness Jay of Paddington, but it could just as well be Big Scary Baroness Spice. To sum up her terrific physical presence, think Susan Wooldridge as Daphne Manners meets Vanessa Redgrave as practically anyone. She is nearly 6ft, with whacking great feet, acres of patrician neck, and one of those very high, English brows that cry out for a grand hat.

So, towering and intimidating, yes. But, funnily enough, not masculine in any way. OK, there's something of her father, Jim Callaghan, about her chin. I'll have to give you that. But the rest is very attractive, very sexy, even at 57. Good legs, I notice, even in her big, flat shoes. Nice, thick hair-do. A passionate, generous look to lips and in her eyes. Certainly, I can see why men would fall for her, as they tend to do.

She has, over the years, wooed at least three married men away from their wives. Racy stuff, especially as she's the daughter of a prime minister and the former wife of an ambassador to Washington, and is generally considered to be an all-round serious sort of person. She's been a television journalist. She's been director of the National Aids Trust. Ennobled in 1992, she is now deputy leader of the House of Lords as well as a health minister. She is very much up there in the Blair cosmology. OK, some might argue that, having always been part of the Labour aristocracy, nothing short of, say, an appearance in Playboy - with just a bit of ermine tastefully draped around that neck, perhaps - coupled with a conviction for ram-raiding, could have stopped her from ending up where she has done. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but I don't think so. She seems pretty dynamic to me.

We meet at her office at the Department of Health. Fittingly, it is a very big office, the size of a substantial living-room, with a desk up one end and a sofa and armchairs far off down the other. "We are getting there with these rooms," she says, by which I think she means that the previous, hopeless Tory decor is slowly but confidently being replaced by New Labour, Good Taste.

When she first moved in here, the paintings, she shudders, were all nasty, county, horsy ones. These have since been ousted in favour of some beautiful Elisabeth Frink prints and a couple of explosive, Terry Lee oils. Apparently, there's this government art warehouse in Soho where ministers can choose artworks for their office walls. "Unfortunately, though, senior cabinet ministers get first choice." What do the most junior of junior ministers get? An Athena poster of that woman tennis player scratching her bum, and a packet of Blu-Tack? "Probably," she laughs. She has a nice, big, hearty laugh.

I wonder if she ever thinks about where she would be now if she'd gone into politics years ago. Had she done so, I don't think it would be unreasonable to assume she, too, would be a senior cabinet minister today. "Funnily enough," she says, "I was talking to Tessa [Jowell, her great mate] about this just the other day. She has children in her teens and I said to her: `Goodness, how do you juggle it all?' I was approached a couple of times by constituencies who wanted me to run, but I said no, because it was at a time when my children [now in their late twenties and early thirties] were still quite young, and I couldn't see how I could balance it all."

She pushes a bowl of fruit towards me. "Have a nibble, if you're a nibbler," she says. "I'm certainly going to have a nibble, I am a terrible nibbler." She pops a big green grape into her pink-lipsticked mouth. She then says she has to have fruit about, otherwise it's biscuits, and with biscuits it's one biscuit after another and then, before you know it, she's a Big Fat Spice. I think we may safely assume that, for all her composure and poise, Margaret Jay is a woman of large appetite on most fronts.

She was born in 1939, the eldest of Jim and Audrey Callaghan's three children. Her childhood was dominated by politics. She thinks she can remember the '45 election, when her father first entered Parliament.

"I can remember being in Cardiff, in crowds, and canvassing. But the person who most vividly brought politics into my life was my mother, because she did a lot locally with the Labour Party and Fabian Society. I helped post leaflets, and was a runner during elections, and that sort of thing. And that was my first introduction to grass-roots politics."

Her roots are very much old Labour - or "Heritage Labour', as she says her father puts it - and, as such, I wonder what she makes of New Labour. "Well, it's not as if I stepped from 1979 to 1997 with no process in between," she says. Yes, she does see her father, now Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, in the Lords. Yes, she does mouth "how's Mother?" along the bench. "And Mother often comes to meet us for tea, so it's all very cosy."

She went to an academically strenuous girls' public school in Blackheath, which she hated. She was made, she says, to wear gym slips and knee-length socks into her teens, when she was the height she is now, so you can imagine how absurd and comic she looked. Plus there was lacrosse, which, yes, does sound wizard in Enid Blyton books but is in fact quite ghastly in reality. "You had to carry your lacrosse stick and your muddy, cold lacrosse boots for half-an-hour before you got to the playing-field, which was some awful outpost where the wind whistled around your knees."

She didn't want to stay on at school, or go to university, but her father made her. He said: "This is jolly well something you have to do." There were tears and arguments until she succumbed. She can understand his point of view now. "He left school at 16, because there was no opportunity for him to go on, even though he clearly had the ability to do so. He wanted his children to do things he hadn't done. He was quite right."

She arrived at Oxford - "straight from the lacrosse field" - at 18. Peter Jay, the son of Douglas Jay, another clever Labour politician, was a year or so above her there. She already knew him vaguely through family connections and had even, the previous year, been invited to one of his birthday parties - "a very grand, grown-up affair." The two began dating almost immediately. He was dazzling and handsome and clever, as she was. They made quite a couple.

They married when she was 21. The ceremony took place at the House of Commons. She made her own wedding dress. You didn't! "I did! I did!" she exclaims. "It was made of ... what was it made of? White something or other. I think my mother still has it somewhere. It wasn't exactly stapled together, but you wouldn't have wanted to get too close to it."

Yes, Peter was her first ever boyfriend. Yes, 21 was much too young to get married. But, she says, back then you did marry your first boyfriend because "couples couldn't live together in 1960. This is one of the things that has changed very swiftly, in one generation."

Although, perhaps, it was inevitable that the marriage eventually combusted, no one could have predicted that it would combust in the very public, scandalous way it did. Margaret Jay's most famous and scandalous affair was, of course, with the Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, which took place in Washington in the late Seventies while she was still married to Peter, then the ambassador, and Carl was married to Nora Ephron, the writer.

Peter retaliated spectacularly by bedding their nanny and getting her pregnant. Meanwhile, Nora got her own back by putting all the events into her novel, Heartburn, in which she famously described Margaret as "a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are sort of splayed". Obviously, Ms Ephron was rather upset.

Anyway, the book, as you doubtless know, was later turned into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. So what began as a society scandal, and then became a literary scandal, ended up as a Hollywood blockbuster of a scandal. How embarrassing.

Yes, she confirms, it was. Very. Now, though, it is more trying than anything else. "Whenever it is mentioned, my husband [her current husband, the Aids specialist Professor Michael Adler] says, `Oh, for goodness' sake, not that 20-year-old episode again.' I say you may as well face it. It's in the cuttings, it's in everything that's ever written about me. Whatever I go on to do, it will be in my obituary. You may as well just accept it."

Did she read the book? "Oh, yes. And I saw the film." And? "I was very shadowy in it. I hardly appear." Was she a bit disappointed? God, no, she gasps. She was relieved. She would only have liked, she continues, to have featured more largely if she'd been put in charge of casting. And who would she have had play her? Sophia Loren? "Yes! Yes!" she cries.

She does not regret her marriage to Peter in any way, she says. She had her children - Tamsin, Alice and Patrick - and "how can you regret anything that gives you your children?" She and Peter are still friends, she continues. "Whenever our paths cross, we are happy to see each other. I mean, had one of us ended up lonely and alone, I think things would be different. But we are both happily with other people now."

She is still close to his mother, Peggy Jay, and his sister, Sally. She is excellent at keeping family relationships in good order, mostly, she says, because she is a very tribal sort of person. She even keeps in touch with Peter's cousin, Virginia Bottomley, although there have been awkward moments over the years.

"Tamsin, who was bridesmaid at Virginia's wedding, now works for BBC news in the newsroom. When Virginia was secretary of state, and she was called into the studio to defend something or other, mid-interview she would turn round, point to Tamsin and say: `That girl was bridesmaid at my wedding.' It rather took the wind out of everyone's sails."

When her relationship with Bernstein ended in 1981, she returned alone to London and went back to working as a journalist on Panorama. She first met her current husband, Professor Adler, when she interviewed him in the mid-Eighties for one of the first TV programmes on Aids. I ask her if, during the interview, she wrote "hmm, tasty" in the margin. At this, she gives you one of her most withering, scariest Baroness looks, so I guess not. Professor Adler was married, needless to say.

As a result of the TV programme, she was invited to become a trustee of the National Aids Foundation which, in turn, led to her job as director of the National Aids Trust. It was a job she did magnificently well. But when Kinnock's offer came along, she couldn't resist.

"The trust had developed from something that was difficult to run, without enough funding, into a fairly mainstream health charity. Although I'd enjoyed the experience very much, I didn't want to go on running it. I am someone who really enjoys setting things up and working with things at critical moments."

So then once they are up and running, you lose interest rather? "Yes."

And are you like this with men, too? I venture. "Gosh, I hope not," she exclaims. She then says: "That would be very worrying." And looks very worried, before adding, somewhat defensively: "My marriage to Peter lasted 25 years, which is not a short time."

Ultimately, I think Lady Jay is less Big Scary Baroness Spice than just a tall woman capable of tremendous passion, the sort that recognises no obstacles. Yes, she is something of a goer, if you like - but a formidable goer, and quite a force. I, for one, am rather glad that she's in Government.

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