Alan Johnson: 'There's no point regretting things you said as a joke'

The Monday Interview: Did Alan Johnson really need a primer on economics when he was made Shadow Chancellor? The 'best leader Labour never had' reveals the truth to Christina Patterson

Monday 27 December 2010 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It's quite hard, at a time when most politicians appear to have popped out of the womb yelling for a Hansard, and spent their toddlerhood nationalising each other's train sets, and their teenage years ditching the charts for the Top 10 political biographies, and their Top 10 tips for power, to imagine a prime minister who was once a postman.

It's quite hard to imagine a prime minister who was, from the age of 12, brought up by his 15-year-old sister in a council flat, and who left school at 15, and stacked shelves at Tesco, and married at 17, and became a postman at 18, because at 18 he already had two children to feed, and who also cut a single in a rock band. It's quite hard, but it shouldn't be, because Alan Johnson has been widely talked of as the best leader that Labour never had.

When James Purnell resigned, in June of last year, and when Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt launched their cack-handed coup in January of this one, in the hope of ousting a Prime Minister who seemed as easy to dislodge as one of the rock faces in the Grand Canyon, Alan Johnson was regarded by many as Brown's biggest threat. Johnson, it was thought, had all the charm, and ease in his own skin, and spontaneity, and warmth, and empathy with working-class widows in Rochdale, that his poor, tormented and publically robotic, boss lacked. But Johnson wouldn't, as football-loving political pundits like to say, play ball. He was loyal to Blair. He was loyal to Brown. He is loyal (but we'll get to that later) to Ed. Brown stayed, and then went, and then we had the Mili-saga, which appeared to go on for millennia, and now Johnson holds what would, if Labour were in power, and not in what appears to be hibernation, be the second highest office in the land.

His actual office is jolly nice. It is, on a December day when the entire infrastructure of the country has collapsed because of snow (a subject on which he is feistily vocal on telly the next day, in a way that almost has you thinking that 13 years of carefully stockpiled salt has just been flushed down a vast Tory toilet), toasty and homely, with a couple of comfy beige sofas in a little cluster between a boardroom table and a vast desk.

One side of the room is lined with bookcases. On a shelf near one of the windows, there are model aircraft and wooden elephants. On the wall, there's a Queen's Park Rangers mirror, a framed programme from the Queen's Park Rangers v Spurs Cup Final in 1982, and a cartoon of Johnson playing a bass guitar. From one of the two big windows, you can look out over Whitehall. From the other, you see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. It is, I can't help thinking, a great place to gaze, and muse, on the structures of power.

And on the beige sofa opposite me is a man so magnetic that I find myself getting quite flustered. There's a little panic when I search for my tape recorder, tell his aide that I definitely had it in reception, find it sandwiched between the pages of my notebook and then hear myself telling the shadow Chancellor about how, when I interviewed Robert Harris, I managed to delete half the tape, confessed to him at his launch party, and then had my handbag nicked and lost the lot. It is, it strikes me later, a bit like the "economics primer" that Johnson claimed, on being made shadow Chancellor, that he'd need to nip out and buy. I'm not a proper journalist, and you're not a proper politician. We've got so much in common!

Johnson looks bemused, and amused. In his natty suit, and smart blue tie, he has the poise and elegance of a cat. In photos, he looks like a nicely coiffed 60-year-old man. In the flesh, he looks – well, you don't really think about how he looks. You notice that his eyes really do sparkle and they really are very blue. You notice that his skin is a healthy, but not Cameroonian, pink. You notice that he is listening very intently, and nodding, and smiling, and waving his hands for emphasis, and that you are obviously being rather fascinating, and rather witty, or perhaps he is being rather polite.

He said, I tell him, and it feels like a pronouncement from an era now buried under layers of history, that Gordon Brown was the "best man for the job". But he didn't, unfortunately, do it that well. Couldn't he have done better? Johnson leans back and smiles. "No," he says, and the vowel itself feels like a cat stretched out on a sofa, a refreshing counterbalance to clipped Etonion ones, and Mili-mockney glottal stops.

"I could have done some things better, because some of the way Gordon dealt with the media etcetera – well, it would be hard to do it worse. But that's the very superficial side. We were in the middle of this economic tsunami. Gordon was the first person to say it's not just about the liquidity, it's about capital adequacy. He genuinely did lead the G20 to that resolution in Pittsburgh and then in London, and it was awe-inspiring. It was Gordon who did more than anybody else to lead us out of it and to get us into a situation where we were back in growth."

I feel a little glow of pride, as if I was Gordon Brown's mother, and not just someone who once met him, and I also think how nice it is, when no one appears to have a good word for him, and the Prime Minister uses his name as an insult at the despatch box, that someone is speaking in his defence. But surely, I say, Brown could have done what he did as Chancellor, and what he has dismissed as "the very superficial side" of politics isn't superficial at all; it's what Cameron is doing brilliantly, and the nation is lapping up?

Johnson nods, and I'm thrilled. "I do accept your point," he says. "Unusually for a politician, Gordon didn't get any buzz at all out of the 'smell of the grease-paint, roar of the crowd' aspect of politics. It made it difficult for him. I've said before, I think this Government's advantage is Cameron looking the part. Looking the part is quite important."

But it's not just looking the part, is it? Before the election, I remind him, he said that both Cameron and Osborne were "lightweights". They don't seem quite such lightweights now. They have, in fact, in certain ways, been rather impressive. Haven't they? Johnson unleashes a great peal of laughter. "Hang on!" he says. "Osborne doesn't impress me to the extent that Cameron looks the part. I don't think Osborne does. There's looking the part, and – perhaps this is your point. I could have looked the part, but not been able to do the job as effectively. Now, what you'll find is that they've had the rose-garden days. The rose-garden days are over." And he launches into a list of the things that the coalition government – or the Tory-led government as his leader has said we must now call it – have done wrong.

As he does it – fluently, wittily, engagingly – I'm reminded that this man, so quick to enumerate the ways in which he wouldn't be suitable for the top job, has done some of the biggest jobs in Government. In the past six years, he has been Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and for Trade and Industry, and for Education and Skills, and for Health (with an annual budget bigger than the Irish bail-out), and, in the last year of the Labour government, Home Secretary.

He thinks that the planned NHS reforms are a disaster, and that Andrew Lansley has "some strange hold" over David Cameron. He thinks that the school sports decision was "a very big misjudgement", and, of course, that "they've taken absolutely the wrong judgement on the most important thing of all," the economy. "So, I'm not," he says, to nobody's great surprise, "impressed by the policies at all. I'm impressed with some of the theatricality of it, the showmanship of it. Looking like a Prime Minister who's got energy and drive. You can't fault them on that."

As good as Blair, then? "Not quite!" he says, and the way he says it makes me actually want to use the word "twinkle". "Having studied at the feet of the master for so long... Cameron was the guy who was on his feet before I was, giving Blair a standing ovation at his last PMQs, so he's obviously a big fan." Cameron is also, of course, the guy who announced airily to his classmates at Eton that he quite fancied being Prime Minister. What people say about Johnson is that he lacked the confidence, and the killer instinct, for the top job. Does he agree?

"Yes," he says, and his response is so quick that I'm disarmed by his lack of calculation. "I don't know about confidence. I can be as confident as the next person. Lots of it's a front, and you can act confident even when you're not. But I didn't want it enough, obviously. By definition, if you have to think about it, and you're clucking and tutting and thinking 'Should I or shouldn't I go for it?'... The people who do that job well are people who are absolutely determined that 'that's what I want to be'. That," he says, "wasn't me at all."

I tell him that a colleague's wife, who had worked with him at Health and the Home Office, said she thought one of the reasons he might not have wanted the top job was because he's always been keen to safeguard his privacy. Is that true? Johnson puts his hands together into a kind of steeple. "Yeah," he says. "That's part of it as well. As I say, you're going to have to sacrifice lots of things in your life to do that job. It was a bit different once I became Home Secretary, because I had to sacrifice a lot of that anyway, because you have 24-hour protection. But, for whatever reason, it wasn't a burning ambition. It's difficult," he says, and it sounds as though he's actually thinking aloud, "to know whether you played it the right way. But I was never playing it any way. I didn't even plan to be a Member of Parliament, let alone a government minister."

He was, in fact, General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union when Tony Blair saw him in a documentary that Michael Cockerell made about his campaign against the privatisation of Royal Mail, and, the story goes, offered him a safe seat. Is that true? "Partly," he says. "Well, I was on the NEC of the Labour Party, so unfortunately he had to endure me every month at that stage, and we fought a really good campaign, which the documentary was all about. He was impressed by the way we did that, so he asked me if I had an ambition to be an MP, to which I said 'No'. To which he said, 'Oh, I'd like you to be an MP'. To which I said 'Oh, I'll have a think about it!'"

When Johnson reached the conclusion that Blair already had, he was offered the safe seat of Hull West and Hessle, which he has held since 1997, and where he found, weirdly, given that he grew up (in a near-slum) in Notting Hill and then a council flat in Battersea, nine relatives he'd never met. His wife (his second wife, who he married in 1991, and with whom he has a 10-year-old son, and whose existence, when I read of it, gave me one of those ridiculous stabs of disappointment you get when you hear that some famously eligible Hollywood star is dating some fabulously glamorous model, even though Johnson is no spring chicken, and not a Hollywood star) told him that he could do whatever he wanted, but that he shouldn't expect to find her "dragging along behind". She also, he says, with what I'm again tempted to call a twinkle, told him that if he ever wanted to "spend more time" with his family, he should check with his family first.

Unlike the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the former Prime Minister, and Johnson's boss, who, although apparently a grown up, is very keen on talking about being a "dad", he never mentions his family in his public role. "Somebody," he says, "came and did an interview and said I had family portraits on the mantelpiece. There are," he says, gesturing towards it, "no family members at all. There are two cats," (so that's where it comes from!), "sadly deceased. I don't go in for all that stuff. There's a view that these days you've got to kind of keep on pushing your family. I'm afraid that's not for me."

I feel like cheering, but instead I ask him about the economics primer, which was taken rather literally by people keen to portray him as a lightweight. Does he regret it? Johnson makes a face. "I don't," he says, "because there's no point regretting things you say that were just fun. What I would regret would be if I made a real mistake on letting someone down, or letting the leader down. But that was just a joke, pure and simple. I was reading Roy Jenkins's biography of Gladstone at the time I was made shadow Chancellor and there's a bit where Lord Russell, the Prime Minister in 1860, asked Disraeli to be his Chancellor, and Disraeli said, 'But I don't know anything about figures', and Russell said, 'Don't worry, they do it all for you over in the Treasury'. There are very few people who have become Chancellor who have been economists. I've done five Cabinet jobs. This is fine."

And did he want to be Chancellor? Had he thought about it? "I hadn't," he says, "but then I hadn't thought about any jobs I was offered before I was offered them. Put it like this: I was really happy to pick up Education and Health; less so the Home Office, but it proved to be very, very satisfying. I wouldn't have been overjoyed to be offered the job of Chancellor, but I'd have done it."

But he isn't Chancellor. He's shadow Chancellor. He doesn't get to make any real policy, or spend any money, or run any departments, or balance any books. Does it feel like a proper job? Something crosses Johnson's face, which looks a tiny bit like a struggle between his knee-jerk honesty and what is, in every sense of the word, politic. "Ye-e-es," he says. "This one does feel like a proper job. I'm having to learn the different angles of it, so you have to put much more effort in it. But," he says, and the struggle evaporates from his face, "it's not that job. There's not 10,000 civil servants helping you for a start".

Opposition, he has said, is "bloody depressing". It is, he says now, "crap". "We had," he says, "this funny thing where we all shadowed ourselves. You suddenly saw the Speaker had a left-hand profile, and you notice their side looking a bit more care-worn, but with that gleam in the eye, because they're in power, whereas we sat there pretending that what we did was important. It is," he adds hastily, "important in a democracy. But it's not the same."

No, it certainly isn't. Mugging up on your economics primer, and attacking every cut suggested by the Government, and making pronouncements about how VAT hits the poor the hardest, is not the same as running, and rescuing, or wrecking, depending on where you're sitting, an economy. I, too, I tell him (we've got so much in common!) have been mugging up on economics to compensate for a former, er, deficit, and it seems to me, not least since pretty much every economist in the world failed to predict the global economic crisis, that there's absolutely no way of knowing if it's the Keynsian pro-fiscal stimulus ones, or the pro-austerity ones, who are right. So what makes him think he is?

His answer, as you might expect from someone who's been doing a lot of mugging up, and who is famously fantastically fast at mastering a brief, even, presumably, when the brief is a country which may or may not be on the brink of economic disaster, is extremely long. It's also rather impressive. It takes in the beginnings of a fragile recovery flickering into life after decisions that the Labour government made, Irish austerity and collapse, Obama's recent decision to go for further fiscal stimulus, Japan, IFS statistics on poverty, and false comparisons with Greece, and ends with the conclusion that "the whole lot combined is a very, very big gamble".

Which it very clearly is, but surely he must admit that Labour lost the argument on the deficit? For a brief moment, the blue eyes don't just sparkle, they flash. "I don't," he says, "think we lost it at the General Election. Us and the Lib Dems were saying the same thing. What's the reason Osborne wants to go at this like a bull at a gate? They say they had to calm down some of the people in the City, but there's no evidence for that whatsoever. We were in Government! We knew all the statistics."

Well OK, but Labour, to be frank, are doing pretty appallingly. Aren't they? Once again, I see something in the eyes which appears to be an instinct for honesty mixed with hesitation. "There was the leadership campaign," he says. "I think that went on too long. My regret, and it's not about who won it... but it seemed to me sensible to have a leadership election that finished in July, and a leader then in place with a shadow cabinet and able to shape that conference. It was," he says, "a bad week".

You can say that again. I practically needed counselling, I tell him, after watching the younger Miliband publically disembowelling his brother, and then declaring undying love. And I've never even met the guy. David Miliband is Alan Johnson's friend. What on earth was it like for him?

"I said at the time," he says, "that it would have been wrong for Ed, a big political talent who lots of people supported, to have stepped down just because he happened to be David's brother". He doesn't, to be fair, sound like a man who was devastated by the result. And when I ask him why Ed's performance seems so lacklustre, he insists that he is "playing this absolutely right". You have, he says, "to have a period of calm reflection on what you got right, and what you got wrong. Ed's got that. There is real steel inside." Well, I tell him, a bit nastily, most people in the country think the steel is only about personal ambition, and not about what politicians like to call a "vision". His rating as a good leader, according to a recent poll, is 17 per cent. "That," says Johnson calmly, and he doesn't seem to be making a gargantuan effort, "will change as people get to know him".

There have been big efforts, in the past few weeks, by the kind of people who follow this kind of thing, to sniff out conflict between Alan Johnson and Ed Miliband. Johnson, they say, is opposed to the graduate tax. Miliband is in favour of it. Johnson doesn't want to keep the 50p tax rate. Miliband, as a matter of principle, does. When I ask him about these differences of opinion, he is careful, but not, I think, dishonest. The two men are, he says, "working together" to see if a graduate tax is the answer. Both have accepted that it is "inconceivable" that the 50p tax rate won't be needed at the time of the next election.

Johnson won't say a single disloyal word about his boss, and his respect for him appears, if not exactly passionate, to be genuine. But when he really comes alive is when he talks about the counselling schemes that he introduced to help people off incapacity benefit, and a teenage pregnancy strategy in Hull, and working tax credits, and the minimum wage. And when I ask why Labour didn't build more social housing, he says: "It has to be mea culpa; we didn't do enough". When asked for other mea culpas, he volunteers a flood of them, from allowing the economy to be dominated by financial services to failures in social mobility.

This, it is abundantly clear, is a man who cares, with a passion born of experience that the PPE politico-boys literally couldn't imagine, about the kinds of people who don't grow up dreaming of Downing Street. He's a man who loves poetry almost as much as the rock music he used to perform, and wishes he still did, and who quotes Larkin to me, and Marvell, and whose bookshelves, I see when the photographer arrives and I'm allowed to snoop around, have books about Picasso, and novels by Colm Toibin and Hilary Mantel and, rather touchingly, a book called Speechwriting: The Expert Guide. He's a man who says that the best life he could imagine would be "writing songs and not being recognised".

He is, I think, just as bright as the politico-boys, but a lot less keen on showing off. "We were in a bar the other night," says his aide, just after telling me my time is up, "and I overheard someone saying 'There's someone famous over there, but I don't know his name'". Johnson laughs. "I guess," he says, "I'm never going to make it now". As PM, I ask, or as a rock star? Alan Johnson flashes me that lovely, lovely, smile. "Both," he says, and quite a big part of me wishes he was wrong.

Life in brief

Born London, 17 May 1950

Family Orphaned at the age of 12, he was brought up by his elder sister in a council flat. Married twice and has four children

Early life He attended Sloane Grammar School in Chelsea and left at 15 to stack shelves in Tesco

Career After working as a postman, he joined the Union of Communication Workers and was a member of Labour's National Executive Committee. He was elected to Parliament in 1997 in the safe Labour seat of Hull West and Hessle. Was given his first ministerial role in the Department of Trade and Industry in 1999. He entered the Cabinet in 2004 as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. His subsequent Cabinet posts were DTI and Education before he became Health Secretary in June 2007 under new Labour leader Gordon Brown. Became Home Secretary in 2009. After Labour lost the 2010 general election he was appointed Shadow Chancellor.

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