Ben Bradshaw: Glad to be 'more Wagner than Wenger'

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is delighted with his long-awaited place at the cabinet table under a 'warmer' PM than Tony Blair. Jane Merrick meets Ben Bradshaw

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:44
In a written statement, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Ben Bradshaw said: "We have ... decided to legislate to allow UK television companies to include product placement in programmes which they make or commission to appear in their schedules.
In a written statement, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Ben Bradshaw said: "We have ... decided to legislate to allow UK television companies to include product placement in programmes which they make or commission to appear in their schedules.

Ben Bradshaw isn't wearing any shoes. He's not barefoot, but is padding around his new office in navy socks as most of us would in our living rooms. Wimbledon is on the TV, and Maria Sharapova is being beaten by Argentine Gisela Dulko in the second round. Sharapova's increasingly desperate grunts echo around the room until someone finds the mute button.

Watching Wimbledon is part of the brief for a Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It is no wonder everyone who occupies this role describes it as a "dream job".

For a cabinet minister to go shoeless seems a very Blairite thing to do. Gordon Brown would not do shoeless. A minister in stockinged feet appears to say, with forced mateyness: "I'm progressive, reformist, unstuffy."

But, as London swelters beyond the window, the traffic gridlocked in Trafalgar Square, while we sit on smartly upholstered sofas watching a silenced Sharapova on a flatscreen TV in an air-conditioned room, his shoeless state also suggests, uneasily, something of the first-class cabin.

Bradshaw is a classic Blairite, who comes up with phrases like "a radical and progressive forward offer" to be put to the electorate. He is friends with David Miliband, who has a similar way with baffling jargon.

Yet under Gordon Brown he achieved, three weeks ago, something he failed to do under Tony Blair: he reached the Cabinet. He had been a second-rank minister for eight years. Perhaps Brown ran out of options.

So, was he promoted, from minister of state at Health, as a token Blairite? Bradshaw breaks into a wide, crinkly smile (one of his female civil servants thinks he looks like Hugh Grant). "I've never used that term to describe myself, and paradoxically I've been given more important jobs under Gordon than I was under Tony.

"If by Blairite, you mean somebody who thinks Labour needs to retain that progressive coalition that has won us three elections, yes, that's what I believe. But I think Gordon Brown is the right man to do that.

"I've always found Gordon Brown warm, engaging, personable, if anything more so than Tony Blair. He always asks you about yourself and your partner, and I can only speak from my own experience."

Bradshaw isn't the first person to allude to Blair's rather icy, offhand manner, but there is clearly resentment that he didn't progress further under the former prime minister.

The Culture Secretary's office off Trafalgar Square is modernist and full of arty goodies. On one wall is a giant black and white etching by Grayson Perry, the transvestite potter, part of the Government's art collection, and left behind by Andy Burnham, Bradshaw's predecessor.

A "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster is Blu-Tacked to the back of his door. The bookcase and coffee table are stuffed with heavy hardbacks on photography, sport and theatre. One is used to wedge the window shut to keep the traffic noise down. Another is The Best XI by unreconstructed Yorkshireman Geoffrey Boycott. "I think that's Andy's," says Bradshaw.

Burnham's idea of a dream ticket would have been watching Everton in the FA Cup Final. So what is Bradshaw's? "As someone who slept on the pavement as a teenager to get into Wimbledon, my dream ticket, without putting any pressure at all on Andy Murray, will probably be Centre Court on Sunday week if he gets to the final."

Bradshaw likes opera – his favourite is Tristan and Isolde, "I'm more Wagner than Wenger" – but also danced to "Billie Jean" at his civil partnership, he reveals later, after news breaks of Michael Jackson's death. He boasts of being the "first Secretary of State to be a regular festival-goer", and has been to the Big Chill for the past four years. He's never been to Glastonbury, but is looking forward to seeing Grace Jones at Latitude: "It's great being in charge of a department whose role is to spread pleasure and happiness. It's almost as if, at a time of economic uncertainty, people need that cultural and sensual nourishment even more."

After Labour's near-collapse this month, and the parliamentary expenses scandal, such optimism in Westminster is rare. However, Bradshaw remains critical of the BBC's response to plans, in the Digital Britain report, to hive-off £130m of the licence fee to pay for non-BBC local broadcasters. Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, has said there are "no circumstances" in which "top-slicing" would be a good idea.

Was Bradshaw, himself a former BBC journalist, who covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, surprised by Thompson's reaction? "There are some people, including some in the BBC, who almost give you the impression they'd rather have a smaller licence fee and keep it to themselves."

Ministers, he says, must be answerable to Parliament first: "If that's difficult for the Today programme – tough. The BBC will have to change its news timings to fit in with the new respect that we're going to give Parliament. Why this obsession with the Today programme? Why should we be dancing to the tune of the BBC, of Radio 4's news agenda?"

Bradshaw is the first cabinet minister to be in a civil partnership, a landmark for the Government that passed legislation making this possible. Last month, he told his local newspaper that the Daily Telegraph coverage of his expenses had been "deeply homophobic". He had switched his second home allowance so he could claim mortgage bills on a house part-owned by his partner, Neal Dalgleish, a BBC journalist. If he had been married to a woman, he would not have been singled out, he said. But now he is Culture Secretary, he clearly feels the need to be more cautious about repeating the allegation. He says simply it is "for others to judge" whether the Telegraph was homophobic, but adds there has been "trial by Telegraph".

Is The Independent on Sunday right to run a Pink List of the most influential gay and lesbian people in Britain? "We will only have completed the journey when people find these sorts of lists completely ridiculous, and I don't think we're there yet." Bradshaw claims a lot of the "nasty and vicious" reaction from Tory MPs to the election of John Bercow as Speaker is because of his "liberal attitude to homosexuality, which most of them still loathe". I thought the majority of Conservatives hated Bercow because he had moved from right-winger to centre-left moderniser.

The news of Bradshaw's promotion to the Cabinet was buried by the drama of James Purnell's late-evening resignation and Lord Mandelson's frantic ring-round to other Blairites, including David Miliband, urging them not to follow suit. So did Bradshaw himself consider resigning? "No," he says, before I can finish the question. "The decisions that other people make are decisions for them and they have to explain them, but I make my own decisions and I think the decisions I've made have been the right ones."

He says Mandelson will be "pivotal in helping bring about the Government's recovery", but does he believe Brown will win the next election? "Yeah, I do. The narrative over the next few months will become one I remember from one or two of Bill Clinton's recoveries – the Comeback Kid." This could be described as the very definition of optimism, although some would call it delusional.

Has he offered advice to Brown on how to be a better communicator? "The public are grown up and mature enough to make a judgement based on the quality of the decision-making and leadership that the Prime Minister shows, rather than whether they're smooth and their tie is straight and hair is coiffed on TV.

"If that's the only type of person who is going to be rated as a good or great prime minister then this country really is in a very sorry state." From a man with the most coiffed hair in the Cabinet, this is the best example of an anti-leadership bid I have ever witnessed. Could Brown be forgiven for walking away? "I think he will always do what he thinks is in the best interests of the country, in the best interests of the Labour Party, and I wouldn't expect anything less."

The best interests of the Labour Party and the country, he adds hurriedly, are that "he stays and gets us through this downturn and applies his very impressive mind to where this country needs to go over the next 10 years". At this point, a police siren wails outside. I wonder whether someone is coming to arrest Bradshaw for crimes of over-the-top effusiveness. I also feel like hitting my head against one of the giant coffee-table books.

Isn't the Prime Minister being dishonest about the level of spending cuts facing the next government? "There is a difference between fiscal tightening and savage cuts. Yes, there will be fiscal tightening under a future Labour government. We've already said that the rate of increase of public spending will decline and that there will be difficult choices."

Does he think the Iraq inquiry should be held in public? His response is controversial. "To be perfectly honest I'm not convinced by the need to have one, because I think there will be people who will never be satisfied, and what people seem not able to accept on the Iraq war is that it's possible to reach sincerely and strongly held views on both sides of the question as to whether it was the right thing to do.

"However, an inquiry [having been promised by the Government], I accept there needs to be one, and it should be as open as possible."

How about Tony Blair's fears that it would be a "show trial" if held in public? "What his critics hate is the fact that they have never been able to pin anything on him. In my view they never will. Some people have just got to accept that they took a view on the war that this Government did not share and I think history will be the judge as to who was right."

It would seem he remains a Blairite after all.

From media man to minister

1960 Born in London, the son of a CofE vicar

1971 Educated at Thorpe St Andrew School, Norwich

1978 Reads German at Sussex University

1984 Begins career as journalist, starting with the Exeter Express & Echo

1986 Joins BBC as reporter for Radio Devon

1989 Becomes Berlin correspondent for BBC Radio, where he covers the fall of the Wall; later wins an award

1991 Joins Radio 4's World At One programme as Westminster reporter

1997 Becomes Labour MP for Exeter, one of only a few MPs to be openly gay

2001 Is appointed Foreign Office minister by Tony Blair. Thought to be the subject of comments made by the Malaysian PM, who says his country will "throw out" any "British homosexual ministers" who "come here with their boyfriends"

2002 In the Commons, calls George Galloway "not just an apologist but a mouthpiece for the Iraqi regime over many years". In return, Galloway calls Bradshaw a liar. Both withdraw their remarks

2002 Is appointed deputy to Leader of the Commons Robin Cook

2003-07 Serves as Environment minister. Helps overturn Japan's majority on the International Whaling Commission

2006 Joins in civil partnership with BBC producer Neal Dalgleish

2009 Is promoted to the Cabinet as Culture Secretary

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