Interview with Bob Marshall-Andrews, publish in The Spectator / by Rich Hobbs

When I came to play back the recording of my recent interview with Bob

Marshall-Andrews, the serially rebellious LabourMP for Medway, for a

second or two my bowels ran cold with terror. As I remembered it, while I’d

been drawing him we’d had a wide-ranging conversation about Blair, Brown,

Socialism, Globalisation, MP’s allowances, the Constitution, the Judiciary, the

Media and Society at Large. But instead of all that my tape started halfway

through a long, rambling and very funny anecdote about a hotel where

Marshall-Andrews had once stayed in Wales. My contributions, meanwhile,

seemed to consist solely of monosyllabic grunts, occasional barks of laughter

and increasingly frequent protestations that I must be getting home as I was

feeling very "tired".

As it happens I quickly established that I’d accessed the wrong file on my

whizzy new digital dictaphone, and luckily the other file was still intact. More

worryingly, I realised I must have turned the damned thing back on once we’d

repaired from The Gay Hussar, where I’d drawn Bob over lunch, to the House

of Commons Terrace via the Garrick Club.

However, although on reflection I won’t bore you with a full transcript of the

second recording, which contains an erudite dialogue on matters of vital

national importance before, during and after a quick visit to the gents opposite

the Strangers Bar, maybe I should. It would, after all, probably make as

much sense as Marshall-Andrews’ recent comments since David Miliband’s

now notorious article in The Guardian last week.

To recap, the day after the article came out, Marshall-Andrews appeared on

the World At One, saying that Gordon Brown should sack Miliband for

disloyalty. For anyone who has even the vaguest knowledge of Marshall-

Andrews’ eleven year long career in the House of Commons, this was quite

extraordinary. In last Saturday’s Guardian, in an over-excited paean of praise

to Miliband, Polly Toynbee wrote "Listen to the laughter as deputy chief whip

Nick Brown can only find two of the most disreputably disloyal rebel MPs to

stand up and call for loyalty on the BBC news." And then, in Lady

Bracknellish tones, she squawked "Bob Marshall-Andrews!"

You can see her point. After all, we’ve all come to think of Marshall-Andrews

and Disloyalty in the same way that we think of horses and carriages or Keats

and Embarrassment. Like the Bishop of Southwark, it’s what he does, which

means that anything else Marshall-Andrews might do is almost beyond

analysis. And because the normal rules don’t apply in his case, I can’t tell if

his intervention was a joke, or mischief making, or an attempt to get Miliband

onto the backbenches so he can deliver the coup de grace, or what. Still, it’s

worth pausing for a moment and essaying a brief deconstruction of Toynbee’s

use of punctuation. That defining exclamation mark (the kind you’d use after,

say, Herod the Great in a discussion on nursery provision) is pure Marshall-

Andrews. Despite his rather squat physiognomy - Simon Hoggart has

described him as looking like a cross between Denis the Menace and Denis’s

dog Gnasher - Marshall-Andrews is almost a walking exclamation mark, like

the one at the end of "Oklahoma!"

This is a cheap way of pointing out that, like the previous subjects of this

series, Ann Widdecombe and the Hamiltons, Marshall-Andrews straddles that

blurred dividing line between politics and showbiz. All of them have either

achieved or augmented fame or notoriety beyond the House of Commons by

willingly embracing light entertainment, and all of them have appeared on

"Have I Got News For You", a programme which can bestow on its guests the

mantle of either National Joke or National Treasure, depending on how they

cut the mustard. But while Widdecombe freely admits that she plays the media

in order to get the widest possible audience for her political programme, and

the Hamiltons, more or less by accident, achieved a kind of redemption

through comedy, Marshall-Andrews is different.

Despite always occupying the seat next to Paul Merton reserved for the

programme’s stooges - Marshall-Andrews called it "the seat of death" - he

always gives as good as he gets. In other words - and this is the difference

between him and the others - he always manages to avoid becoming a victim

of satire by very clearly siding with the satirists.

So, despite his apparent born-again loyalty, here’s what he said when I asked

him, in the interview proper, about Gordon Brown. "Gordon is a good man,

and in some ways a great man, but a very flawed one. He has every single

Shakespearean tragic flaw: there’s the years of angst-

ridden jealousy, like Othello; fatal indecision, like Hamlet; futile rage, like

Lear, and surrounding himself with completely inappropriate people, like

Brutus." Now that’s a good gag by anyone’s standards, even though Simon

Hoggart later told me that Marshall-Andrews had left out the punch-line: "But

at least we’ve finally got rid of Lady Macbeth!" But better still, he told it on

the record, loudly, in a crowded restaurant and with Brown’s chief capo di

capi Charlie Whelan sitting within easy earshot two tables away, barking

loudly the alternative punch-line "And I haven’t even mentioned Charlie


True, he then described Brown’s commitment to eradicating poverty, and tried

to mitigate the inevitable damage the joke would cause by saying that great

men have flaws, which is why Shakespeare wrote tragedies about them.

Likewise, getting back to Miliband, when Marshall-

Andrews and I had dinner a few months ago, he described the possible next

leader of the Labour Party with deadly and concise precision as "gap year".

The jokes are coupled with a jovial capacity for completely carefree

indiscretion. For instance, he started the interview, more or less unbidden,

with a long and compelling diagnosis of Tony Blair’s various psychoses. Then

there’s his record of voting against his Party in Government, mostly on issues

of civil liberties and the law, which also manifested itself in his recent public

support for David Davis in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election: "As I

told the chief whip, we needed someone to represent Labour in the

constituency." It’s unsurprising, then, that many people on his own side can’t

stand him. I once overheard Charles Clarke, then Chairman of the Labour

Party, refer over lunch at The Gay Hussar to "Bloody Marshall-Andrews", and

I told him about an Blairite ex-minister (during an entirely off-the-record

conversation about how Gordon was "toast") who told me she thought he was

a "complete waste of space".

So, on top of the anger and hurt he causes his own side, did he have any

qualms about his disloyalty? "I owe a very great deal to the Labour Party. But

the Labour Party I joined 40 years ago." So did that party still exist? "In this

seat it does." And actually, eroded down to one double-

barrelled QC, a fat-cat lawyer with second, third and probably fourth homes

who, despite his relatively humble beginnings ("My parents were working

class Tories with an instinctive suspicion of the left’s illiberalism"), speaks in

a slurring, nasal, Belgravia-cockney snarl, that Labour Party is surprisingly

right-wing. For instance, he was scathing about the Press, even though his

public profile is largely thanks to journalists like Simon Hoggart who

recognise good copy when they see it. He also said he’d ban Grand Theft Auto

IV without a second’s hesitation, although I suspect he’s never seen it, let

alone played it. "Civil liberties aren’t limitless, you know." I asked him who

his ideal Labour leader would be. "John Smith. Very witty. Able

administrator. Moderate Socialist." (And also, for the record, described by a

friend after his death as of that generation of Scotsmen who consider white

wine to be a soft drink which doesn’t count at lunchtime.) And among the

living? "Alan Johnson. Not too close to New Labour. Moderate socialist." So

would he describe himself as a Hatterselyite? "What, New Hattersley? No, not

really. I’d say I was a Healeyite."

Thanks to the brilliant job done by New Labour in painting everyone who

opposed them as raging red Militants, that political formulation of right-wing

Old Labour sounds as archaic as the Whigs. But then again, there is something

distinctly 18th Century about Marshall-Andrews, as much Wilkesite as Hogarthian.

"Some people enter politics to gain power. I entered it to hold power to

account. I don’t like power. It makes me uneasy. One of the ghastly things

Blair said was that we were meant to be ambassadors for New Labour. I’m not

an ambassador for New Labour. I’m not even an ambassador for Medway. I’m

a Member of Parliament whose job is to scrutinise the government and hold it

to account." Which is a vision of politics - about the thwarting of power rather

than its usurpation - which is deeply unfashionable these days, and almost

certainly explains his dislike of a fundamentally Leninist political construct

like New Labour. It places principle above party, and recognises that jokes are

just as valid a part of your political armoury as anything else.

Nonetheless, was he never in danger, having embraced the showbiz aspect of

politics, of suddenly pratfalling into being a National Joke?

"I agree there is always that danger, that element of buffoonery. I’ve

sometimes been compared with Boris Johnson, but I actually think that my

politics is more serious than that."

And, to give him his due, he hasn’t done badly, helping to save trial by jury in

fraud cases and leading the successful rebellion against 90 days detention

without trial. Then again, opposition seems to have been Marshall-Andrews’

destiny, particularly after he introduced Derry Irvine at a Labour Lawyers

dinner in 1996, comparing him to Lord Mackay by saying "It looks like we’re

going to have another Lord Chancellor who’s a teetotal, ascetic Scot. Well, a

Scot anyway." Irvine was, as you’d expect, incensed, and probably made sure

that, in Marshall-Andrews’ words, "I wasn’t even going to adorn a Select

Committee. However, I can say quite clearly that I am happier in politics than

he is." As he said towards the end of our interview, "it’s been enormous fun."

Although, as it turned out, the afternoon was still young, by this stage I’d

finished the drawing, and passed it across the table to him before nipping out

on to Greek Street for a fag. When I returned, Marshall-Andrews was beaming

at me as he tore a sheet of A3 paper into shreds in front of him. That wasn’t

my original, but it was another good gag. Let’s just hope and pray that his

recent comments don’t mark some terrible descent into gravitas.