Friday, February 27, 2009

Mullin and leylandii

The diaries of Labour MP Chris Mullin, covering the period of New Labour from 1999 to 2007, are about to be published by Profile Books. However, substantial extracts are being serialised in the Mail on Sunday, and can be read online. While Profile Books says Mullin is ‘irreverent, wry and candid’ in the diaries, the Mail on Sunday extracts - such as those in which Mullin is most concerned about leylandii legislation - make his irreverence seem more puerile than wry.

Wikipedia offers a short biography of Mullin. Born in Chelmsford, Essex, in 1947, he read law at the University of Hull. He first campaigned (unsuccessfully) for a Labour seat when only 22, but then worked as a journalist on the television documentary World in Action, which, among other things, campaigned for the release of the so-called Birmingham Six.

By the start of the 1980s, Mullin was an active member of the Labour Party, veering towards Tony Benn’s style of politics, supporting Benn’s political positions, and editing some of his written material. Mullin himself was elected to Parliament in 1987, and has remained an MP (for Sunderland South) since then. Tony Blair appointed him to the government in 1999, as a junior minister at the DETR, under John Prescott; he has also served in ministerial positions at the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office. Since 2005, though, he has been a backbencher. He is married to a Vietnamese woman, Ngoc, and they have two children.

Last year, Mullin announced that he does not intend to fight another election - which is, presumably, why he’s now happy to make his diaries public. A View From The Foothills, about life in the New Labour government from 1999 to 2007, is due to be published by Profile Books on 2 March. The book is being billed as ‘Alan Clarke meets Yes Minister’, and Profile is quoting Mullin as saying: ‘It is said that failed politicians make the best diarists. In which case I am in with a chance.’

Here is more of the publisher’s blurb: ‘Mullin is irreverent, wry and candid. His keen sense of the ridiculous allows him to give a far clearer insight into the workings of Government than other, more overtly successful and self-important politicians. He offers humorous and incisive takes on all aspects of political life: from the build-up to Iraq, to the scandalous sums of tax-payers’ money spent on ministerial cars he didn’t want to use. His diary is a joy to read: brilliantly-observed, it will entertain and amuse far beyond the political classes.’

In advance of 2 March, extracts from the diaries are being published in the Mail on Sunday, which claims that, until now, the diaries have been ‘kept hidden from everyone but his family’. The book is available from Amazon at half the recommended retail price of £20.

Here’s a small sample of the delights in store. They come from Mullin’s first year in office, when working under John Prescott at the DETR. Personally, I think Mullin’s irreverence and/or wryness falls rather flat in some of this writing, especially when taking his effort to legislate on leylandii so self-importantly!

21 September 1999
‘At John Prescott’s office. JP, grim-faced in shirtsleeves, standing near the window. The reason for this morning’s angst is yet more interference by Downing Street in the business of the Department. Speed limits are the subject of today’s intervention.

His black mood is compounded by the fact that he has come to work this morning wearing unmatching shoes. We are permitted a brief giggle at this. Towards the end of the meeting a minion appears with a plastic bag containing an assortment of shoes.

JP has no concept of how to get the best out of people. His idea of conferring is to lie slumped in an armchair and deliver, at breakneck speed, a series of diatribes. Occasionally, he invites brief contributions from one or other of his Ministers, who are arranged around him on easy chairs. Now and then he solicits information from one of the advisers, who sit behind us on upright chairs.

Our main role is to laugh sycophantically at his jokes. This is how it must be at the court of Boris Yeltsin.’

13 October 1999
‘With Michael Meacher to discuss the dreaded leylandii hedges. After two years of faffing, the Department has produced a leaflet advising on suitable hedging for suburban gardens. ‘Where,’ Michael asks the officials, ‘does it actually say it is not a good idea to plant leylandii?’

‘Ah well, Minister, it doesn’t quite put it as boldly as that. We have to be careful of upsetting the industry.’ Pure Yes, Minister. Later, Brian Hackland - an official from No10 - calls in. Amazingly, The Man has indeed given the matter his attention.’

18 October 1999
‘Another exchange about leylandii with Hackland. ‘The climate in Downing Street is not right,’ he asserted. ‘What climate?’ I say. ‘I bet the Prime Minister hasn’t devoted more than 30 seconds of his time to the matter.’ Reluctantly Hackland disgorged two names, Jonathan Powell and Anji Hunter.

‘Hunter? Where does she fit in?’ ‘The Prime Minister values her political antennae.’

So, our entire effort is paralysed on the whim of the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant. Come back Marcia Falkender.’

Postscript: John Prescott, not to be entirely floored by Mullin’s diary revelation concerning the unmatching shoes, has retaliated (if that’s not too strong a word) with a story about Mullin in his blog, as reported by The Guardian. Prescott writes: ‘I wonder if he [Mullin] mentions in his book about the time when I was called by security to the front of the department’s building to deal with a tramp. I turned up to discover security refusing to let in a man dressed in a thick overcoat, scarf, gloves and a wooly Russian cap that covered his face and ears. I turned round to security and had to tell them: ‘That’s no tramp, that’s my junior minister - Chris Mullin.’

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