The Peak

Written For The New Statesman May 2020


I The Man

For a moment, the world is as it used to be – unconfined, uncurtailed, alive with human teeming: coronavirus-free. The early light of a mid-April morning is already at the window. Sun-shot images flit through his mind: he’s playing somewhere in a rock pool by the sea with his two children; his wife is laughing. Then the half dreams fade and, already, he can sense anxiety seeping through some defensive wall in the back of his mind, pooling and mingling with the rising self-doubt. This is the peak, they say: today, tomorrow, soon.

Normally – the word seems to have to stretch itself further and further back in time – normally, Jim Down would kiss his wife and get up and head into work. But today he’s on the night shift at the hospital so he has to stay in bed, stop his mind racing, try to sleep. He needs to rest. The shifts have gone up from nine hours to 12. And they are relentless. How many days has he been doing this? He’s lost count. The world of medicine – his world, our world, the only world – has never been like this. There is no relevant history, no textbooks and no studies. Nothing is peer-reviewed or follow-the-procedure. The virus is obscure, monolithic, alien. They are fighting blind. Hand to hand. Bed to bed. He tries to sleep. But there’s a voice from his dreams that persists in his waking: Jo’s voice. “Are you sure,” Jo asks? “Will it be OK? Are you sure?” But he’s not sure. And so what is he going to say to Jo?

Jim Down is 49. He is slim, fit, fair and 6ft 1in with dark blue inkwell eyes in which other people write their stories while he listens – patiently. He has disconcertingly boyish looks and an old-school English demeanour – that odd mixture of determination and diffidence, confidence and anxiety, can-do courage and better-safe-than-sorry. He looks like the kind of man that Roger Bannister might have asked to set pace for him when he ran the sub-four-minute mile: two metronomically dependable laps without detectable fuss or falter before quietly standing aside to clap the other man home.

He’s also the doctor that you might have seen on the BBC evening news a few times. The first time in 2006 when he came out to announce the death of Alexander Litvinenko after the defector’s polonium poisoning by Russian spies. The second time on the main segment of the evening news on 6 April when Fergus Walsh, the BBC’s health correspondent – suited-up in plastic, visor and gloves – was briefly allowed to enter the Covid-19 wards of University College Hospital (UCH) in London. Jim’s voice is muffled behind the mask and visor but the whole country heard it cracking when he spoke: “I think it’s very hard on the families,” he said, “my kids are at home, my wife is home schooling. It’s easy for me, I’ve got a job and I am busy all day. They don’t really know what it’s like here – whether we are bringing home the virus – and they’ve been amazing. They just let me do what I need to do and I’m just incredibly grateful to them.”

Boyish looks and an old-school English demeanour: Jim Down, 49, is one of the consultants in charge of critical care at London’s University College Hospital. Credit: Kalpesh Lathigra

Jim’s wife is the actress, Patricia Potter. Coincidentally, she played a doctor, Diane Lloyd, in the BBC series Holby City. They were married in 2007. And the twins were born in 2009 – a boy and a girl.

Jim’s father was a doctor. His father’s father was a doctor. His mother’s father was a doctor. His own training began 33 years ago when he was 16 and he chose the A-levels that would lead to his studying medicine. Then five years at Bristol University medical school. Then a year as a house doctor, intern junior; qualified but unregistered. Then a couple of years in Exeter training as an anaesthetist. Until, finally, he came to London to start his real apprenticeship: seven truly intense years of dual training in anaesthetics and intensive care. He chose the former because it is a highly sensitive minute-by-minute discipline and then took the unusual step of adding intensive care because it seemed to him to be the extreme end of all disease processes. Now, he is one of the consultants in charge of critical care – the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) – at the pre-eminent University College Hospital in central London.

Tonight, that will mean he will lead as many as 75 hospital staff through the toughest night of their professional lives. He’s not sure of the number of patients yet but the count is rising. The expectation is somewhere between 60 and 80 – depending on admissions, on deaths. He strongly resists the idea that his whole life has been in preparation for this moment. Instead, he insists he is just a doctor doing his job surrounded by some truly exceptional colleagues. Everything is collaborative. He’s not a leader, let alone a hero. He dislikes even the word. He would much rather talk about the people he has been working alongside – how he’s witnessed them rising to the challenges and working in conditions unlike anything they have previously known. He lists fellow doctors and nurses and porters and physios and pharmacists and ward clerks until he is forced to move on. He doesn’t want to be formally interviewed, he says, and he doesn’t want to be quoted. All he wants is to let the general public know what that night in April – the peak – was really like for the health workers who dealt with it. Medically, psychologically, from the inside. Because little has changed, he says, and right now they are preparing for a second surge this winter.

The truth is that Jim Down is one of the doctors with the most hands-on experience of Covid-19 in the country. He won’t allow superlatives. But if you fell ill with the disease and you could ask for anyone, then you could do no better than ask for Jim.

Today, though, too-early awake, all he wants to do is get up and help home school his children, play with them, make their breakfast, talk. The weather has been unseasonably warm and it’s going to be another beautiful day. Good Friday. He wishes he was religious. But he knows only too well that it takes more than three days to bring people back from the dead. And that nobody rises alone. Each of the patients he sees in the ICU will have two dozen of the very best healthcare professionals looking after them at one time or another – all day and all night. A constant vigil. Every minute. Often for weeks.

The peak is coming. He shuts his eyes and tries to slip the knots of consciousness. In his half-sleep, he hears the sound of coughing and the wheeze of the machines. The peak, the trough, the test.

II The hospital

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Adam Foulds – Dream Sequence

Written for The Guardian
Adam Foulds is the real deal. He has previously won the Costa poetry award for his reimagining of the Kenyan Mau Mau uprising, The Broken Word, and been Man Booker-shortlisted for his 2009 novel about John Clare, The Quickening Maze.

This is his fourth novel and it follows two protagonists: Henry Banks, a successful and solipsistic actor with an emptiness at the centre of his being that only the next big break can fill (but never does); and Kristin, a recently divorced American who is so obsessed with Henry that she writes letters to him twice a week and soon travels to London to begin the happy-ever-after life together that her stalker’s mind has convinced her awaits. Eventually they meet and … uh-oh.

Foulds opens Henry’s narrative with a simple sentence: “The hunger was beginning to hurt.” The actor is on a diet for what he hopes will be the lead role in the next movie of the great auteur, Miguel Garcia. But the ravenousness in this novel is as much metaphysical as physical. There’s deep psychology on every page – Henry is a textured portrait of a human being hollowed out by vanity and ambition, living in the dead eye at the centre of the celebrity vortex; but Foulds renders him vulnerable and lost and existentially panicked and therefore understandable. Meanwhile, Kristin’s mind is remote from reality in the opposite way; she lives enshrouded and dazed in the hex that celebrity projects.

But it’s the details of the writing itself – the precision of the word selection combined with the precision of the observation – that make for such enjoyable reading. Henry’s taxi pauses at traffic lights, for example, so that he might notice a man eating an apple by “delicately picking with his teeth at the remaining edible flesh by the core”. In his description of Henry’s lover, Virginia, a gangly fashion model “just this side of grotesque”, Foulds writes: “Her wrists were long and gave the impression of an unused excess of dexterity when she handled her glass and drinking straw.”

Adam Foulds … dramatic reach and range.Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
Tourists ask for a picture from Kristin when she’s outside Buckingham Palace: as she points the camera, “their smiles grew fiercer”. Add to this keenness of perception a poetical ear for euphony and cadence and you have the quiddity of Foulds’s gift. On a boat trip during a festival in Qatar, Henry thinks:

This was being a tourist in the modern world, enjoying the view while knowing the water was poisoned, the sea overfished and the sea level rising. Among educated people this might be a topic of conversation, too, at least for a while, a little geo-political mournfulness between forgetful pleasures.

Beautifully put – but what additional skill it takes to make the rhythm of the sentence lap like waves. My favourite sentence of all, though, is this one about the Thames: “In a half-sleep one afternoon, when his thoughts swelled and slurred into dreams, he saw a cormorant very clearly, hunting underwater through the olive gloom, its fixed eye and featherless throat and witchy feathers.”

Yet despite all these satisfying readerly pleasures, I couldn’t help but notice that the book felt out of date as a stalking novel. No Instagram, no Twitter, no Celebrity Face Search? A fan composing actual letters to agents? It doesn’t matter in terms of the skill of the writing, but Dream Sequence feels a little late 1990s.

I also began to think that the wider resonance of the novel somehow isn’t as powerful as the prose: I wanted the sum of so many fine parts to add up to something more by the end. Perhaps there are too many pauses to notice indiscriminate detail, not enough of throwing the characters at each other, not enough fully realised, dramatic scene writing. Perhaps the story and subject are too off-the-shelf. In any case, it sometimes seems as though the too-familiar plot – the actual story – is there to serve Foulds’s other writerly interests.

There’s a similarity here with Julian Barnes (whom I also admire); I remember thinking when he won the Man Booker for The Sense of an Endingthat his great skill as a writer is ill served by his patchiness as a dramatist and his gestural plots. Dream Sequence is a better novel than The Sense of an Ending but, still, I’d love for middle-period Foulds to find a great Dostoevskian story-subject with a polyphonic cast of rich characters who rip into one another and the world about them – something with the dramatic reach and range to do justice to his immense talent.

A last plea to “Leavers” ahead of The Referendum tomorrow…

Written for Prospect Magazine:


By the weekend, this grim and unhappy referendum on our membership of the European Union will have passed from our national life. And what a relief for us all that will be. It has divided us against ourselves and made enemies of friends. We have seen too much of the worst of Britain and not enough of the best. Most will by now have made up their minds. But for those still deciding, one last effort at persuasion:

The Economic Argument:

If we leave Europe, we will have to renegotiate every single trade agreement we have with the rest of the world. This will swamp the civil service for decades and cause chaos untold—evolving chaos, immediate chaos—for every business, employer, employee or individual otherwise connected by trade, profession or exchange to any other nation on Earth. Assuming the British re-negotiators do the best possible job—and I am sure they would—the very most that they could possibly achieve would be deals no better than those we already have; the status quo. The process will take several years. In the meantime, the people who would suffer most in the ensuing downturn—and both sides agree there will be one—are those with the least amount of money to insulate themselves against it. There is no serious economic argument for Brexit which is why there are no serious economists making it.

The Sovereignty Argument

The fact of the referendum itself is all the illustration we should need to realize that we are a sovereign nation who can decide whether or not we continue to delegate certain areas of law-making to Europe. These areas are mainly to do with trade, working conditions, common policies for production, agriculture and fishing—things centred around a common market. We choose to opt out of the euro and Schengen. Meanwhile, we choose to legislate for ourselves on the vast majority of issues from tax to defence to health and education and so on. But the stark and obvious truth is that had we abandoned our sovereignty, we would not be able to choose tomorrow whether to be in or out. The sovereignty argument is self-evidently falsified by the very fact of our vote tomorrow.

The Money Argument

In 2014-2015 we paid just over 1 per cent of our gross national income to Europe. This is the smallest proportion of income paid by any of the 28 members. Think about that for a second. And it’s been like this for decades. Here are the 2007 figures. Here are those in 2011. Again, this is a straightforward truth. Not only do we get an excellent deal, we get the best deal in Europe—and by some distance. We are one of the most powerful members of one of the most powerful groups of nations on Earth and yet, by gross national income, we pay the least to be so and have opt outs and rebates to suit us that others do not.

The Political-Historical Argument

At its simplest, the EU has been the greatest peace treaty ever drawn up. Consider the warring history of our continent through every bloody century that preceded it and consider the Europe we now inhabit, visit and share. Nobody can seriously argue that Leaving would do anything but play against or undermine that hard won peace, prosperity and partnership. For what? Meanwhile, not a single one of our allies wants us to leave. Not one. Unless we are to count Putin.

One more consideration: the people of Wales, Scotland and London could reasonably request that they be allowed to stay in the EU if—in those areas—the vote to “Remain” was decisive. The rest of the country could not then refuse to allow them the same self-determination they have just enjoyed. I believe a vote to “Leave” is therefore a vote for the beginning of the end of the UK.

The Immigration Argument

There are two channels of immigration: non-EU and EU. The referendum changes absolutely nothing with regard to the first which is roughly half the net migration figure; we already have complete control over this. The second stream is the only real argument “Leave” have and what their case is really all about.

Let me be clear: my own opinion is that immigration is healthy, vital, positive and necessary. On the long view, all of us not born in Africa are the descendants of immigrants. On the medium view, anyone making an anti-immigration argument in England is being wilfully ignorant of our history and not least with regard to the various Royal Families that have sat on our throne—Danish, Norman, French, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch and German as they have been. On the short view, EU immigrants are universally agreed to be net contributors financially to Britain, not to mention all the other million ways through work, enterprise and culture that they greatly enhance our national life.

But there is a perception—sometimes legitimate, sometimes not—voiced by significant numbers of people (including immigrants) that our country is over-stretched in terms of services, transport, schools and hospitals.

I do not wholly subscribe to this view. But it seems to me that if you are voting “Leave,” then the only unanswerable grounds you have is that you believe this particular issue—the numbers of recent immigrants from other EU countries to the UK—is so deleterious to national life that it trumps all other considerations economic, political, historical or otherwise. In which case, a vote to “Leave” is a legitimate and honest expression of that belief.


For many people, Nigel Farage’s views are somewhere between vulgar and sickening. Michael Gove’s are pompous and oddly constructed (as is his manner). And Kate Hoey is an embarrassment to everyone. But at least this ill-gathered ensemble honestly hold the positions they espouse.

By far the worst man of the hour has been Boris Johnson. Why? Because he cannot and does not believe most of what he says. Read his confected books on Churchill and London. Watch the TV shows he has made. Listen to his speeches as Mayor. Every strand of his intellectual and emotional DNA was bent towards Europe until the start of this campaign. And yet, throughout, he has curried popular favour with one oafish falsehood after another. He has deliberately misled audiences in order to gain personal political advantage. He has put himself above the nation that he claims to love. Hubris does not cover it; even last night, he continued to evince a belief that this whole referendum was about him and his career; the audiences’ view of him, the viewers’ view of him, his view of him, the endless onlookers (real and imagined) that he needs to bear witness to his life.

I hope the Tory party and the rest of the country now have the good sense to side-line Boris Jonson for good. Too long have we indulged his facile amour-propre as personality, his weasel cunning as intelligence, his lumpen bombast as argument. The clumsily deployed classicisms and the cultivated candy floss hair are chimera behind which you will find simple narcissism. He knows better. He understood these arguments. So either he is consciously attempting to manipulate the British people or his mendacity is so deeply subconscious that he cannot be trusted with any serious office henceforth. His remarks regarding President Obama and Hitler were, I think, a personal nadir and richly indicative of the man he has become. I am not alone in finding his contortions genuinely saddening—since, for a while, he embodied the better kind of Conservative. As to the naked attempt to recruit Churchill to Project Self-Aggrandizement—well: Boris Jonson is to Churchill as Dan Quayle was to Kennedy. Memo to Tory Party members: Napoleon was wrong—we are not a nation of shopkeepers and we do not wish to be led by a shopping trolley.

The Future

And yet a vote for “Remain”—my vote for “Remain” at least—is not a vote for the status quo. I want to see a much more accountable EU. I want it to set about dealing immediately with those tasks that only it can deal with: the refugee crisis, the insufficient payment of corporation tax by certain global corporations, our unfolding environmental concerns. The current minister for Europe, David Lidington, will have to go and we need a new high profile appointment who should be personally charged with making clear progress on such issues. We need to take our urgent demands into Europe with the same determined energy and engagement with which we have disputed this referendum.

Thatcher was wrong of course: there is such a thing as society. Indeed, the agreements of human civilisation are all there is between us and barbarism; the rest is a Farage-Gove fantasy of flags and civil-wars and tribes and Gods and a Europe in which the Enlightenment never happened.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we are living at the exciting dawn of an age of super-technology and super-connectedness. Every year brings the planet closer together. Not in a bogus hippy way but in real way to do with what you eat, the weather, your pensions, the sport you enjoy, where the components of your phone are from, what you breathe, see, suffer and enjoy. We are all of us beginning to understand that what happens in the Antarctic or the Amazon or Aleppo affects everyone. There is no going back. Isolation is not just a bad idea; it is a now impossible idea that insists on an ignorance to which we cannot return expect by blinding and deafening ourselves. Just as our problems are global problems, so our solutions must be global.
The EU is far from perfect but in my view it is our best route to security, prosperity and the future of civilisation. Because, in the end, we human beings have a common destiny or we have no destiny at all.

Be British tomorrow. Be European. Be part of the greatest continent mankind had ever known. For that is what you are. Vote “Remain”.

There were Two Oppositions in the Last Parliament

Written for The Guardian:


There were two oppositions in the last parliament: Labour and the Liberal Democrats. And, this week more than ever, it is worth saying that only the latter made any difference to the real lives of real people. Why? Because they were in government. But thanks to their brutal contraction and the subsequent departure of Don Corbyn de la Mancha for his knight-errant’s tour of windmills, we now have no effective opposition at all (unless you count the House of Lords). And this is about to matter in lots of painful ways to millions of people when the chancellor announces what cuts he plans to make in the spending review in his autumn statement on Wednesday.

You may recall that George Osborne used his conference speech – oratorically at least – to parlay his clammy mortician’s charm into something altogether more Nosferatu: a claim for the centre ground. But the spending review will disperse the swirling mists of his rhetoric and we will now see – in hard and detailed figures – exactly what this Conservative government looks like. Remember: Osborne has ordered the non-ringfenced government departments to find ways to slash their budgets by up to 40% by 2019-20 in order to meet the extra £20bn in savings in public spending that he was vowed to deliver.

I say “deliver”, as if the figure for these cuts were not an ideological choice but somehow undisputed and scientifically required. But it is important to remember that the pace of “austerity” is a strategic decision that Osborne has taken and then written into the narrative tectonics of the three-act play that he has devised for us all to sit through. (Spoiler alert: act three concerns widespread national rejoicing at The Surplus, miraculously coincident with the election of an Osborne-led Conservative government.)



Are we Sleepwalking to Brexit?

Written for Prospect Magazine:


The European Union referendum now lies splayed across the political event horizon like a giant jellyfish with which we are all soon going to have to wrestle. History will explain how Nigel Farage, whom I have interviewed for this magazine, tortured the Conservative Party into wasting the nation’s time and energy on what is essentially a Tory in-house disagreement. But this is his dream come true; and what a many-tentacled nightmare it turns out to be.

Make no mistake: in less than a year, Great Britain could be out of the EU and no longer Great or, indeed, Britain. David Cameron’s departure will surely follow Brexit, which will also be followed by Scotland’s attempted split from Britain. The splenetic strain of the Conservative Party will be left running Little England—for that is what we will be—and its business for decades to come will be the treaty-by-treaty renegotiation of our relationship with every other country in the world.

Why are we in danger of sleep walking to Brexit? Two reasons: the “in” campaign and the “out” campaign. The former is tangled, confused and complacent; the latter replete with experience and a fierce vitality.

The “ins” as presently configured, are, of course, bedeviled by macro politics that stall and occlude their purposes… What concessions can the Prime Minister get from the EU? When will he start campaigning? How exactly does all this play into George Osborne’s succession plans for himself? Which cabinet members will campaign to leave the EU? How can they then be part of the government? Where is Boris Johnson in all of this? Theresa May? But let us for a moment take the “ins” at face value.

Their first problem is their ostensible leader. Stuart Rose looks and sounds like the great chief executive of Marks and Spencer he once was—focussed and wiry, he radiates competence, work ethic and a steady mercantile understanding of high-street footfall. He is the opposite of what the “in” campaign needs. At the launch, which I attended, he seemed under-prepared for the political fray and actively to dislike cheerleading, rhetoric or enthusiastic case-making of any kind. He looked and sounded cautious, unwilling or dragooned. His speech was poorly structured, poorly written and poorly delivered—all in a salt-dry voice. Certainly, the “ins” need Stuart Rose on hand to make the many calm and clinching business points. But surely the leader’s job is to promote the case with warm and passionate conviction as well as authenticity. Even if—as with Rose—all he is doing is holding the fort until Cameron and Osborne mobilise.

Then there’s the authority question. Will Straw, the “in” campaign’s Executive Director, might one day be a force for good in the country. He’s decent, willing and impossible to dislike. But he looks and sounds out of his depth. At a recent debate, the first between the campaign leaders, he was properly pitted against Dominic Cummings, the battle-hungry director of what will surely become the main “out” (“Vote Leave”) campaign. This was Straw’s first real public test. He did not do well. As soon as the debate opened to questions, it became clear to the audience that Straw was not across the detail. He was unable, for example, to counter the demonstrably false figure of the “out” side that it costs £55m a day to keep us in Europe and instead the chair had to do it for him; and then—staggeringly—he had not even heard of the Rotterdam Effect.

What’s the Rotterdam Effect I hear you cry?


Forget the ‘Ajockalypse’, this was ArmaCleggon

For Prospect Magazine:

Hell yeah, we were pumped up. And so we came at last to Sheffield Hallam, the constituency of Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, a national media seeking answers. How many red lines were needed to draw a U-turn? On which party would he bestow the still-glittering orangey-gold crown? The Tories might do better than expected. Or Labour might lock them out. But the one thing we knew for certain was that the Liberal Democrats were going to be the “surprise story” of the 2015 election and nobody would be able to govern without them. Sure, the polls were deadlocked with the party stubbornly entrenched below ten per cent, but when we took account of “incumbency” and “grass roots” and being “dug in deep”, we were looking at between 25 and 35 Liberal Democrat seats. Which job would Clegg ask for? Which job would he get? Could the Tories win enough seats? And, if they did, how was he going to take his two dozen colleagues with him? If Labour, how would the master negotiator renegotiate?

But we were asking the wrong questions. In the wrong universe. What we were about to experience was not the re-appointment of a kingmaker; it was nothing short of ArmaCleggon.

The Lonely Rationalist: Nick Clegg Interview

For Prospect Magazine

I sit down opposite the Deputy Prime Minister just as the Prime Minister calls. We’re on a Great Western train from Bristol to London. Outside, the English afternoon is passing by in a blur of Betjeman and Brunel. We have cups of tea. Over the fields are massed a flotilla of Boris Johnson clouds—vaguely alarming, bulky and off-white.

This is early May and the Daily Mail has just published leaked private correspondence between Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, his party colleague and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that shows that the Liberal Democrats are “resisting” Tory plans to introduce mandatory sentences for knife crimes. When he arrived at Paddington, I heard Clegg say that he was “pissed off,” but now


The relentless charm of Nigel Farage – Interview

For Prospect Magazine

We are approaching a significant moment in our national history. And somehow the hitherto fringe figure of Nigel Farage is at its centre. Yes, the UK Independence party, for all the farrago of its local election successes, is still a minor party; but it has become the point around which the debate on Europe and immigration is now revolving. Ukip does not have to win a single seat in the 2015 election to change the course of British politics. It has already set the terms. It has caused the current spread of Conservative fissures and pushed David Cameron to propose legislation guaranteeing an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union. And it has inflamed the one debate that even our Gilbert and George coalition might not survive. Meanwhile, Ukip is making the Labour party react—and nervously so. How has this happened? To begin with, the answer is best understood by watching its leader, Farage, in his element: on the campaign trail.

I am in South Shields—Labour heartland in the northeast. It is the day before the by-election caused by David Miliband’s resignation. The next day, on 2nd May, Ukip will alter the geometry of British politics by winning 139 seats on local councils and taking, on average, one in four votes nationwide. But Nigel Farage doesn’t yet know this. He is out campaigning on behalf of Richard Elvin, his party’s candidate. The northern sky is wide and bright, though it’s unreasonably cold if you stand in the shade. We are in the main pedestrianised street. Farage is talking with (not “to” or “at”) yet another enthusiastic supporter, a man in his fifties and a former Labour voter.

“Yes, well, that’s often true,” Farage says, leaning in to respond to a complaint about the perceived lack of visibility of David Miliband previously. He extends the point to include every Westminster politician: “The other three parties are all the same. That’s why we are drawing support very evenly across the country—now that is a strength but it is also a weakness under first past the post.”

A German journalist interrupts. She is non-specifically cross. Typically, Farage seeks to flatter her, even as he goes on the attack: “Ah, well, under your system where you have two ballot papers”—he smiles, he means the German electoral system which he is implying is more civilised—“we would have had representation many years ago. But under this system it is tough and we haven’t yet broken the dam.”

What the journalist doesn’t appear to know—surprisingly few do—is that Farage’s second wife, Kirsten Mehr, with whom he has two young daughters, is also German. Later he tells me that he “is careful to keep the family out of it.”

Peter Mandelson – Profile


For Prospect Magazine

On 6th December, 30 years ago, on a dark and miserable night in south London, a few streets from where I am writing this, a young Peter Mandelson was elected as a Labour borough councillor to the world’s most insane local council—Lambeth. Representing Stockwell, the 26-year-old Mandelson found himself sitting on a Labour council led by a man called “Red Ted,” who was backed by a grim cast of Trotskyites and Bennites. Though few pause to consider it now, this was Mandelson’s first experience of real politics. It was winter 1979 and the Labour party was just about to forget about the British people altogether in favour of a long and enthusiastic tour of the hinterlands of lunacy and irrelevance. Mandelson was living in a tiny flat in Kennington. His bed—in the living room—folded into the wall.

On 17th February this year, Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool was attending a drinks reception at the Manhattan penthouse that is the official residence of the British consul-general in New York. The secretary of state for business, enterprise and reform was in America to talk up the British economy. The centrepiece was a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. But, as he waited at the studios of CNBC during a busy day of interviews, Mandelson overheard the chief executive of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, claiming that Britain was in “a downward spiral.” On screen Mandelson reacted robustly; later on though—at the party and in the presence of journalists—he let fly: “Why should I have this guy running down the country? Who the fuck is he?” he was overheard to say. Thus a mini-media storm was set in motion. And yet there was a further, more private, layer to the evening’s events. At some point, Mandelson took a moment to send a text to the young daughter of a close friend who was also in New York and with whom he had been in touch throughout his visit—a text to the effect that the evening was deeply tedious and that he wished they had gone to the Armani party instead as they had discussed. It was New York fashion week and he would much rather have been with David and Victoria.

The two dates are illustrative.