Lord Adonis is at war with his principles. A former advisor on constitutional matters, the transport secretary desperately wants a fully elected second chamber. But, as an unelected head of department, he is on the same footing as Lord Mandelson, aka The Dark Lord. Neither man fought an election at the ballot box to become secretary of state - both profited instead through appointment. Both wield huge influence over policy without setting foot in the Commons chamber. And both are associated with the pomp and ceremony that accompanies the slowly decaying House of Lords.
To top it off, Lord Adonis has only really been involved in frontline politics for five years. The people of Great Britain should be up in arms, marching through Westminster with angry banners about accountability and cronyism. But, somehow, this doesn't happen. We have a collective soft spot for this particular peer. Trying to find something unfavourable to say about Baron Adonis of Camden Town is not easy. Despite his progression from Oxford graduate to academic, to journalist, to special advisor, to Lord, we do not begrudge him for being a career politician. Against all the odds, this unelected peer has been accepted. And even praised.
But it seems acceptance is not enough for Adonis. He would prefer not to be a lord at all. Stuck in some kind of constitutional limbo, he favours the abolition of appointed peers, despite the fact that it would cost him his position in Westminster. So many work for so long for this position of privilege. Yet, to Adonis, it is his biggest political mistake. "If I could have rerun the last 10 years, I should have gone into the House of Commons," he says. "Tony Blair wanted me to continue working for him until the 2005 election because I was very actively engaged in preparing the manifesto. And under the rules of the game, you cannot be a special advisor and a parliamentary candidate. So it wasn't possible to go for selection. Tony then asked me to become a minister immediately after the 2005 election. By then, it was too late to seek to go into the House of Commons. If I could rewind the clock, I may have taken the chance of going for selection in the 2005 election."
For the man whose biggest political regret was to accept a peerage instead of fighting for a seat in the Commons, he takes a different line on his appointment to cabinet. Most MPs can expect to dawdle on the backbenches for years before looking for promotion. But Adonis is unapologetic about his instant upgrade over his Commons colleagues. "It's perfectly constitutionally proper for cabinet ministers to be in the House of Lords. The constitutional convention is that you don't have very many of them, and there aren't very many. There are two secretaries of state who are in the House of Lords together with the leader of the House of Lords." To Adonis, three out of 23 ain't bad.
But what of the other secretary of state in the House of Lords? He who must not be named. How come Adonis is not tainted by the same accusations of unelected power that dog Lord Mandelson of Foy? "I am younger and haven't been in politics for so long. When I've been in politics as long as Peter, I imagine that I'll be in the same position as him," Adonis shrugs. "I became a minister after the 2005 election so I don't have a long political history in the way that Peter does."
It could also have something to do with the fact that Adonis does not wear ermine, nor that look of disdain, nearly as well. Even the cruelest commentator struggles to carry out a character assassination on him. Among the sharpest journalistic jibes have been that the Labour peer looks like a "trainspotter" or "a good clerk in a Trollope novel". Hardly the stuff of the poison pen.
To a degree, Adonis can be characterised in the same way as former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith - they are both afflicted with "quiet man" syndrome. Duncan Smith famously told the 2002 Conservative Party conference: "Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man." And there is nothing loud about Lord Adonis - apart from his tie - which is a rather unsettling shade of neon purple on the day we meet.
Perhaps it is not a surprise, considering his upbringing, that Adonis is quietly determined. He was born the son of an immigrant Greek Cypriot in 1963. His English mother left home when he was three and he has not seen her since. He spent six years in a Camden children's home before being awarded a local education authority grant to attend Kingham Hill School at the age of 11. From there, he went to Keble College Oxford, graduating with a fi rst in modern history. He later became a fellow at Nuffield College before leaving academia for journalism, working for the Financial Times then The Observer. In 1998, he became an advisor to No 10 on education and constitutional policy, before being made a life peer on 16 May 2005.
But along with such a glittering career comes scrutiny and suspicion - from the public, the media and even fellow party members. It is part of the small print when you sign a contract to hold such influence without a public mandate. During his time as an education advisor and parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Department of Education and Skills (later the Department for Children, Schools and Families), Adonis strongly propagated the development of academies, specialist schools and trust schools - often bringing in the private sector. This led to anger and mistrust from Labour's trade union base and some left-wing party members. More uncomfortably, he gained fans from across the party spectrum. Conservative education spokesman Michael Gove has stated: "We are on the same page as Andrew Adonis."
When asked about suspicion from the left of the party, Adonis is evasive. "Well, they seem to like what I am doing at transport," he jokes. Part of this suspicion is founded on the fact that Adonis did not instantly fi nd his natural home with Labour. He was an Oxford city councillor for the Alliance/Liberal Democrats between 1987 and 1991, before standing as a prospective parliamentary candidate for the party in Westbury in 1995. He resigned from the race after about 18 months, before joining the Labour Party the following year. Adonis denies that switching allegiances also brought about a change in his personal ideology. "I haven't changed my political views at all since I became seriously interested in politics at the age of 17 or 18." He explains that, when Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994 and replaced Clause IV in the party's constitution, it became "the natural home for modernising social democrats like me".
"My great mentor Roy Jenkins himself urged me to join the Labour Party because he said if he was my age, he would now be making a career in the Labour Party because it reflected the principles for which he stood. So although I changed parties in the mid-1990s, I have remained as true to my principles, as a modernising social democrat in the Labour Party, as I did in the Liberal Democrats before."
Although he mentions his "social democrat" principles over half a dozen times in the course of the interview, rumours have buzzed around Westminster for months that Adonis's pragmatism could lead him to work under a Conservative government if they win the election. But the Labour peer is quick to reject the idea, even in a ‘Government of All Talents'. "No, of course not," he states. "I am not going to join a Conservative government and I am not going to leave the Labour Party." The rumours are just "part of the game of politics", he adds.
For a ‘quiet man', Adonis knows when and how to make noise. He generated national press coverage for his travel diaries, despite the fact that they were on the potentially dreary topics of motorways and railways. "I'm quite a keen reformer. I can't look at the status quo without wanting to change it quite radically for the better, and I bring the spirit of the reformer to this job." But surely reformers run out of ideas eventually? "I haven't done that yet..." Adonis replies confidently.
He supports a fully elected second chamber, despite the fact that it would mean losing his peerage. "If the current House of Lords ends and an elected second chamber is introduced I'd be delighted to stand [for election]." But he is still debating whether he would support a fully elected Parliament drawing ministers from other areas. "One of the roles the House of Lords performs at the moment is to make it possible to bring ministers in from outside Parliament. To my mind, it's a good democratic practice to make it possible for a government to include people who aren't themselves members of the legislature but are fully accountable to it. I don't think the electorate particularly mind whether every minister sits in the House of Commons or not."
An outside source himself, Adonis entered the Department for Transport as a transport minister in October 2008 before being promoted to secretary of state in the reshuffl e of June 2009. He is dedicated to the task of improving transport "relentlessly". He enthuses: "There's a huge job to be done. In the last two months alone we've had snow, all the problems with shortage of salt and grit, the Eurostar breakdowns, the Detroit terrorist attack - which led to a major review of airport security in Britain - and the big problems in the train services on the main commuting routes going north to south from London."
Just weeks before the election, Adonis revealed to Parliament his blueprint for building a high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham in a journey that will last an estimated 49 minutes. But Conservative transport secretary Theresa Villiers has said that she is not prepared to endorse a route behind closed doors that neither she nor the public had been privy to. Adonis dismisses this attack. The Conservatives are "playing it both ways at the moment", he says. "It wasn't a sensible thing for them to do because if they want to see high-speed rail progress then they have a big stake in there being consensus on the principles. In the wake of the fiasco of their nonengagement with [health secretary] Andy Burnham on long term care, they decided to make a statement that they didn't wish to engage further on high-speed rail. It is short-term political manoeuvering."
He also had a rather public spat with another prominent Conservative, after rejecting Mayor of London Boris Johnson's appeal for more public money to upgrade the underground. "[Boris] asked me for another £400m. I said he has already got £40bn of government money over 10 years, which is an extremely generous settlement for Transport for London. I don't have those funds. He could easily cover the shortfall he claims to have on the tube upgrades by choosing different priorities with his own budget - if he didn't scrap the bendy buses and he hadn't scrapped the western congestion charge zone - those steps alone would have largely filled the gap which he claims to have in respect of the tube upgrades."
Adonis clearly loves his job. But his fundamental objections to the current state of the Lords, despite owing his own success to it, must be a diffi cult ethical position for him. And his seeming reluctance to play politics along traditional party lines makes him an uncomfortable bedfellow for many on the left. Even during the build up to the forthcoming election, Adonis appears to put his transport brief first. Indeed, he doesn't know where he will be on election night. "I am doing a nationwide rail tour during the election. So I am not sure where that will get me by polling day," he contemplates. "Meeting a lot of candidates at stations." Lucky candidates.
In a dawning era of transparent, fair politics, Adonis should be despised. But because he is good at what he does - and is a genuinely nice person as well - his somewhat dubious ascension can be overlooked. At a time when the public is crying for politics to be democratic, one of the most respected politicians is not. He is a welcome anomaly. His career trajectory isn't admirable. But, reluctantly, Adonis is.
Most unusual type of transport you've travelled on?
The Segway. There are a lot of ardent proponents of the Segway in the House of Lords. So I thought I needed togo on one myself. I just about kept my balance. And we are now consulting on whether the Segway should become legal on the public highway.
Have you given anything up for lent?
No, I don't believe in the politics of deprivation.
What question do you get asked most by schoolchildren?
Why I went into politics in the first place. Which I take to be quite concerning in some ways. Because politics is not seen as a cool profession even by fairly politically aware sixth-formers.
Have you used a full-body scanner yet?
Actually I haven't travelled on a plane since we introduced body scanners. But I am perfectly prepared to be scanned and I should be scanned in the same way I expect everybody else to be.
What is your prediction for the election?
I think we'll win it. The polls are already narrowing. You need to keep steady nerves in politics.
Do you tweet or blog?
I blogged when I did my national rail tour last April and I blogged when I did one on the M25. But I take the view that I should only blog when I have got something to say, and that certainly isn't every day. And it certainly isn't every minute, so I can see no point in tweeting whatsoever.