It's a good job being your PA then.

Actually don't mock it, it is. Compared to working for a chief exec of a big company, it is. Because I do all my own letters.

Whenever I've emailed you, you've answered it within about three minutes. Peter Mandelson's the same.

Is that right? I haven't got Peter Mandelson's email address. If I had, I would try it out. I put together a portfolio of work after leaving the Sunday Times in 1995 so I've got used to doing it over 15 years. The other thing is I'm single. I haven't got a family to worry about. I haven't got a family to give quality time to. I haven't got a wife who's sitting at home nursign her ire saying: "Where is he? He's not home, yet again."

Do you regret that?

Yes, I do regret it. But you can't have everything, and one of the minuses is not having children and not having had a wife. The plus is that I'm in control of my diary and all the time is for me. It's quite a selfish existence.

Did you actually make a decision?

No, it just happened. If this had been even 10, certainly 15 years ago, I'd have said I would have got married and had a family life. But that's just how it is. I didn't set out not to have a family. It's just the way it's been. That's why I've always taken more interest in my godchildren because if you haven't got children and you are very fond of kids... I get on well with kids. I'm invariably the one that gets handed the baby to quieten it down. This weekend I'm off to Dubai for a board meeting and some other meetings with a magazine company out there. If I was a family man, that would be more of a diffi cult thing. My partner would be saying: "Come on, do you have to go to Dubai now? We've not seen you for four weeks." Whereas the only person that cares is my housekeeper and she's pretty glad to see the back of me. Sadly the dog doesn't get to see me at all because he's in France.

What have you brought to The Spectator?

We've brought it into the 21st century for a start. It's now a well-run business and a proper business. I inherited something that was already on the way to becoming a better business because Conrad Black had begun to do that. It's now an independent, stand-alone company. Of course we share the same owners as the Telegraph. But this is a magazine company now in its own right which is looking to grow and is a magazine that makes profi ts and that protects its independence. I lear nt a long while ago at The Economist, from Alastair Burnett, that if you make money you are independent. And with Fraser [Nelson], we've modernised it and made it very much part of the centreright debate.

Can you say what happened with Matthew d'Ancona?

No. I mean Matthew was doing a lot of other things and had a lot of other things to do. Editors are like football managers. Here today, gone tomorrow. As a former editor myself, I know what it's like.

Moving on to the election, do you think it was a good thing that the whole campaign was dominated by the debates?

In retrospect, no. The debates turned out not to have the seminal infl uence we thought they had. The whole campaign built up to them, and then came down from them, build up to the next, then down, up, down. And sometimes the campaign went dead other than for the debates.

But they are here to stay. How do you think they should be reformed for next time?

They have to free them up more. They've got to be freer. The anchorman has to have a role. Not to assert himself or herself too much but they have to have more power to do a follow-up question, or to ask for clarification, or say: "I'm sorry Mrs Smith didn't ask about that, she asked about this. Could you answer the question?"

I haven't seen the BBC coverage because I was presenting LBC's programme but there's been a lot of comment about your BBC boat on election night...

Well, it wasn't my boat.

You know what I mean.

I wish it was my boat.

Did it work?

I think it worked. David [Dimbleby] was anchoring the television centre coverage from 10pm to at least 6am, so you needed a bit of light and shade. The people who've criticised this have mainly been newspapers that have an anti-BBC agenda in the first place. So any excuse to give them a kicking. Also, the same newspapers who complained we had some celebrities on the boat are the papers that live by celebrities. The Daily Mail has endless celebrities everyday.

Do we need to hear Bruce Forsyth's thoughts on politics during election night though?

First of all you need a break. It cannot all be relentless "here's another result". The people on television themselves need a bit of a break, even just for three or four minutes, because the BBC doesn't have commercial breaks. Just a chance to draw breath and say: "Right, while Andrew is interviewing Bruce Forsyth, what are we doing next?" Of course the papers all concentrated on Bruce Forsyth and Joan Collins. Let's not forget that on that night we also had the first interview with Alastair Campbell. We had Simon Schama and David Starkey. I interviewed Andrew Rawnsley, the editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber, Will Hutton on the situation in the markets and, at ten past five, Lord Ashcroft. It's interesting the papers have said: "Oh, we don't want to hear from all these celebrity non-entities and so on." The fact is we had an enormous mix of people.

Would you like to be the main presenter on the BBC's election night coverage next time?

Absolutely!

Well that's categoric. I thought you might duck that one.

I'd love to do it. I don't think it's going to happen but I'd love that. The first time I did television was as Alastair Burnett's researcher in the February 1974 election which he anchored. If you see the opening shot, because they did an aerial shot when Alastair comes out, you see a young freshfaced lad sitting a few feet sunken behind him. That was me. My job was to write little notes and pass them up to him about Newcastle Central coming up, the Labour candidate's called Pickup and he's a lorry driver. I always liked the way Alastair did that. And yeah, I'd always love to do that but I feel that there are many more [people] ahead of me.

I would have thought there were only a couple - Huw Edwards and Paxman. They are the only serious ones. Do you care what politicians think of you? In fact, do you care what anyone thinks of you?

I don't know what politicians think of me because they never say. If you have had as much bad publicity as I've had from the newspapers, then life wouldn't be worth living if you cared about what they thought. But in some sense, you care. Sometimes it can be annoying or even hurtful. You can't dwell on it too much. There's no point. It used to matter a lot more but it would be false to say that now it's just water off a duck's back. But if you have the kind of profile I have, you just have to take it.

Producers at the BBC tell me about the high amount of preparation you do for your programmes. How much do you actually read to get on top of a subject?

In a sense my whole life is a research project. I do a lot of research for myself. I make my own folders. I make endless notes and keep the folders up-to-date. On top of that, I have the brightest people at the BBC preparing their notes and their background for me. If I take what I've done and then add in what they've done when I go to do a major interview, I'm pretty well informed. I see quite a lot of interviewers struggling when they deal with economics. Economics is the lifeblood of politics, no more so than now. It was really a sensible decision of mine to study political economy at university. It really was. It gave me a competitive advantage over nearly everybody else. To be economically literate just gives you confidence. Even interviewing the chancellor, you know that obviously he sees the secret papers and so on but there's nothing he can tell you that can baffle you.

Does your nickname of ‘Brillo' annoy you?

It's in with the woodwork now. It's just, to complain about that, what was it that Enoch Powell said? It would be like a sailor who complains about the sea.

How much do you hate Private Eye?

I don't hate Private Eye.

They do seem to have a thing about you, don't they?

Yeah but that's a bit... I get on very wellwith Ian Hislop. They always think there'sbad blood between us so they put me withPaul Merton [on Have I Got News for You?].But there's no bad blood. Last time I wason his team, not Paul Merton's. Private Eyeis strange. I used to read it religiously whenI was at the Sunday Times. Now I just see itevery now and then.

It's a bit like a paper blog now.

Sometimes when you are in it you think: "Oh I wish they hadn't said that." Then you're not in it and you think: "Oh, don't I matter anymore?" The one thing that they get completely wrong is the picture of me and ‘Pamella Bordes'. Except it's not Miss Bordes.

Isn't it?

It never has been Miss Bordes. That was a picture of a woman from New York that I was going out with in 1995. She worked at Fox and she is an Afro-American. She's not Asian, she's not Indian, she's not British. The picture was taken as we came off the beach in Barbados by [British photographer] Terry O'Neill. It's been presented now as if a) it's Miss Bordes and b) that we were in some kind of nightclub and I'm there in this stupid shirt in a nightclub. It was a beach we'd come off hence the baseball cap and the beachwear. And this woman, this lovely, lovely... I've not seen or heard from her for 15 years - she's no idea she's the most famous face in Private Eye. But it's not Miss Bordes. Anyone slightly looking at her would see these are the features of an Afro-Caribbean lady. But sometimes these public schoolboys are not very good.

Tags: Andrew Neill, In conversation, Issue 24