ID: Is it writing that gives you the most pleasure?

MP: I love radio. I love writing. I really don't like television very much. It's partly that I don't approve of television very much because I think it is an inherently stupid medium.


Because if you must accompany every thought and piece of information with a picture, you enormously slow down and shallow-ify what you can communicate. So much can be communicated in words that can't be communicated in pictures - which is why human beings, unlike other animals, speak.

How do you feel your writing has changed since you first started at The Times?

There's hardly been any development in my writing. I read some of the early stuff I wrote. I got more practised at it. I can't see any sort of enlargement in my style or deepening in my talents. I think that people have got used to my voice as a writer and so think I've got better. I haven't actually. I started writing sketches and 13 years later I stopped writing sketches. I developed a bit of a judgement that most columnists develop about how to set about tricky or sensitive tasks.

The thing with your columns is that you develop an argument better than anyone else. When I was writing a column for the Daily Telegraph, every time I pressed the send button I thought they'd return it saying: ‘This is crap, start again.' Have you ever had that feeling?

Yes I have, but I can usually see what is wrong and I do start again. John Birt is quite out of fashion now but ‘Birtism', for all its slightly caricaturable side, had one big central truth. When I was presenting Weekend World, Birt always used to say: "But what is your argument?" As a columnist, if you just keep putting that to yourself, you'll be ok. Were I a great observer of human behaviour, were I an evocative recreator of landscapes or situations, or had I any talent to reproduce conversation, then I might be a different kind of writer. But with me, it's "What's your argument?" It is always the first question and if you hold onto that like you would hold onto the mast of a ship in a storm, you'll always get through.

You mention Weekend World. In your autobiography you're quite critical of yourself on that. Was it something that you felt instantly uncomfortable with?

Yeah. I felt instantly uncomfortable with it when I started. I thought, and I suppose everyone does, that after a while I'd get better at it. But I found after two years I still wasn't better at it and our ratings were dropping. I don't think I was a flop. What I failed to be was the new Brian Walden. The programme itself was probably out-of-date. The concept was arthritic and oldfashioned. A really sensational presenter could have given it a new life and I just wasn't doing that. I just wasn't sensational.

What frustrates you about the way the modern media behaves?

I like the modern media. I thoroughly approve of it. A good deal of it is absolute nonsense but that doesn't matter. A lot of people want to read and see absolute nonsense. Most of it is dross but most of any age's media and art will be dross. Amid all the dross, there is much more good stuff now than there has ever been.

But isn't it quite shallow? Look at the 24-hour news channels. What can you say in two minutes that's of any benefit?

Adam Boulton or Nick Robinson as commentators, are as good as any equivalent that you could name from 30, 50, 150 years ago. Plainly there wasn't rolling television then, but were the commentators in the 18th and 19th century better? I get the impression that when you listen to Nick and Adam, you have two people who do really understand it. They sum it up beautifully. They lead your thoughts in the right direction. I have no problem about it.

You seem quite comfortable about the coalition. In one of your columns you wrote: "Lib Dems bring to government a distinct and healthy slant on politics. There is a reactionary component in the Tory make-up; I often share it, but it must always be kept in check." That almost seems to buy the Lib Dem line that it's their main job in the coalition to keep the Tories in check...

Yes, but not just as a brake. You do need a brake on some of the hot-headed reactionary instincts you find in the Conservative Party, but also as an accelerator for ideas of their own. Michael Gove's education policy is not at all unlike David Laws' education policy was or, indeed, Tony Blair's theoretical education policy. In all parties you have people who are dynamic. What I like about the Lib Dems is they combine creativity and dynamism with a belief in the individual, and you don't get that in the Labour Party. That is what I hate about the Labour Party and the reason I could never have joined it. The Labour Party in the end, and in its very core, is distrustful about the individual.

The Lib Dems tend to be quite a ‘big state' party.

Some of them are. In the end, some may not feel that they are natural members of the coalition like this. I can see it not splitting or fragmenting, but being shaved at the edges, at the right and the left, of people who don't feel it's for them. I find it hard to reconcile some of the things Tim Farron says with what the coalition stands for. It's sometimes hard to know what Simon Hughes thinks and he may feel uncomfortable too. I can think of plenty of people on the Tory right who are really not for this sort of thing at all. The coalition may lose a few at each end but I think the centre is strong.

Do you think the media coverage of the coalition is slightly behind the curve with everybody trying to find evidence of a split here or a crack there, without actually thinking of the bigger picture - that in coalitions there are inevitably going to be differences?

Yes, but that is the media's job. When two parties that have been part of the warring tribes in Westminster for as long as anyone can remember suddenly join to form a government, it's right for the media to push and probe and ask how far they really are apart. The media will notice, the newspapers will notice and are noticing, that the public quite like this thing. It's for the coalition to prove that the centre is strong and the ideas are real. It is for the media to probe, I don't think David Cameron or Nick Clegg would expect anything else.

If you were a coalition MP, what would be your biggest difficulty?

It sounds slavishly adoring but I'm completely on board the whole idea and for what they're trying to do. As a Conservative, we should make the positive case of cuts rather than just wringing our hands and saying: "I hate it, but I do it and it's hurting us more than it hurts you." Because it's not hurting me. Some will hurt me but the idea of reducing the size of the state seems to be an idea that will stand on its own. It is simply convenient that the impending bankruptcy is forcing the idea in the country. I want it anyway but I can see why from the point of view of the coalition, that case can't be made.

Has a part of you ever thought you'd quite like to be an MP again in this government?

No, because I really wasn't very good at that either. Certainly not a backbencher. I'd still like to be secretary of state for transport but I'm not going to be. Where is there a better case for big government than in providing roads and railways? It's just obvious. I really disapprove of the way the Conservative Party has never thought that transport mattered.

Since you left Parliament in 1986, have you ever had any regrets?

Not for a moment. But that was only because I wasn't going anywhere. There have been times when prime ministers have been appointing junior ministers when I thought: ‘If only I had been doing well as a backbencher, I might now be...'. John Major told me he would have made me a junior minister if only I'd had a bit more patience, and that he was fairly confident I would have made a hash of it.

That's a very nice thing to say.

He said he'd give me a try.

Rail privatisation. That would have been you!

Absolutely! Or I would have said something similar to Edwina Currie, that a good winter cuts through the bed blockers in the elderly population like a knife through butter. John Major said he would have defended me on my first gaffe but perhaps when it came to the second he would have let me go. I think he was spot on.

How did your political views form? You don't sit in any particular Conservative camp.

Two things formed my political views. One was being brought up in Southern Africa and my mother being involved in the fight against white supremacy in what was then Southern Rhodesia. So I became very interested in human rights - although I don't really believe in human rights - in equalities between people and opposing discrimination. That's the liberal side. Then at university, when I began to follow British politics, I was seized with a conviction that collectivism, as seen through the prism of a Labour government, would be the downfall of Britain, and the gradual extension of the state was slowly taking us to destruction. So I didn't join the Conservative Party out of any enthusiasm for it but out of a feeling that socialism, even the weak milk and water variety that we got from Harold Wilson's Labour Party, had to be stopped. When it came to Margaret Thatcher, she did seem a person who would do that. I had already become a Conservative, but then I became enthusiastic about it.

Her image is so different from that which anyone who has ever worked with her would tell you.Loyal to her staff, but not always to her colleagues, I think she was a very tricky person to work with. There are bits of Mrs Thatcher's public image that are right and bits that are wrong. She was loyal to her staff and it's also true that she was much better at compromising. Although she raged against contrary advice, she often took it. But there was - is - a sort of coldness about her. I never felt that she especially loved human beings. She had great faith in the qualities of the human animal but love and warmth towards particular human beings, apart from Denis, didn't characterise her. She treated people well, I think, because she had been brought up to treat her staff well. But not because, in her heart, she really cared.

Do you think politics is very much a young person's game now?

I was the chairman of a number of Tory selection meetings, constituency associations, choosing their candidates. The last that I did was for Stratford-on-Avon which Nadhim Zahawi won. One of the people who didn't win was a woman called Georgina Butler, who had been an ambassador, just recently retired from the Foreign Office. I thought what a good MP she would have been, on the backbenches or as a junior minister, and I felt sorry that there is this prejudice now. These things go in cycles. There'll be a fashion for youth, then we'll find out what youth lacks and there'll be a fashion for grey hair, and then we'll find out what grey hair lacks. It is just swings and roundabouts.

Is it healthy for politics when all the leaders look, to the public, the same?

[The party leaders] are not the same, even though they may look the same and are about the same age. The similarities between Cameron and Clegg are quite striking although the differences are too, certainly in backgrounds. In outlook, the two Eds and David Miliband are very different, very different indeed. I think it is just something of a coincidence that they are all the same age. In the selection panels I chaired, there is quite an appetite for candidates who have done something else in their life - like Dr Sarah Wollaston in Totnes. That she was a doctor helped and the fact that she had only relatively recently joined the Conservative Party didn't not help her at all.

Do you think some of the new MPs might become disillusioned with their role fairly quickly? You talk to some of them and they are not happy people.

Disillusion is not quite the right word with IPSA. It's just a sort of rage. I don't think they're disillusioned with the House of Commons, with their roles or their constituents and that side of things. But IPSA is just a disgrace, and I'm completely on the side of MPs here. I don't know what we do except wait for the wave of public indignation to die down and then just double all their salaries. I don't think increasing allowances again in a slightly surreptitious way is the right way to do it. I'd double all their salaries and then abolish allowances. But now is not quite the right time to double MPs' salaries. I'm not sure the individuals who staff IPSA are the problem. It was the circumstances in which it was born, the expectations placed on it and the rules it has to implement. I don't think the Daily Telegraph played an entirely glorious role in all of this. They were probably right to publish once they had the discs, but it could have been done in a more balanced way. They have done quite a lot to discredit the whole profession of politics. MPs themselves have done something, but so has the Daily Telegraph.

Do you recognise that you have become a bit of a role model for younger gay men in politics, or more generally?

I do hope not. I'm a completely crap gay.

But you've been completely open for years at a time that many weren't... when I wasn't. I think you underestimate that.

Yes, but I judge these things as everybody does. There were years when I wasn't open because I judged I would never get into politics and wouldn't have been selected. I wasn't! I wish now that I had come out when I was a Conservative MP. I think I could have got away with it in retrospect, but it would have been a close run thing. I had the nicest constituency and the nicest association and it would have given them an awful shock. A lot of them, I'm sure, had their doubts already and I think I could have ridden the storm. I so muchadmire Chris Smith for taking the risk.

Did Mrs Thatcher know you were gay?

Yes, because I went to see her.

She was always quite tolerant of things out of the ordinary...

I think she quite liked gossip. She thought that the things human beings do are really very strange and unknowable. I told her I was gay when I went to say goodbye to her and she put an arm on my wrist and said: "Matthew, that must have been very difficult for you to say." She meant it kindly.

Do you think we are a little bit obsessed in this country with anybody who might be gay? The David Laws issue wouldn't have been such a big story had there not been a gay element to it.

What gay men who are not really out need to beware of (and Peter Mandelson notwithstanding, this is a warning not a threat), is the status of being a little bit gay and suspected of being gay but not having admitted it, because it really whets the media's appetite. Either you stay right in the closet, or if you've edged a little way out, for God's sake, come all the way out quickly. There is no status, although Peter Mandelson hoped there would be, in your homosexuality being "private but not secret". It's public or it's nothing.

Do you think politics is sleazier now than 20 or 30 years ago?

It probably was sleazier 20 or 30 years ago. It has been getting steadily less sleazy for about two centuries. The next big sleaze story is lobbying. They don't call themselves lobbying companies now. They call themselves public relations and all that sort of stuff. Strategic consultants. It has wrapped its tentacles around the American political system in the most throttling way. It is just beginning to do that here. We could well do with a new wave of sleazebusting whose target is not the politicians but the commercial interests who attach themselves, limpet-like to the political process. If I was advising a young man or woman thinking of going into political communications, I'd say ‘watch out' as the industry could be the next big car-crash.

Lobbying is a perfectly legitimate activity. If you want legal advice you go to a lawyer. Why shouldn't a company go to a professional firm of political consultants for advice on how to get their message across?

Because if you want legal advice, you need to understand the law. If you haven't learnt the law, you won't understand it so you have to ask somebody who does. A democracy, if it is to work, has to be something that anybody with an argument to make or evidence to give, can feel they can go directly to the people whom they've represented. They shouldn't need intermediaries. Once intermediaries are established, they begin to form a convenient working relationship with the politicians and exclude the public or interest groups from coming to the politicians - it's a very malign process.

You're very rude about Gordon Brown in a few of your columns.

Yes, I'm proud to be.

Do you think he was bonkers?

I think he was unhinged. That's the same word Tony Blair used of Margaret Thatcher. I think Tony Blair was a bit unhinged too. I think Margaret Thatcher had her unhinged moments. There was something very odd about Gordon Brown. It wasn't an oddness that made him unfit for any useful role in public life but it certainly made him unfit for any central role as a communicator or explainer, but more than that as a listener. He wasn't a good listener. He wasn't good at being honest about what the problems were. He seemed to have a difficulty with bad news that was more than the difficulty Tony Blair had. He didn't want people to know it. Gordon didn't want to hear it himself.

Having read the Alastair Campbell book, didn't you wonder how on earth the rest of the cabinet allowed Gordon Brown to become prime minister?

The whole book is a catalogue of incidents that show him to behave diabolically and irrationally at times.When you've finished Peter Mandelson's diaries, you'll feel that three times over. An even more weird character emerges. It isn't just the fact that he was impossible to deal with - the rages, the refusals to listen to the truth and accept bad news, and all the rest. Some very great men and women have had those traits. It was that, in the end, he had nothing to say. There was no treasure trove of new political ideas. The cupboard if his philosophical mind was completely bare and anyone who had followed him as I had, the things he had said and written and listening to him answering questions, would have realised that from the start. I have a real problem with his senior colleagues who knew what he was like and did nothing. I also have a bit of a problem with the media and the lobby who decided that he was a great man because he told them he was a great man, and started writing he was a great man. When it became apparent that he wasn't emerging as one, they started writing that his greatness had not yet emerged, which was really an explanation of why they had said he was a great man in the first place. The truth was he was never a great man, there were never any hidden depths and none of us should have been conned into thinking there were.

In one of your more generous moments to Gordon Brown, what would you advise him to do now?

Quit the House of Commons as there is no way he could creep back as a backbencher. I think he will quit before the end of this year and write, and perhaps teach. He could be an interesting lecturer to an audience that knew what he was talking about but I don't think he's good explaining to the uninitiated. I could see him writing about subjects that he knows a lot about but I don't think his memoirs would be very interesting unless he suddenly discovers an element of self-examination which has not yet been displayed. I know people say he should go to the IMF or the World Bank but I'm not sure. I could see him at an American university.

Who are the three most impressive figures you've encountered?

Keith Joseph, who drew me into politics not long after I left university because he seemed to say the things that I was thinking but no one else dared to say.Nicholas Ridley, who was secretary of state for transport when I was still hopeful of becoming a junior transport minister. I loved his honesty. I loved his uncompromising right-wing views. I loved his liberalism in the economic sense. Who I would choose as a third person whom I admire? I'm afraid it would be David Cameron, who has seen what the Conservative Party needs to do and needs to be, and has had enough steel to bend the party to his will. I believe David Cameron is going to be a great prime minister.

In party terms, he is the most powerful Conservative leader since Churchill. I'm not even sure Churchill had complete control over his party.

Margaret Thatcher certainly didn't but I think he does.

Yeah, which is partly judgement, partly luck. The coalition has left us with a stronger government, not a weaker one. But it never occurred to me or many commentators, before the election. I never wrote a more mistaken column than the one in which I said that England doesn't like coalitions and if we had a coalition government, it'd just stumble until another election in a year's time. Looking back, I don't know why it didn't occur to me.

You've had your three most impressive figures, but what about three people that you thought ‘why have they bothered?

If someone was completely unimpressive, one wouldn't want to knock them. But there are a few people who have significantly increased the amount of evil there is in the world. Alastair Campbell is one of them. I believe he has made a personal contribution to lowering the terms of politics and the media in Britain. I think Tony Blair has actually done much more evil than Gordon Brown, who is simply incompetent. Tony Blair was a confidence trickster of the worst kind. I'm not going to cast around for a third person!

Tags: In conversation, Matthew parris