I met David Kingsley, the advertising guru who helped transform the Labour party in the 1960s. Here he talks about working for Harold Wilson, how it feels to be compared to Alastair Campbell, and whether he thinks Gordon Brown can beat David Cameron at the next election.

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A small box sits on the mantelpiece in the study, a slogan playfully scrawled across its side in marker pen.

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‘Fidel Castro gave this cigar to Harold Wilson,’ it records. ‘H.W. then gave it to D.K. at a meeting on the evening of his son Andrew’s birthday.’

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Next to the cigar case is a black and white photograph. It shows three men flanking Wilson, the tough-talking Labour prime minister whose mercurial personality dominated the politics of the 1960s. They appear to be smiling in modest celebration.

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“Won two, lost one,” David Kingsley chuckles, nodding at the picture. Now approaching his 80th birthday, he allows himself the indulgence of raising a bushy eyebrow. He is talking, of course, about general elections. Kingsley’s natural aversion to boastfulness must be one of the reasons his story has remained one of the untold tales of modern politics, until now.

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Before Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson refashioned the Labour party into an election winning machine, before ‘spin’ entered the daily lexicon of British newspapers, even before Margaret Thatcher paid two brothers from Baghdad to design her first election poster, a team of elite executives became the first professionals from the world of marketing to help a politician break into Number 10.

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‘Let’s Go With Labour’ and ‘You Know Labour Works’ were the motifs that powered Harold Wilson’s Labour party to two consecutive general election victories in 1964 and 1966, accompanied by innovative TV broadcasts. They sprang from the fertile mind of a young media guru who felt his socialist leanings tugging more urgently than his wallet.

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At the age of 33, David Kingsley was already a veteran marketeer with his own business and experience of working in New York for Proctor & Gamble, the founders of modern advertising. He was “something of a man-about-town”, he remembers with a laugh, a dynamic figure who made regular TV appearances and knew the power players in London’s blossoming advertising scene. Like Alastair Campbell, Kingsley was – and still is – a dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter.

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Excitement was buzzing in the air when Harold Wilson shaped up to fight the ageing Harold Macmillan in 1964. Here was an energetic challenger, fresh and full of self-belief, who promised to forge a new Britain in “the white-hot heat of technology”.

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So when a mutual friend told him the prospective prime minister was considering radically changing the Labour party’s election strategy, Kingsley jumped at the chance to help.

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“I had a feeling that politicians weren’t very good at communicating with the people, and the people found it very difficult to understand what the politicians were doing,” Kingsley says.

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“The Labour party didn’t know how to communicate with words. If you look back, none of the parties really did.

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“I became very interested in how one could use the latest marketing techniques to understand how you needed to get through to people, instead of just throwing out headlines.”

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After Labour won the 1964 election with a slender majority, Kingsley persuaded Wilson to let him bring in two more high-flyers from the advertising realm, Peter Lovell-Davis and Denis Lyons. Together they became known – only partly in jest – as the prime minister’s Three Wise Men. The first golden age of Labour PR had truly begun.

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“We quickly became very involved,” recalls Kingsley. “Every second Tuesday we’d go to Number 10 and chat over what was happening. Sometimes we’d find ourselves in the embarrassing situation of carrying messages from Number 10 to the party because they didn’t always see eye to eye. It was an extremely interesting period.”

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Political folklore has it that the trio of Mandelson, Campbell and Blair were the first senior figures within the party to really hook themselves to the addictive potion of opinion polling, the gauge of public favour widely seen to be responsible for forming many of New Labour’s early policies.

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But Kingsley insists it was the Three Wise Men – together with their friend Bob Worcester, who later went on to found the hugely successful research company Mori – who started using regular opinion polls to guide party strategy. It was they, years ahead of Tony Blair’s watershed moment, who identified the potential appeal of ditching the Labour party’s manifesto commitment to nationalisation. At the time, even raising the idea would have been like uttering a blasphemy. It was quickly shelved.

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“They weren’t doing proper [opinion poll] research when we arrived,” Kingsley explains. “What they liked was to show their ratings once in a while, but they weren’t digging deeper to find out why people had views on things.

“So the research part of it was very important. In fact to my mind, introducing the Labour party to proper opinion poll research was one of the most important things we did.”

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For a moment he looks slightly rueful.

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“Bob [Worcester] was very good. If they’d used him more we needn’t have lost the 1970 election. I know everyone always looks back, but he was tracking very clearly what was happening and what the problems were in a way the Labour party had never experienced before.”

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It’s clear the art of spin, now so associated with vicious briefings and irresponsible hype, was governed by a certain gentlemen’s code in the 1960s. Kingsley describes Wilson as “a marvellous chap” who would bring his wife and children to parties and would charm friends and foes with his bluff northern manner. He takes pains to point out that even at the peak of the Wise Men’s activities, advertising was seen as a precursor to real discussion.

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“The most notorious slogan we ran against the Conservatives was ‘Yesterday’s Men’,” Kingsley says, referring to the controversial campaign that portrayed Ted Heath’s team as puppets languishing in the dustbin of history.

“But that was actually planned as a preliminary to clarifying our position. It was a preliminary to talking. I always believed you should talk about your policies and your principles, because those are the key ingredients which other people tend to feel good about or not.

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“Things go wrong in politics when people think they know it all, when they aren’t actually closely in touch with what’s going on around them or what people feel like. But everything goes so quickly these days. We used to have time to think about these things. Now you have to think on the spot for 24-hour news.”

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Kingsley parted amicably from the Wise Men and the Labour party when Ted Heath’s Tories scraped to power in 1970. He says he has never been tempted to return to the heart of British politics, preferring to split his time between charity work and advising a number of African governments.

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He still takes an interest in the Labour party’s fate, though. What are his thoughts on Gordon Brown’s chances at the next ballot box? There is a long, meditative pause as Kingsley rubs his hands together.

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“Well,” he offers, “when the first troubles came to the Labour party, and MPs were beginning to say ‘We must get rid of Brown’, I wasn’t of that ilk. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but I thought he’d come through very well at the right moment, and…”

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Again Kingsley hesitates, weighing his words carefully.

“And, I think he has. It doesn’t mean he’s done everything right or everything wrong. But I still think he is the right person for this time. You can’t just go by what the newspapers say.

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“There’s still a lot going to happen in the next 18 months or so until there’s an election. I think it’ll swing back to Labour, more than anything because Cameron and his crew seem to be so bad at doing things.”

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At this point Kingsley raises his hands in mock incredulity.

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“They don’t ever seem to get anything right. I’d love to advise them how to do things because it would be very easy. What is amazing is the Conservative party hasn’t yet managed to modernise itself in the sense of being a party that cares for the whole country – they just haven’t done it.”

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Asked whether he sees the likes of Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson as his progeny, Kingsley is more evasive. He is grateful to Peter Mandelson for breathing life back into the Labour party in the 1980s, he says, and he recognises a certain parallel between the professionalism the Three Wise Men brought Harold Wilson and the professionalism New Labour’s modernisers brought to the party 30 years later. How about Blair himself?

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“I will always praise Tony Blair for getting the party into the frame of mind where it realised it needed to win something,” Kingsley says slowly. “Of course, many of us lost faith with the Iraq war and… it deteriorated after that.”

Silence settles for a few seconds. An email pings softly on the laptop behind him.

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“He did a very good job for the party,” Kingsley finally pronounces. “But he was a bit of a disappointment. As a person.”

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As the conversation draws to a close, Kingsley lets slip a surprising revelation: he didn’t draw a penny in salary from the government in all his time as its communications maestro. Offering his services for free gave him a feeling of distance from the political machine, he says, and the freedom to do as he liked. His only remuneration came in the form of a Havana cigar, itself a gift from Fidel Castro to Harold Wilson.

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“I’ve promised to give it to one of my sons, but it’s probably falling to pieces,” he explains, gesturing towards the box on the mantelpiece. “I know the exact date Wilson gave it to me because my first son was born earlier in the evening, so I arrived at Number 10 late from the hospital.

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“He had it ready for me, and I said, ‘I don’t smoke’. He said, ‘David, you don’t have to smoke this, but do have it as a celebration of your son’.”

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Kingsley smiles at the memory. “I keep meaning to give it to Andrew, but I think perhaps we ought to frame it or something.”

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The buzz surrounding Chuka Ummuna, Labour’s 30-year-old prospective candidate for Streatham, is remarkable given that he’s not even a professional politician yet. His name must be one of the hottest Google searches of the moment judging by the number of hits I get relating to a tiny article I wrote on him months ago.

 

Chuka took a break from his legal work last Friday to come and tell our politics class at City how he handles the pressure of people’s expectations, what drives him and how it feels to be compared to the US president. The first thing that struck me was how well a good dose of litigation prepares people for politics. At a glance he reminded me not of Barack Obama, but a grittier talking Tony Blair.

 

He kicked off explaining how important he thinks it is to be able to go ‘off message’ and break with the party line. “For any Labour politician doing that after 10 years in government, it is quite a challenging thing,” he admitted, referring to the element of dutifulness that will inevitably encroach on his public profile if he wins Streatham. But he quickly went on to demonstrate his ability to deliver cutting comments by taking a sideswipe at ‘identikit’ politicians:

 

I think the problem we’ve got is there are politicians who aren’t idealistic at all, even when they’re young… A lot of people muck around doing student politics, then go and work researching for an MP, then go to work in a think tank, then think they’re ready to step up to Parliament.

 

So for them, it’s a career.

 

He wouldn’t be drawn when David Miliband’s name was mentioned, insisting: “I am talking across the board”.

 

I think it’s quite easy to get warped by the environment in which you are working. In the Blair era, if you even dared to think about certain things you’d be treated like you had committed a gaffe…

 

People now tend to talk as if they’re managing the big ship UK PLC. Maybe it is partly that we have, in a way, allowed ourselves to become part of the Establishment.

 

When the unavoidable question came up, Chuka said it was “extremely flattering” to be compared to Barack Obama but emphasised, “I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself to him”. He also said race isn’t something that makes him self conscious.

 

Being mixed race, I can operate in any environment, but I don’t walk into a room and think, ‘I am the only black person here’. It’s not something I generally think about. When you open your mouth people tend to be interested in your ideas rather than what you look like.

 

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At the moment he’s juggling a full-time job and gearing up to fight for the Streatham seat at the next election. “I’m trying to meet as many people as possible,” he said, “so I can communicate what I want to do in the community.” In a sense he echoed David Cameron’s call for a return to localism when he described the Streatham community as the starting point and focus of his urge for politics. He added:

 

Do I feel the pressure? It would be spectacularly awful if I didn’t get elected. If I couldn’t live and work for Streatham, I don’t think I would want to go anywhere else.

 

Throughout the chat Chuka’s delivery was impressive and he struck a relaxed pose lolling on one of the university’s cheap plastic chairs. It was hard not to feel fired up when he described the UK political landscape as “going through a real moment” and when he said it was “an exciting time” for young people with the drive to effect change.

 

It was only when I went back through my notes that I realised how careful he’d been in everything he said. He managed to provoke some strong reactions – and agreement – while avoiding pinning himself down to much detail. I think that was what brought back the memory of a young Blair before the travails of war and office soured his idealism.

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I was speaking to an old Labour communications maestro this week, who said something to the effect that the Tory party under David Cameron still hasn’t managed to modernise itself properly. I generally disagree – I’m fairly sure Dave and George Facebook and Twitter each other at ever opportunity – but William Hague certainly let the side down a bit on today’s Andrew Marr Show.

He had a distinctly uncomfortable moment. Scheduled to meet the Chinese PM Wen Jiabao after appearing on the show, Hague was asked whether it was tough raising the question of human rights in Tibet with Chinese leaders as well as working with them on economic and nuclear issues. He said consistency was the key, adding:

Eastern leaders, if I can lump them all together in one bracket, appreciate consistency.

As opposed to Etonian leaders, who prefer vacillation and indecision? I hope Wen hasn’t been reading any Edward Said recently. A slight look of panic crossed Hague’s face as he seemed to realise he’d made some of the world’s most powerful leaders sound like kids with behavioural problems, and he looked glad when Marr moved the chat on. Incidentally, anti-Tibet protestors clashed violently with police ahead of Wen Jiabao’s visist at the Chinese Embassy in London, but they appeared to be miffed about human rights rather than Hague’s moment of Orientalist madness.

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Civil strife seems to be the theme of the week. The most incisive comment reaction to the wildcat strikes that have erupted around the country over contracts for foreign workers at Total’s Lindsey refinery came from Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. In autumn 2000, truckers and farmers enraged at soaring oil prices blockaded refineries around the UK. At first, Blair’s government treated the situation as a bit of a joke – but it ended up bringing the country to the verge of disaster. Underestimating the strikers this time around could come at a high price. Left-wing Labour MP Frank Field was worried enough to write in today’s Mail:

Labour risks a wipeout at the next General Election unless it gets a real grip of its immigration policy. Failure to do so allows fingers to be wrongly pointed at foreign workers who have added much to our country. Anger should be solely directed at the Government.

Make no mistake. The men and women on the picket lines are not just fighting for their jobs, they are also asserting their national identity.

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Field misses the point that Brown’s original pledge of “British jobs for British workers”, made at last year’s party conference, was an artless grab for the jingo vote and an unrealistic promise. Commentators across the spectrum, from Carol Thatcher on today’s Andrew Marr Show to Andrew Grice in the Independent, pointed out that Brown has given quite a few hostages to fortune over the years, most of whom have been bloodily executed over the past 12 months.

Finally, to the House of Lords scandal, which has already earned itself the tedious tag of “Ermingate”. In today’s Sunday Times Jack Straw promised an overhaul, although given the Commons vetoed a partially elected chamber last year it’s going to be slow progress. Amidst the mudslinging – apparently Conrad Black and Jeffrey Archer will be booted out alongside the Sunday Times Four under emergency rules – one person has come out of it all looking rather good.

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Baroness Royall is, according to The Sunday Times:

The foxy Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, who swept in to read the riot act. Flame-haired, cool-eyed, with sexy long black boots, the Labour leader of the disgraced upper house looks more likely to crack a whip than pass the port.

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 Someone once remarked that if John Smith was Labour’s old oak when he died in 1994, Tony Blair was its cucumber.

A lower middle class Scotsman by birth he was an Islingtonian by ambition, and a Tory in all but name.

His political apprenticeship was brief, his rise to power swift, and his roots in the Labour movement at best shallow.

Blair turned his amorphous appeal into an election-winning machine.

It’s become fashionable for commentators to talk about the resurgent tribalism of Labour politics lately. Alastair Campbell is a war-painted believer who will stick with the party through hell and high water, G2 tells us today. The Times’ Rachel Sylvester compares Labour to a dysfunctional family muddling its way through an awkward reunion.

Maybe tribalism is an epithet better suited to Labour than Conservatism, with the party’s heritage sunk in memories of miners’ marches and the grit of industrial Manchester. But the question of roots is just as telling.

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On Sunday Dave invited Andrew Marr, and millions of prying eyes across the nation, into his living room. Inevitably within a few days the Guardian had zoomed in on his bookshelf and produced a reading list for aspiring Tory leaders. Among a spattering of modern political tomes and novels – Campbell’s diaries made the cut, as did David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 was the only pre-1990 book on Cameron’s shelves.

A mind uncluttered by the fripperies of culture clearly has its advantages – look at Tony Blair’s ascent to office – but a few roots and a bit of historical context aren’t to be sniffed at either – look at Tony Blair’s subdued exit 10 years on.

Dave was special adviser to Norman Lamont during Black Wednesday, an experience he doesn’t like to bring up too often. His rise through the Tory ranks since then has been smooth and accomplished. It’s unfortunate for him he’s not fighting the 1997 election, when that and the gift of the gab was all anyone really needed to win.

I saw him shoot a televised Q&A at the offices of the Manchester Evening News last week. His performance was decent, but it struck me he’s been in opposition for almost four years now – longer than Blair had to wait. The problem is that even good PR is time limited. There’s only so long a campaign can run without any really substance behind it. ‘Change’ is a great abstract noun, but the days when the public would indiscriminately plump for that are gone, as John McCain’s vapid incantations in the US proved.

Cameron could do with bringing some roots into the shadow cabinet. The question on everyone’s lips has clearly been whether he will bring in Kenneth Clarke and shift out George Osborne, although Cameron insists Osborne is essential to the next election campaign and a lot of Tory pundits worry Clarke would reopen the European question that’s scarred the party so deeply in the past.

Cameron faces some tough decisions in the next few months. In the meantime, he could do with a trip to Waterstones.

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Western leaders love a good challenge when they’re new to office. That’s what you have to hope looking at today’s front pages, which are dominated by images of destruction in the Gaza strip.gaza1

The death toll rose past 280 people after another Israeli airstrike this morning, according to Hamas. The Guardian reported infantry and tanks moving towards the Gaza border in anticipation of a possible ground invasion. Rhetoric across the Israeli political spectrum has been bellicose ahead of February’s elections, with defence minister and former PM Ehud Barak declaring: “Now the time has come to fight.”

One of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s few unequivocal achievements was the Good Friday Agreement, pushed through partly thanks to their youthful vigour and self belief. The infamous Parliamentary malcontent Enoch Powell once darkly declared that “all political lives end in failure”; if that’s the case, it’s also true the greatest politicians take to office possessed of an unshakeable faith in their own abilities.

All eyes will be on Time Magazine’s man of the year when he finally moves into the White House. Bill Clinton and George Bush both launched half-hearted attempts to negotiate peace in the Middle East in the dog days of their presidency. Barack Obama’s advent will be the clearest juncture in years for the beleagured process to be given a hearty jump-start.

In a well balanced piece in today’s Sunday Times, Michel Portillo says the incoming president’s in-tray from hell could be the material he needs to fire his ambition:

The conflict between Israel and Hamas is, in a way, an attractive issue for Obama and his team. It has been evident for decades that matters cannot be resolved without the closest involvement of the United States… It could be that for once the Palestinian-Israeli problem will receive the full attention of an American presidency at the outset, at the moment of its greatest prestige and when its mandate is strongest.

One positive omen is the extent to which Obamamania has penetrated Israeli politics. Apparently the right wing Likud Party, which is tipped to win the largest slice of votes in February, has redesigned its website to mirror Obama’s campaign site and has even nicked his “Yes We Can” slogn, adding: “With God’s Help.”

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One night a short time after New Labour swept to victory in 1997, the Chancellor hosted a party for a handful of close friends. As he put on his coat to leave, one guest remarked, “Great party, Gordon”.skull_tombstone1

Rumour has it that Brown turned to him with a grim smile. “The Labour Party,” he rumbled. “That was a great party, wasn’t it?”

The central tenet of Tony Blair’s project was the need to siphon off the colouring of Old Labour ideology. He was left with a translucent and electable party that promised not to raise taxes for the middle classes while pledging to pump money into the NHS and leave the financial markets to their own devices. Meanwhile, Blair went about wooing the powerful and wealthy like a hyperactive peacock. It was the first Labour government that could honestly say it was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.

The Pre-Budget Report has been a game changing event. In what The Times briskly branded a “Robin Hood-style budget”, Alistair Darling has dug his fingernails into the upper middle classes and drawn blood. A new 45 per cent tax band for earnings above £150,000 and national insurance increases across the board go against every rule in the Labour electoral book since 1994.

Once again the kaleidoscope has been shaken, and more than ever before the pieces are in flux. Where they will land is anyone’s guess.

The Times’ leader today ran under the simple obituary headline: “New Labour 1994-2008.” George Osborne was keen to do some scythe swinging of his own, announcing: “Stability has gone out of the window, prudence is dead.”

This may be the death of New Labour, but it’s also a study in inevitability. Party politics have returned, breaking through the tarmac of the Blair era like the roots of an oak. In his private diary, Hugo Young once noted that Blair had “deeply alienated people more traditional than he is”, adding: “He has overlooked the degree to which one day he would need the party.” That day has come, although it’s Brown who faces the music.

The battle lines are drawn in a way not seen since 1992, and the tribal drums are banging.

taperecorder1Today The Guardian published some tasty titbits from Hugo Young’s forthcoming compendium of off-the-record briefings.

Every time he unofficially interviewed a political mover or shaker, Young noted down his impressions and the highlights of the conversation. A couple of morsels:

He is a man who is lightweight as a butterfly, skimming along the surface… He does lack gravitas, terribly so.

That was his rather damning verdict on Tony Blair. And:

I have seldom seen a less healthy-looking man. But he also has the sharpest mind, deeply engaged by the whole spectrum of issues… He just does not know how to distract himself from the problems of state and come down to the level of humanity.

Recognise him?

Funnily enough, because Young died in 2003 and no-one was quite sure whether he intended his background notes to be printed or not, every person mentioned in the book had to consent to their publication.

I often wonder whether politicians read their bad press, but in this case they must have had to. It must have made for a few dreary afternoons.