About that Daily Mail interview…

This article appeared in the Daily Mail last week… It’s an interview with Peter Hain, as you may never have seen him before… with one Petronella Wyatt… (I’d be scared in the unlikely event she asked me for an interview)… Much to the delight of one blogging supporter of one his rivals for the Deputy Prime Minister’s job, he accepted the invitation… Particularly with the Vice Roy comment, you have to wonder if she is a closet Brian Feeney fan…By Petronella Wyatt

THE ALARM system inside the Northern Ireland Office in London warns: ‘Flashing light denotes hostile activity.’ It is apposite that the occupant of the office is Peter Hain, who has been engaged in some very hostile activity against the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. The 56-year-old Northern Ireland Secretary, and candidate in the forthcoming election to become deputy leader of the Labour Party, broke the Government’s silence over the death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko to rail against Mr Putin’s ‘attacks on liberty’ and the ‘murky murders’ surrounding his regime.

Mr Hain is renowned for shooting from the lip. In the Seventies, his antiapartheid campaigning earned him the sobriquet ‘Hain the Pain’, while he has the dubious accolade of being the first Cabinet minister to have been arrested for bank robbery. At present, he is devoting his combative energies to both the deputy leadership and the restoration of the Northern Ireland assembly. Not bad for somebody who allegedly also maintains a perma-tan.

Labour’s Sundance Kid has a leonine head and high cheekbones. The effect might be heroic were it not for his complexion, which is indeed the most fantastic shade of orange. On close examination, apart from the satsuma-skin, Hain appears relatively human. His sartorial gifts are modest, but beside Gordon Brown, with whom he may soon be working, Hain is a veritable Regency nonpareil, a la Beau Brummell. His elegant, lollipopcoloured stripy tie indicates a certain levity, while his greying hair is carefully brushed up for a soft meringue effect.

At Westminster, there is a feeling that Hain will say anything to raise his political profile. ‘Do you think you’ll be swallowing something radioactive in the near future?’ I inquire. ‘I am not in trouble with Downing Street for speaking my mind. I am not afraid of anyone, and that’s the end of it,’ he snorts.

I ask why he wants to be deputy Prime Minister. How can he possibly follow the Grand Guignol act of Two Jags — or rather, rescue the job from the laughing stock its present incumbent has made it? The perma-tan has obviously affected his mind, for he answers my question like a Miss World contestant. ‘I want to make a difference. I want to do it because I strongly believe there must be a more inclusive form of leadership.

‘We need less policy bouncers and more consultations — more inclusiveness and more of a sense of ownership.’ Such references to Tony Blair running an electoral dictatorship seem out of step with a supposedly loyal New Labour Cabinet minister. But Hain declares angrily: ‘I am not a Blairite.’ ‘Then why are you in his Cabinet?’ I remark, reminding him that as well as the Ulster portfolio, he is also Secretary for Wales. ‘That makes you Two Jobs Hain!’

Hain replies: ‘I’ve been loyal to Tony, but a “Blairite” means a certain genre of Labour Party people. I am not part of that. I am not part of the caucus of people who call themselves Blairites. I don’t like that kind of factionalism in the party. It has been corrosive. Personally, I call myself a socialist libertarian.’ ‘The trouble with you,’ I chastise him, ‘is that you behave more like a Viceroy of India.’

I meet him in his luxurious office; a fondant mixture of yellows and pinks. It sits oddly with a man who is a former radical demonstrator and whose parents were impoverished colonials. I point out that since the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended, he has ruled the territory as undemocratically as Lord Curzon ruled India.

His official residence in Northern Ireland is 18th-century Hillsborough Castle, where the Queen sojourns on State visits. Hain concedes the truth of his status. ‘I do enjoy the irony of someone who was born in a former British colony doing this job. I love Hillsborough Castle.’

HAIN and his wife, Elizabeth Haywood, a businesswoman to whom he has been married since 2003, use it for family Christmases. ‘We all play football in the throne room,’ he boasts. ‘Are you trying to be cool and rebellious?’ I ask censoriously. ‘No,’ he says hastily. ‘We have great respect for the throne room — we were very careful. It was a very small football.’

In Ulster, Hain is attempting to juggle a good many balls. Under the St Andrews Agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly is due to reconvene next March. But prospects are not good. The 2003 elections left the two extremist parties — Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein — holding the balance of power. Paisley has only tentatively accepted his nomination as First Minister, with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister.

Does Hain believe the pair will work together? ‘I am encouraged that we remain on track, but no one can be certain. But it is a positive move in the light of past events.’ If the parties fall out, the assembly will be suspended once more and Hain will put into place what he calls ‘Plan B’ — what the Minister describes as ‘more direct rule by me’. He adds with some speed:
‘This I would prefer not to do, of course. As you say, like a viceroy, I am not elected.’

Hain was born a British subject in Kenya, where his South African architect father, Walter, was working. Soon after the family moved back to South Africa, Walter and his wife were given prison sentences for their virulent campaigning against apartheid. On their release, the couple were banned from taking part in any social gathering of more than two people. ‘It was an amazing situation because one banned person couldn’t meet or talk to another banned person. That meant no sex. They were the first married couple to suffer in this way,’ Hain says with peculiar pride. ‘Fortunately, I was already born by then.’

The apartheid government eventually gave them a special dispensation to resume what Denis Healey refers to as ‘rumpy-pumpy’. Soon after, the family moved to England. Hain was 16 and, during the Seventies, did his best to make a name for himself by flouting the law. He illegally dug up sports grounds to prevent South Africa’s all-white teams from playing in England and was continually appearing in court.

I ask about other activities. ‘Did you ever take drugs?’ A grey flush subverts Hain’s tan. ‘No, yes, no. I mean, at a party once someone stuffed a spliff into my mouth but I didn’t smoke it. I promise you. I can honestly say I never inhaled!’ Nevertheless, he had a sensational knack for trouble. In 1975, he was arrested for allegedly robbing a bank in Putney. It was a case of mistaken identity and Hain was released. ‘I don’t know for sure, but I think the South African government framed me,’ he ruminates. ‘The thief looked like me. It was as if someone had found my doppelganger.

‘He behaved very oddly because he threw the money away on the street. He has never been caught. It was the most surreal thing and incredibly unnerving.’ These days, Hain lives a quieter life, which he attributes to his wife, who is the director of a Welsh headhunting firm and a former Welsh Woman of the Year. (His first marriage, to Patricia Western, the mother of his two sons, Sam, 30, and Jake, 28, broke up amicably in 1995.)

‘Elizabeth is terrific. A really strong character. We have a very equal and challenging relationship. We do great things together. Like, er, we go to the gym.’ ‘How heart-throbbingly romantic,’ I say sarcastically. I ask him what his wife looks like. Strangely, he struggles with a response. All he can say is: ‘Um. . .’ I suspect he is more interested in his own looks — Hain the Vain would be a better name for him.

‘Um! Is that all you can say about your wife? Can you at least tell me the colour of her hair?’ He thinks. ‘Er, your sort of colour.’ (Brown). ‘Is it done a la Pauline?’ I ask, referring to John Prescott’s wife’s famous coiffeur. ‘Will she demand a car to drive her ten yards in case the wind spoils her “do”? I think the taxpayer ought to know.’ ‘Oh, no. She is nothing like that. She loves walking up hills. That’s another nice thing we do, with our protection officers.’

On balance, I doubt Hain will turn out like Prezza in the sex department. He does not seem to be a petticoat-lifter — and if he is, there are too many bobbies around for him to be able to seize the chance. I ask him whether, if he wins the deputy leadership contest, he plans to have two Jags. It transpires that he already has one.

‘Part of the life of the Northern Ireland Secretary is that you are driven around in an armour-plated Jag with four protection officers. If I became deputy leader, I don’t know what car I would get but I would have similar protection.’ ‘Would it be environmentally friendly?’ I ask. ‘Have you ever seen a “green” armoured car?’ he replies scornfully (somehow, I doubt he gives a Cameroon for the environment). ‘Armoured cars weigh tons.’

More importantly, I wonder if a Brown/Hain double act will appeal to the electorate. ‘Neither of you are English,’ I say. ‘In the light of a public mood favouring an independent England, do you think voters will put up with two foreigners running the country?’ Hain answers meditatively: ‘I have asked myself this question long and hard, because whoever takes the deputy leadership has to help win the election. So I consulted Labour MPs in marginal seats. I concluded that most people think of me as international and classless. I have integrated. When I see Muslims not making the effort, I worry — it’s dangerous.’

APART from the nationality issue, the voters may not want an avowedly socialist — if libertarian — deputy Labour leader combined with long-face Gordon. Will Hain pledge to bring more sunshine to the front bench? ‘That’s a loaded question,’ he guffaws, showing an excessive amount of gum. ‘I think when Gordon becomes leader, he will be different. People will see in him different things than they saw in Tony. They will see a leader of substance. Gordon will never be huggable. But his real character is engaging and warm.’

‘Are you huggable?’ I ask, moving closer to him on the sofa. ‘Let’s not cause a political scandal,’ he pleads. I tell him I cannot help myself. It must be that irresistible glow of his. I say I have never seen a politician glow quite so brightly. ‘Is the fake tan from a bottle or is it from a sun bed?’

Hain is outraged. ‘You impertinent hussy. I have never used a sun bed or a spray tan. I find that suggestion highly offensive. I just have a naturally bright complexion.’ ‘Maybe it’s just the glow of egotism,’ I joke. This comment puts him in a fit of the sullens.

In an attempt to cheer him up I ask if he would like to be Prime Minister? However, this does not cheer him up. In fact, his eyes become steely little bullets. ‘I am running for the number two job.’ ‘Yes, but in for a penny, in for a pound,’ I say breezily. ‘Might as well go for it?’

‘I don’t answer hypothetical questions.’ ‘Isn’t that political speak for “Yes, I am gagging to be Prime Minister”?’ Hain stifles a laugh. ‘I know I can be a very good deputy. We are going to have a tough enough job winning the election as we have lost the voters’ trust.’

Suddenly, he begs: ‘Petronella, look at me adoringly.’ What? This is a uncharacteristic turn-around! Then I realise that it is simply because the photographer has started taking pictures of us. The calculating, shameless careerism of the man! At least I think it is careerism. Either Brown had best look to his back, or Hain has some Prezza tendencies after all.