“Tomorrow is another day” did not just give comfort to Scarlett O’Hara – the phrase pretty much defines the experience of reading diaries. It often comes to mind if slightly bogged down with accounts of a (then) crucial Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meetings (for example). So the best political diaries have the pace that comes from the extraordinary day-to-day variety of a pol’s life and the presentation of history’s ever unfolding first draft, warts and all, from a ringside seat. Alastair Campbell’s Diaries are all testosterone-fuelled execution (of policies and enemies); Tony Benn’s favour an extraordinary mix of high political ideas with personal and family introspection; Gyles Brandreth’s go for the laughter in the dark, as John Major’s decency is smashed by his party’s deathwish.
Chris Mullin’s Diaries (published in three volumes, but very much a continuous narrative) are none of those things – not as power-soaked, not as personal, not as funny – but those absences allow much more to bleed through the text and the details accrue. The diaries start when the man Mullin calls The Man wins the leadership of the Labour Party and with it, becomes heir apparent to 10 Downing Street’s keys. Pretty soon, the Blair charm is radiating everywhere, not least on the former leftwing journalist and campaigner and MP for Sunderland South. He doesn’t quite fall in love like a 13 year-old does with Harry Styles, but, well, that’s near enough.
The personal connection animates much of Mullin’s work – something of a surprise in a politician with such a strong leftish history, if a continually fading belief in The Left as a coherent ideological construct. Though his open-mindedness tortures him on Iraq and many other issues as he tries to plot the route his conscience is dimly revealing, it allows him to form and discard opinions with entertaining haste. Sometimes The Man can do no wrong; and sometimes no right; sometimes John Prescott is a tongue-tied bully; and sometimes an inspiring and caring boss; sometimes Mullin yearns for high office and sometimes he dreads it. In other words, he’s a lot like the rest of us.
Along the way, there are fascinating insights into how high stakes politics is played – the whips as ever, scheming, plotting, paybacking. There are beautiful accounts of trips to Africa, with the edge of corruption, poverty and war insisting in from the margins, polluting paradise. There are friendships that endure – Jack Straw weaves in and out of the text, a decent and loyal man, and other unlikely buddies from across the House in the persons of Tory grandees Nick Soames and George Young. Even a boyish David Cameron wins praise in the far off days when he talked sense about drugs policy.
Mullin agonises most about making a difference: to the asylum seekers who arrive in his office shaking with fear at the prospect of deportation to a failed state; to the government departments run by the Sir Humphries for the Sir Humphries; and to his own family, growing up as the months fly by. If he wasn’t given the chance to do all the right things, he (mainly) did the right things when he could and left us these diaries as a wonderful insight into why the right things (and the wrong things) happened.