Andrew Marr: ‘There are some things about Westminster I can’t put in interviews. So they go in my novels’

Andrew Marr. Picture: Steve Schofield/BBC

Andrew Marr. Picture: Steve Schofield/BBC - Credit: Archant

Ahead of his talk at the Ham&High Literary Festival, the political journalist talks to Bridget Galton about his latest book, Children of the Master.

A diehard political pundit like Andrew Marr was always going to be thrilled by the election of Jeremy Corbyn.

Anything that engages the general public in the subject he is passionate about is a good thing, says the 56-year-old.

But the broadcaster has another reason to be pleased about the new Labour leadership.

His second foray into political fiction, Children of the Master, imagines an unpopular and embattled Labour Prime Minister scraping into Downing Street in 2018 by a narrow majority.

Presiding over a weak and divided Government, a group of heavyhitters from the party’s past grab the chance to re-establish their grip by replacing him with a figurehead they can manipulate.

“I am enjoying it hugely,” says the Primrose Hill resident, who as we speak is fresh from covering the party conference season.

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“I can’t tell you the pleasure as a journalist of going to a party conference and not knowing the answer to every question or the result of every vote – it’s fascinating.

“Every time I think I have seen it all before, something fresh happens. Corbyn happens. It’s got everybody to engage. People in my trade – political journalists – need big, vivid, characters with strong views, otherwise the whole nation turns off with boredom.

“So I welcome the Alex Salmonds and the Boris Johnsons. There were times towards the end of the Blair years when I thought all the big figures had gone, but I don’t feel that now. I am reporting on some gripping characters.”

Marr – who worked his way up from political correspondent for The Scotsman, to The Independent, which he later edited, and the BBC before securing his own political chat show – believes the next decade could bring either relative calm or “it’s equally possible we are heading for the most turbulent and shocking period in our recent history as we leave the EU, the Tory party goes to war with itself and embarks on a destructive leadership campaign, and Scotland leaves the UK. It’s very difficult to tell.”

Watch out, he says, for allegiances forming between the likes of George Osborne and Michael Gove. “Is this the creation of a new kind of Tory party in front of our eyes?” And which way Boris goes on the EU referendum: “The biggest choice of his political life”.

Marr isn’t one of those writing off the current Labour leadership.

“The Corbyn phenomenon is a new thing and commentators like me should be cautious about how they respond. It’s a mistake to think Labour are out of power for ever, in politics you never say never.”

Marr hopes his novel – about Blairites trying to take over the party – is not just a readable page turner, but a “coded primer on Westminster; how you have to do politics now, how to get yourself elected, how to deal with scandal and negative stories in the Daily Mail.”

Like his debut novel, Head of State, it’s a satire that revels in the foibles and absurdities of those we elect. The previous book featured toxic affairs and, some critics complained, a high body count.

“This book does have a murder but is a bit more serious. My frustration with the last was that I wanted to put more politics in.”

Marr regards his novels as an extension of his work as a political journalist.

“There are lots of things I think people should know about the way Westminster works that I can’t put into a bulletin or interview. This is another way of getting stuff out there.” And, he adds cheerfully, “a lot of it is true.”

The book includes an underhand way that a leading female Labour MP becomes selected – a real life off the record story he couldn’t use as a journalist.

“I do use people and realistic situations I know. I grapple with real issues, I just put them into a racy novel. Every time I think, ‘Is that going too far?’ I open the papers and there is something just as outlandish.”

Asked if he’s worried about burning friends and hard-won contacts he says: “The odd bridge goes up in flames as you are writing this kind of thing, but I don’t think I have been vicious about people. My main aim is to reach readers and get them to engage.”

Bridget Galton

Andrew Marr will speak at the Ham&High lit fest on November 16 at 6pm.