Off Message

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Off Message: The Complete Antidote to Political Humbug, by Bob Marshall-Andrews, Profile, RRP£16.99, 256 pages

It would be stretching it to call Bob Marshall-Andrews’ political career a tragedy but there is something about it that would be best chronicled by one of those novelists with an ear for the way single – perhaps trivial – incidents can have extraordinary consequences: Hardy, say, or Forster.

Marshall-Andrews did not, so far as is known, sell his wife to a sailor when drunk (one of the few outrages not yet associated with any recent member of the House of Commons). Nor was he accused of groping a young woman while visiting a cave. Instead, he made a joke.

Shortly before the general election of 1997, he was asked to be an emergency stand-in speaker at a swanky Labour party fund-raising event. Among those present were Tony Blair, on the brink of becoming prime minister, and Derry Irvine, Blair’s mentor at the bar and the man about to be appointed to the grand office of Lord Chancellor.

In those dying days of John Major’s regime, the office was held by a classically dour Scotsman called Lord Mackay. Irvine was not dour; he was well-known, like so many props of Blair’s Labour party, for relishing the pleasures of life. These did not, however, include jokes at his own expense. Turning to the Lord Chancellorship in his hastily written speech, Marshall-Andrews said: “It looks as though we are in for another Presbyterian, ascetic, teetotal Scot – well, a Scot anyway.”

That was it. All hell broke loose. A few weeks later, Blair was swept into power with a massive majority, the number including Bob Marshall-Andrews, elected as the new member for the marginal seat of Medway in Kent. He was already 53, a Queen’s Counsel, well-known and respected in legal circles, a man one might have expected to get preferment in government. Attorney-general, perhaps; maybe one day he might even have become Lord Chancellor. Not after that routine little squib, he couldn’t; on instructions from the prime minister himself, he was barred even from membership of a backbench committee, and for the next 13 years of Labour government was condemned to be the perpetual political outsider, effective leader of the internal opposition to the authoritarian and bellicose regimes of Blair and Gordon Brown.

Marshall-Andrews fulfilled this quasi-constitutional role with good grace, skill, tenacity and an abiding sense of the ridiculous, an essential survival tool at Westminster, especially in the Blair-Brown years. He would make many far better jokes than the one that defined his political career, and there are a lot of splendid ones in this sparky and charming memoir. But there was also an underlying passion, especially on the issues that should concern a QC: the issues of law and liberty.

The wording and consequences of legislation meant very little under the last Labour government. What mattered were the headlines generated in The Sun and Daily Mail, and the effects on the party’s poll numbers. Marshall-Andrews developed the unnerving habit of reading bills put before the House and pointing out what they actually meant. This made little impression, especially on Labour’s more doltish functionaries. “Bob,” said one chief whip, a grim-faced woman from the north-east, “people in my constituency do not give a toss about civil liberties.”

The fascinating questions are the counter-factuals. What if he hadn’t made the joke? What if he had been promoted to government? What if he had become attorney-general and held the post in the crucial weeks before the Iraq war instead of the biddable Lord Goldsmith? Would he, too, have been prevailed upon to set aside his views and affirm the legality of the invasion?

Many good, intelligent people have achieved high office in the British government and found themselves obliged to set aside their deeply held beliefs in order to survive. This tendency has, if anything, increased under the coalition. Ministers often go to their graves regretting their cowardice.

Marshall-Andrews never had the chance to make those choices. He grew more and more estranged from the Labour hierarchy. He really did believe the switch from Blair to Brown in 2007 might transform the government’s attitudes but he didn’t maintain that belief for long. Having held his seat by only 213 votes in 2005, there was never any chance of him surviving the Labour collapse of 2010. He did not make the attempt.

But there is no real tragedy in his career: it was a justification of the role of the backbencher, and he performed a far more important role than the overwhelming majority of frontbenchers. The tragedy was the way two potentially brilliant prime ministers both lost their judgment, perspective and reputation. Good fun though it is, Off Message is also a significant contribution to the history of that era.

Matthew Engel is an FT columnist

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