Lynn Barber meets Clare Short

What led Clare Short to agree to spend a week teaching in a comprehensive school for a reality TV show? Whatever the reason, it's become the second controversy to envelop her this year

If I were Clare Short and I'd made a television programme like My Week in the Real World I'd be keeping my head down and praying for a nationwide power cut at 9pm on Wednesday so no one could watch it. Instead, she is giving me an interview which, she stipulates, can only be about the programme and not about politics. This is puzzling. Why would she want to publicise something that can only damage her? Is she on a death-wish mission to destroy her personal credibility along with the political credibility she lost over the Iraq war?

So I trot along to her office in Portcullis House in a state of considerable bemusement. Maybe she is lonely. Maybe she just wants someone to chat to. I do get the impression that life in her little backbencher's office must be pretty empty, after the bustling Department of International Development she ruled before. When the phone rings, she looks at it in amazement, and says 'That phone never normally rings!' There is a postcard over her desk with a quote from Voltaire: 'It is dangerous to be right when those in power are wrong.' It seems absurdly grandiose in this humdrum setting.

However, we are to talk about the programme and only about the programme. I should explain that her Week in the Real World consists of filling in for a geography teacher in a south London comprehensive and making a total hash of it. Whereas Michael Portillo emerged from his week of single motherhood looking quite cuddly and human, Short emerges as a flouncy, petulant, argumentative prima donna. When the other teachers tell her it is vital to insist on silence at all times, she pooh-poohs their advice and says she doesn't really believe in discipline. Consequently, her classes are soon in uproar, as the children ignore her increasingly desperate shouts of 'Please! Be quiet now! Please!' and more than once she has to be rescued by another teacher.

So why did she agree to do it? 'Well this very nice woman approached me and I thought, "Oh yes, I'd like to be a teacher for a week" - because my father was a teacher and one of my sisters, lots of people in the family, so I thought "Oh all right, I'll enjoy it and it might make people think about teachers." But when the Michael Portillo programme came on - which I haven't actually watched but I read about it in the papers - I thought "what is the point of this?" And I asked all my friends, "what is the point?" and they said "there isn't any point - it's reality television." And I thought, "Oh my good ness, what an idiot I've been!" The point is there's no point. And when you think of the resources that have gone into it - they have a crew with you all day, all evening, all through a week, to come down to half an hour - it's fantastic. And all for what?'

Quite. Has she never encountered television before, has she been living in a rainforest all these years? Doesn't she ever watch this stuff? No, she admits, she doesn't. She switched on I'm a Celebrity... Get me Out of Here! once to see what all the fuss was about and quickly switched it off again. So then I have to explain to her: the point of such programmes is to show people's character under stress. 'Yes, that's it!' she exclaims, light dawning, 'That is what they mean by reality television!' And, that being the case, how does she think she comes out of it? 'I think I did all right,' she says sulkily. 'But of course they just pick out what they want. I really don't believe in the whole thing - I mean it's called A Week in the Real World but I live in the real world - so, the title's silly as well. I think I was ridiculous to do it.'

Actually the programme is rather wickedly well-constructed. It shows her desperately, needily, bonding with a little black boy called Richard, who is in trouble for being persistently late. She urges him to get new batteries for his alarm clock and really make an effort to be punctual and he, very sweetly, promises to improve. But a couple of days later, she turns up late. She is supposed to be on early-morning 'uniform duty', but she breezes along l5 minutes late with not a word of apology to the teachers. And when she does finally produce an excuse it is so feeble as to seem almost contemptuous - she was late because she couldn't find a hair-dryer.

Was she trying to express solidarity with Richard by saying punctuality doesn't matter? 'No, it was because the thing was a set-up. I was staying in a stranger's house with this television crew all night filming this complete distortion of behaviour. I'd been in school the previous morning at 7.30 helping serve the breakfast, and they'd put me to doing the toast and I thought afterwards "I'm not sure that teachers would do that." And then there was this checking uniforms and I found out later, as I suspected, that the teacher I was replacing didn't do that duty. So I was feeling a bit exasperated with the set-up - they were just putting things upon me, setting up these hurdles to see if you jump over them. So I thought Sod it!'

Of course now, she says, she will think twice before accepting any television offer, but when she first resigned from the Government last May, she tended to accept anything going. 'People ask you to do things and you say "yes, yes, yes" till your diary's full up. I'm trying not to do that so much now. I do sometimes wake up and put the radio on and luxuriate in bed - which I never used to do, because I always had to get up and do something. But I haven't had time on my hands - maybe it would have been a good thing if I did. What people like Frank Field tell me, ever such a lot of people, is that they go through a big depression when they come out of government - they can't remember how the Tube works, and they think what's the point of anything - which I haven't had I'm happy to say. I mean I'm pretty sad about the Government and what's happened to the world, deeply sad, but I'm not a depressive person and I quite like mooching along the street and getting the bus in to work and going on the Tube again and looking at people. I hadn't done that for six years so it was rather enjoyable getting back to it.'

Does she ever regret resigning? 'I was very proud of the department and loved the work that we were doing so I was sad to leave it, but I couldn't stay without defending what the Government's doing - Iraq and all its consequences - and I couldn't defend that, so I had no doubt, no dilemma, and I've never regretted it.'

The next question, obviously, is why she didn't resign earlier, before the war, when she could have resigned with honour like Robin Cook. She had said on Westminster Live that the Prime Minister would be 'reckless' to engage in war without UN approval, but then she failed to resign or to join the l39 Labour MPs who voted against the war, and sat through the debate shamefully captive beside the PM, looking like any other politician clinging desperately to office. It was the moment when she lost all claim to be 'the conscience of the Labour Party'. Even her own mother - even her son whom she gave up for adoption and lost for 31 years - urged her to resign but she didn't, a victim of her own vanity, susceptibility to flattery, and need to feel needed. By the time she did finally resign, in May, her chance of making any impact on public opinion had gone.

So why didn't she resign earlier? She pauses for perhaps a second and reiterates that this interview is not meant to be about politics. But then, before I can even respond, she announces: 'I suppose actually it is all right to talk about it given that the programme is a bit of a con anyway. I can talk about what I like.' Right, so now we are off. Does she feel that Tony Blair finessed her? 'Yes, it's obvious now. If I'd gone, maybe a few more Labour MPs would have voted against the war. Tony desperately wanted to prevent that. He therefore made all these promises to me, about how we would internationalise the reconstruction, and how he needed me to do that, and he probably meant them when he said them, because he's like that, but he didn't deliver on them, that's for sure. But that's between him and his conscience - between me and my conscience is whether I was right to stay and try, and I still believe it was right. I failed, but I did try. Quite honestly, given the mess there is in Iraq now, and if Tony had said all that to me and I'd said No, I'd feel partly responsible. But I see it all as a tragedy.'

A tragedy for her too, though, in that she has fatally undermined her own credibility? 'But you see you're talking as though I would calculate my price. This is my life , these are things I believe in. I'm not manipulating what I do in order to keep a good image for myself. This is me.'

Anyway, she now believes Blair must resign. 'Tony, I have no doubt now, had promised Bush early on that he would back him, but he told people like me, yes we need UN resolutions, and there were a whole series of steps. The exaggeration of the intelligence was in order to give the impression that we had to immediately rush to war. I think this is so dishonourable. You have to decide what you think and obviously Tony thought it was the right thing to do and a bit of deception for the right thing is OK. I think it wasn't the right thing to do and I think deception about reasons for going to war is unforgivable. So I think the Government is dishonoured and the Labour Party is dishonoured and the only way to correct it is to persuade Tony to go. Then everyone can say "But you did a very good job on this, this and this and you can go off and make lots of money, do your lecture tours of the US and so on, you're still young." While we can get a new leader, and honourably go into the next election. I'm not saying this as some kind of bitter attack, but I don't see how we can sort out the Government unless he goes.'

She has been banging on about this for months now, saying that Blair must resign. But what is the point of saying it, when no one will listen to her? Her clarion call sounds like bleating in the wilderness. And even if Blair abdicates, it seems unlikely that Gordon Brown or any other possible successor would invite her back into government. So what will she do? Television is the usual fallback for discarded politicians but she seems to have blown that with A Week in the Real World and her comments about it. Of course it was clever of her to give this interview as a pre-emptive strike - to rubbish the programme before it appears. Perhaps she is not quite so naive and 'artless' as she seems, perhaps she is belatedly beginning to understand the art of spin. But she is still a clot.

Clare in short

1946 Born in Birmingham to an Irish Catholic family from Crossmaglen in South Armagh. Educated at St Paul's grammar school in Birmingham, then studied political science at Keele and Leeds universities.

1964 Aged 18 and still a student, she marries Andy Moss while pregnant, and gives the baby up for adoption. The couple divorce 10 years later.

1970 Starts work at the Home Office as a civil servant.

1975 Becomes a director of All Faiths for One Race, a Birmingham-based racial equality charity.

1981 Marries Alex Lyon, a radical Labour MP, who dies of Alzheimer's in 1993.

1983 Elected as MP for Birmingham Ladywood.

1986 Introduces the first of two Bills to ban pictures of Page Three Girls prompting an ongoing hate campaign from the Sun .

1988 Voted on to Labour's ruling National Executive Committee, where she remains until 1997. Resigns from Kinnock's front bench over anti-terrorist legislation.

1995 Elected to the Shadow Cabinet and is given the transport position, but immediately angers Tony Blair by calling for the legalisation of cannabis. Moves, in 1996, to cover international development.

1996 Reunited with the son she gave up for adoption, Toby Graham, a City solicitor.

1997 Becomes Secretary of State for International Development, heading a new department. Her robust backing for the war in Kosovo in 1999 is critical in winning public support for the government.

March 2003 Threatens in a BBC interview to resign if UN backing is not secured for the war on Iraq, describing present policy as 'reckless'. Nine days later, decides to stay in the Government, saying that Blair had 'no option' but to go to war. Is widely criticised and isolated within the Government.

May 2003 Resigns over the lack of a UN mandate for postwar Iraq, and launches a series of attacks on the Government for its actions.

Robert Colvile

· My Week in the Real World is on BBC2 on Wednesday at 9pm

Lynn Barber

The GuardianTramp

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