‘I saw two Tory whips having tequila for breakfast’: Margaret Beckett on Blair, the Iraq war and half a century in politics

She is Britain’s longest-serving female MP. As she approaches retirement, she remembers the thrill of Westminster in the 70s, the successes and failures of the Blair years, and nominating Corbyn for the Labour leadership

Margaret Beckett’s office – a calm and ordered room off an ancient courtyard – must be some of the most prime real estate in the Palace of Westminster. We meet there and the division bell rings constantly. Even when she doesn’t have to dash off to vote, she stops talking immediately, because she knows I won’t be able to hear her when I play back the recording. It gives her a hypervigilant air, like a spy at a cocktail party, pretending to small-talk.

Periodically, she does have to leave to vote. There is typically a mic drop as she exits the room, for example: “I think [Brexiters] thought the EU would entrench social democracy and they’re agin it. Because they believe in them not paying any taxes at all and us not having any services.” Whenever she returns, she has a piece of fun gossip. While we are talking, Vladimir Putin announces sanctions against 200 named British MPs. I ask what that means in practical terms and she says: “No idea, but everyone not on the list is terribly upset. Chris Bryant [the Labour MP for Rhondda] is fuming!”

She has just announced her intention to retire from parliament at the next election, after a career so long that sometimes even she is surprised. It tells in her manner that this is her last parliament. She is as astonished at Conservative callousness as she has ever been – and she lived through 1983, Margaret Thatcher’s bloodbath year, “when they cut every single benefit; maternity grant to death grant and everything in between. Partway through, they guillotined the bill because they needed to put another whole section in to cut widows’ benefits.” But in conversation, and hearing her later that week on the radio, she has total ease and authority. “Can I come back to you on that?” she said to Chris Mason on Any Questions. “I’m in the middle of a rant.” There is a woman, I thought, who has done her duty.

Margaret Beckett (then Margaret Jackson) before her swearing-in ceremony as a newly elected MP, October 1974
Beckett (then Margaret Jackson) before her swearing-in ceremony as a newly elected MP, October 1974. Photograph: Wesley/Getty Images

Beckett was Britain’s first female foreign secretary (Tony Blair appointed her in 2006) and is the longest-serving female MP, although Harriet Harman has the longest continuous service. Beckett lost her seat in the Tory landslide of 1979, but before that – it is astonishing to think of it now – had been a minister, having been appointed less than a year after being elected in Harold Wilson’s snap vote at the end of 1974. It was a thrilling time to be in Westminster: “Desperately exciting. We never had a majority.” Wilson had, in fact, “scraped” a majority of three seats, after the February election had delivered a hung parliament (the first since 1929: think of the coalition government of 2010, then give the Lib Dems some spine, and you have an idea of the chaos).

Post-October, any given vote could be scuppered by one (and a half) rebel Labour MPs. “Every vote, you were watching to see who would win. There was a point when we won a vote by four. Ann Taylor [now Baroness Taylor] said to me: ‘Walter [Harrison, the deputy chief whip] would have called that overkill.’ We both fell about, because it was perfectly true. If you didn’t need four votes, you only went for two, because you’d save the others for another time.”

Whatever you think of Westminster now, nothing could match the late 70s for sheer delinquency. “We used to be here till 11.30 every night. There was one occasion when in the house it was still Tuesday, because we’d been sitting since Tuesday. In the real world, it was Thursday. I remember once being on the terrace, in 1977, and seeing two Tory whips come out for an early breakfast, about four or five in the morning. And they each had a glass of red wine and a glass of tequila on their breakfast tray.”

Wilson’s government has, of course, gone into the collective imagination as a disaster, possibly even the origin of the increasingly ridiculous cliche that Labour can’t manage the nation’s finances. Ted Heath had presided over a relatively prosperous Britain until the oil price shock of late 1973, whereupon the economy started to cascade. “Prices quadrupled; they even quintupled in places,” she says. This didn’t instantly multiply all other prices, but it did cause unemployment and dizzying inflation rises, from single digits under Heath to 24% by 1975; Labour, having won, “got the blame for all the fallout”. Has she no anxiety that we might be about to replay that very scenario? “No,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be very happy if Labour wins the next election.”

Margaret Beckett on her way to Labour’s party conference in 1981.
On her way to Labour’s party conference in 1981. Photograph: Paul Fievez/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

Apart from four years as a journalist at Granada TV, Beckett has been representing a constituency since 1974, first Lincoln, then, after 1983, Derby South. Yet calling her a “career politician”, even though it is true, gives the impression of a silver-spooned insider, which is not the case. Her father, a carpenter, died when she was 12, leaving the family – her and two sisters, one who became a doctor, the other a nun – in poverty, despite her mother working as a teacher.

Beckett, nee Jackson, and her (doctor) sister tried to get involved in the local Labour party, but it was tough even finding out where the meetings were. She will not refer or even allude to sexism in the party in the 70s, or indeed ever: it is not important why the local party never returned the sisters’ calls; all that matters is that eventually they bust their way in and Beckett quickly established herself in the party’s research unit. “I said: ‘Surely you only want Oxbridge economists? I’m a metallurgist from Manchester.’ They said: ‘Well, as a matter of fact, our head of department is a metallurgist from Birmingham.’”

The final heave to becoming an MP came when she met Leo Beckett at the Labour party’s conference. He was an engineer by trade, after having served in the RAF, but his passion was behind-the-scenes manoeuvring in the Labour party, which was putting together a shortlist for the Lincoln constituency and needed “either a woman or a trade unionist”. He was nearly 20 years older than her, which might help you to understand why such a forceful person might accept such a life-changing suggestion so lightly. “He said: ‘Why don’t you go for it? It would be good experience. But just so you know, you won’t win this time. And just warning you, when it comes to the next time, I want to be the candidate.’”

That was February 1974 – and she duly lost. What Leo didn’t know was that the next election would be nine months later, after a mad period of inflation and other crises, and that she would win.

They married in 1979. Leo never stood for parliament and instead ran her office for almost all of her career. Last year, “out of the blue – and this sounds like a silly thing to say about somebody who was 95 – he got an infection, then he got pneumonia and he died”. She has an absolute fear of self-pity.

Beckett was elected again in 1983. She says politics in opposition wasn’t as bad back then: she still got things done. She refers to an amendment she got away – a safety measure for child agricultural workers. Thanks to Beckett, there are probably 50-year-olds walking around today with two arms because they didn’t lose one in a thresher. While it is not a thing she would make a huge song and dance about, she has a precise and detailed mind – and she hasn’t forgotten it, either.

Margaret Beckett with Gordon Brown and John Smith in 1993
With Gordon Brown and John Smith in 1993. Photograph: Tim Rooke/Shutterstock

It was as John Smith’s deputy, between 1992 and 1994, that she was most dominant in the party. “He thought the leader’s job was to have the vision. But there was a whole lot of stuff that the leader always did that he didn’t think the leader needed to do. And I did all of that. When I ceased to be the deputy leader, my jobs were distributed among five people.” That sounds like quite a bit of, ahem, emotional labour, I float. She flashes me a look and doesn’t need to say: “Don’t be ridiculous,” out loud.

The death of John Smith, in May 1994, and its impact on Labour and the UK, has passed into lore. He was as popular as anyone could remember a Labour leader being, an almost unimaginable figure of unity in the post-Kinnock years. His health had been an issue since his first heart attack in 1988, but privately. No one expected this deft, persuasive, confident, whip-smart 55-year-old to have a medical emergency, let alone a fatal one. It has spawned so many counterfactuals and alternative timelines (what would 21st-century British politics have looked like without Blair as PM?) that the human tragedy of it is often lost. “It had a huge effect on the whole of politics. The Scottish Tories adjourned their conference,” Beckett says. She led the party for a short time, guiding it to victory in the European elections in 1994 with the largest vote-share Labour had received for more than 20 years. “I don’t take credit for that. That was a sympathy vote.”

She stood against Blair as leader, which annoyed him (“They wanted a coronation”), simultaneously standing against John Prescott for deputy, a job she didn’t want (“Tony already had two best friends, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown. I would never have had any influence or relationship”). It is all a bit mysterious: why stand for either, let alone both? “I allowed my name to go forward, because I thought the party has got to have what it wants.” She is a Labour loyalist from a different era, before that was code for “expel your opponent”, back when it meant, above all, duty and, second, flexibility. A lot of her decisions don’t make sense unless you remember that.

Margaret Beckett with Brown and Tony Blair in April 1997
With Brown and Tony Blair in April 1997. Photograph: Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty Images

She takes a huge amount of pride in 1997. “We were good. We were a strong team. Person for person, and as a team, we were better than they were. And we knew it.” She does have regrets about the Blair years, complex ones around the creation of a social atmosphere. “We did a lot of good things for people who are poor. But we shied away from making the case. If you stand for the poor, people might think that’s a good thing, but they don’t think they’re included, including the people who are poor. They don’t think that means them. And they don’t want it to be them.”

They never took on the stigma of poverty, which allowed George Osborne to weaponise it later. “He was evilly clever about making people dislike people on benefits.” And there were more material weaknesses – voices in cabinet wanted to build more council houses to replace Thatcher’s sell-off, but there was “a fear of sounding old-fashioned and not relevant to the times. So we’d only talk about social housing.” She stands by the war in Iraq. “What everybody’s forgotten is that, at the time, everybody in the world believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

That plainly wasn’t so: there were people in the cabinet who didn’t believe it, such as Robin Cook (then the leader of the house) and Clare Short (international development secretary). “Robin and Clare had their own reasons for leaving,” she says. “And Robin never said to cabinet: ‘If we don’t get a second resolution, I will feel I have to resign.’ It might have had an effect on people. But he didn’t say it til afterwards.” (Beckett is referring to the second UN security council resolution, which was withdrawn before going before a vote. The lack of a second resolution means most legal scholars, as well as keepers of the international order right up to Kofi Annan, see the war in Iraq as illegal, a breach of the UN Charter.)

After the star of the war, which she accepts “went sour”, she became foreign secretary in 2006 and pulled off something spectacular – or at least it would have been, and we would be glad of it now, had it realised its ambition. She made the UK the first nuclear power to commit to multilateral disarmament. “It was a sensation. I gather that’s how Global Zero got off the ground.” (Global Zero was an attempt to get all nuclear powers to pledge “no first use”, which would have obviated nuclear arsenals before their 100th anniversary.) When she left the job, “I absolutely expected that David [Miliband] would pick up the baton [of nuclear disarmament] and run with it, and I would never get an ounce of credit for having had anything to do with it. But David didn’t do anything about it.”

Margaret Beckett with her husband, Leo, at a diplomatic corps dinner in 2007
With her husband, Leo, at a diplomatic corps dinner while foreign secretary, 2007. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/PA

The younger reader may have experienced their first Beckett controversy when she called herself “a moron” for nominating Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election. It was a bit more complicated than that. A grandee had called the Corbyn-nominators “morons”. “I happened to be doing an interview the next morning, when this was quoted, so I said: ‘Full disclosure – I was one of them.’ The message was: ‘You called yourself a moron.’ But his argument was that the debate had to include austerity. I agreed with that very strongly. I also immediately said: ‘Oh, but don’t vote for him.’”

Beckett voted for Andy Burnham that time around, and is very supportive of Keir Starmer, defending even his war against the left of the party, of which she would once have considered herself a member. “I think the total figure is something like 80 people have been expelled. People talk as though there are hundreds or thousands.”

Beckett made the decision to retire with Leo. “I came to the conclusion that I could do another parliament, but he probably ought not to.” When he died, he was the only person she had discussed it with. “I thought, well, I suppose I could pick up the pieces and carry on. But the constituency ought to have a young, enthusiastic candidate who’s going to be asking lots of questions.”

The party, right or wrong, comes first. You hear so many politicians say that, much more forcefully than Beckett would, but you rarely see anyone live it.

• This article was amended on 19 May 2022 to correct the spelling of Clare Short’s first name.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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