About the Author

John O’Farrell’s first book was the bestselling memoir Things Can Only Get Better (to which this is the sequel). He is also the author of five novels: The Man Who Forgot His Wife, May Contain Nuts, This Is Your Life, The Best a Man Can Get and, most recently, There’s Only Two David Beckhams.

He has also written two bestselling history books: An Utterly Impartial History of Britain and An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain, as well as three collections of his Guardian columns.

His books have been translated into thirty languages and have been adapted for radio and television.

A former comedy scriptwriter for Spitting Image, Room 101, Have I Got News For You, Murder Most Horrid and Chicken Run, he recently co-wrote the Broadway musical SomethingRotten!



Also by John O’Farrell


Things Can Only Get Better

Global Village Idiot

I Blame the Scapegoats

I Have a Bream

An Utterly Impartial History of Britain

An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain


The Best a Man Can Get

This Is Your Life

May Contain Nuts

The Man Who Forgot His Wife

There’s Only Two David Beckhams

title page for Things Can Only Get Worse?: Twenty confusing years in the life of a Labour supporter


61–63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA


Transworld is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

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First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Doubleday

an imprint of Transworld Publishers

Black Swan edition published 2018

Copyright © John O’Farrell 2017

Cover design by Sarah Whittaker/TW

Cover photograph © Getty Images

John O’Farrell has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologize for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgements in any future edition.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781473543171

ISBN 9781784162634

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

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For Alf Dubs.

Who never gives up.

Quite left wing

General Election – 1 May 1997

I was walking my dog down by the river in Oxfordshire not so long ago and a well-spoken old man stopped me. ‘I recognize you! You’re that writer chappie!’

‘Er, yes, I am a writer, yes.’

‘O’Farrell!’ he declared, sounding like one of my teachers at school.

‘That’s right …’

‘Yes, but what O’Farrell? What’s your first name?’

‘Oh. It’s John.’

‘John O’Farrell!’ he said to himself, finally satisfied. ‘That’s right! Very left wing!’

I told this to my family when I got home, and they fell about laughing. ‘You?! Very left wing!’ mocked my grown-up kids.

‘Well, I’m quite left wing,’ I said, feeling a bit hurt. ‘I mean, Labour Party and all that …’

‘Exactly! You’re soooo moderate.’ And my wife and kids laughed some more as they repeated the phrase Very left wing!’ to each other for their continued amusement. I tried to think of an example of a political stand I had recently taken to reassert my radical credentials. ‘I boycotted the free Waitrose magazine – when it started having a column by Pippa Middleton.’ No, they still weren’t convinced.

What was revealing about this was that I cared. I liked the idea that I might be considered ‘very left wing’. It’s cool to be left wing; it’s not cool to appear moderate or ready to compromise. Any way you look at it, Che Guevara makes for a better student poster than David Miliband. Attending a school governors’ meeting is less thrilling than putting on a Vendetta mask and smashing the windows of Fortnum and Mason. (Personally, I think it’s pointless looting their windows; all their best stuff is way back inside the shop, sort of on the right as you pass the preserves.) It’s so simple to be against authority. It’s so much harder to represent authority yourself.

And so, when Labour at last came to power after eighteen miserable years, people like me suddenly found themselves feeling confused and disorientated. We were hard-wired for opposition. I’d been in political prison too long, I couldn’t cope with all this freedom and responsibility. I hankered for the easy certainties back inside. So even back in May 1997, I knew I was going to find it hard. But Tony, you didn’t have to make it quite that hard.

After Labour’s landslide victory, I bought the BBC video of Election Night so I could enjoy that euphoric evening over and over again. And nineteen years on, I found that I still had it, the only VHS I never gave to the charity shop. There it is in a box in my loft, a film of dust over the New Labour leader as he waves to me on our greatest night. I have to rig up an old video-player to watch it again, the very format emphasizing that this is politics from another age.

Looking at that recording of our honeymoon, Tony, now, I try not to feel too much anger, too much bitterness; I just try to remember how happy we were together back then. We had the world at our feet; it seemed like there was nothing we couldn’t do. I was so giddy with the excitement of it all, I never stopped to think that it was obvious it would end up leaving me so conflicted. ‘Sticking to the Conservative spending plans for two years’ – that should have been a clue. Why did I just let that pass? I ask myself now; how come you even had those spending plans in your jacket pocket? Who gave them to you? Who’d you been talking to? You were supposed to delete all those phone numbers from your mobile the day we got hitched; Rupert, Silvio, Cliff – I’d thought you were through with mixing with those guys; this was about us now, this was supposed to be a new start. Did you ever stop to think about the compromises I made? It wasn’t easy for me, you know. I took your name, though ‘New Labour’ never sat easily with me. Waving plastic Union flags was not really my thing either, and then when you said you wanted us to do it The Third Way, I was shocked, I was embarrassed, I felt used, Tony. I leafleted for you, I canvassed for you, and now you are over there in America with Rupert and here I am, right back where I was in the mid-1980s, Labour in opposition and another pile of undelivered leaflets in my hallway.

When New Labour came to power I was in my mid-thirties; married with two small children in a semi-detached house in the London borough of Lambeth. Once considered as ‘loony lefty’ but now reformed and sensible, Lambeth and I were a good fit. I had grudgingly accepted the changes Tony Blair had made to the Labour Party – after so many political defeats and my growing realization that we were not going to get the Tories out simply by suggesting it loudly on marches. I didn’t wear left-wing badges any more; I had transferred them to the lapels of the full-size Maggie Thatcher Spitting Image puppet I’d inherited from my time on the show and which now stared at me from beside my desk. This grotesque latex model traumatized my poor little daughter every time I forgot to close my office door. I tried to put it into some sort of context for her, explaining who Mrs Thatcher was and what she’d done as a politician, but still my daughter woke in the night crying from her nightmares about Maggie.

‘What exactly are you frightened of, darling?’

‘I’m scared that … that … she’s going to take all the milk from the little children.’

When my son was four I’d overheard him playing with his plastic dinosaurs: ‘And then the T. Wex smashed it all up and then … and then joined – the Labour Party!’ My poor kids never stood a chance. We were a Labour family: our front door was red, our cereal selection was Nestlé-free and our new kitchen extension made it perfect for the Labour Party Committee Rooms on Election Day. Even my shoes were ‘a bit left wing’, according to one posh writer I knew. How can my shoes have political attributes? I thought. That’s ridiculous! And then I looked from my plain Doc Martens across to his expensive tan brogues and thought, Urgh! I could never wear Tory shoes like those

My parents were both Labour supporters, and a casual observer might have said that, when it came to the issues, my dad was more left wing than my mum. Rather refreshingly, he moved to the left as he got older; when I was a student, we had argued over his support for the Falklands conflict. But twenty years later, father and son bonded over our mutual opposition to the coming war in Iraq. My mum wasn’t in the pub for this conversation. She was writing letters to foreign dictators for Amnesty International, or she was securing the lease for the Oxfam shop in King Street, or she was shaking a tin by Cookham station for causes she believed in. So, who was the most left wing out of any of us?

Tony Blair may have been the most right-wing Labour leader I could remember, but he alone was going to effect change, which also made him the most left-wing leader I could remember. Power – that’s the central purpose of political parties, and ours had generally been second best at winning it. Rediscovering that VHS of Election ’97 was like watching the climactic last episode of a very long box set in which all the many villains are finally brought down one by one in lingering and imaginative detail. We watched this tape as a family at a time when Britain had just voted to leave Europe, when politics had turned particularly nasty, while Labour were rock bottom in the polls, drifting and divided and looking like they might disappear altogether. I tried to explain to my kids what a Labour landslide felt like: our incredulity at the scale of our win, when we had not dared to presume we would ever see a Labour victory in the rest of our lifetime. Picture a whole evening’s television with little red bars constantly flashing across the bottom ‘Lab gain Hove … Lab Gain Stroud … Lab Gain Another Implausibly Posh Place in the South …’ The Tories lost more seats than they retained – can you even imagine how happy that made us feel? After so many agonizing defeats, after that mirage of victory in 1992 had evaporated at the very moment we reached out to embrace it, after being knocked down all through the ’80s and ’90s … at long last, it was we who were standing on chairs cheering and the Tories who were utterly defeated and dejected.

There is Battersea turning red, the place where I had become consumed by the local Labour Party when I’d first moved there, aged twenty-two. I had spent 1 May 1997 back in my old stamping ground; I delivered ‘Vote Today’ leaflets, I sat on a polling station collecting voters’ numbers and giving a very clipped and unsmiling ‘Good morning’ when the Tory MP visited. He would be the first minister to lose his seat that night, but that was just to warm us up: the evening’s viewing seemed carefully scripted so that the villains were decapitated in a particularly satisfying order. There goes ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont; he would later use his free time for good causes like helping the torturing mass-murderer General Pinochet escape prosecution. And there’s David Mellor, shouting his defiance in defeat, with all the charm and dignity of Gollum with road rage. Then, how utterly satisfying to see the disgraced Tory MP Neil Hamilton losing the fourth-safest Conservative seat in Britain. Well, he’ll never be elected to public office again, we all thought.

At 3 a.m. we cut to Enfield Southgate, impregnable seat of Michael Portillo, the Tories’ leader-in-waiting. ‘No one is saying he could actually lose,’ the commentators say in the build-up to this result, ‘but it looks like it could be much closer than expected!’ The surprise winner, Stephen Twigg, later revealed how the returning officer had privately shared the shock result with the candidates before leading them up on to the stage. ‘Everyone happy?’ he had checked. ‘Ecstatic!’ came Portillo’s sarcastic reply. In his speech, Portillo said he would do everything he could to help rebuild the Conservative Party, which apparently involved doing a series on great railway journeys wearing brightly coloured trousers.

But returning to this historic night in the summer of 2016 when Labour was in its darkest hour didn’t make me happy, it made me depressed. It was like watching the happy wedding video of your bitterly divorced parents. My dear wife kept groaning, ‘Oh God …’ at every fantastic result; the more the Labour supporters on our screen celebrated, the deeper the gloom in our front room. In this political fantasy’s climactic scene, as the Labour activists await the new Prime Minister outside the Royal Festival Hall, I can just make out my own head in the crowd; freeze-frame – look, that’s me; see, kids, that’s your dad – cheering and jumping up and down to ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ in the light of the new dawn. I wish we could have freeze-framed that day in British history, freeze-framed all that optimism and hope. Look at my expression; I can’t quite believe it. That’s it! I’m thinking. The Tories are banished for ever!

The eventual Labour majority was 179; bigger than Labour’s landslide in 1945, a greater margin than anything Thatcher had achieved and the Tories’ heaviest defeat since 1832. We thought this was it; we would never have a Conservative government ever again. Deep down, I did worry about this new government lacking the socialist stomach to change the country fundamentally and for ever. But I am not going to pretend I was opposed to Tony Blair. In May 1997, I just felt this enormous sense of gratitude towards him: he had utterly destroyed the Tories, the House of Commons suddenly seemed fresh and progressive – we had MPs of different genders, of different skin colours, openly gay MPs, we had a Minister for Culture not a Minister for Heritage, the twenty-first century felt like it started on 1 May 1997.

And then, on the Saturday night, we won another bonus landslide as the United Kingdom overwhelmingly won the Eurovision Song Contest. There could be no clearer message from our comrades all across the continent: ‘Welcome back, Britain!’ After all those years of petty xenophobia and the embarrassment of Thatcher hectoring foreigners, or weird, inbred-looking Tories wanting us to quit the European Union altogether, finally we were fully committed European partners: Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Katrina and the Waves.

The grand issue of Europe had dogged the Tories right to the very end. Just to add to their miseries at the 1997 General Election, they were undermined on the right by the creation of something called the ‘Referendum Party’. This was the private project of dodgy billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, who spent a fortune during the election campaign as the Tories lost five hundred deposits and distributed 5 million videotapes presented by Gavin Campbell from the popular TV show That’s Life. Voters were disappointed to discover that Gavin’s sombre message on the EU was not followed by a dog saying ‘sausages’ or Esther Rantzen holding up a carrot that looked like a penis.

At the time, I regarded the Referendum Party as an irrelevant novelty sideshow. In July, Sir James Goldsmith died, his party was disbanded and I think we all presumed that the idea of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union would be buried along with him. But, by spending millions on one eccentric idea, he had succeeded in purchasing a slot in the national debate. ‘A Referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union’ – that was now, officially, a thing. A notion. Little did we know it at the time, but Goldsmith had successfully planted a time-bomb in the British political system. His supporters’ slightly fascistic chanting at Putney Leisure Centre on Election Night in May 1997 was a portent of an uglier politics that would be unleashed long after he had shuffled off the stage.

But for now, shouting at your political opponents was out of fashion. In fact, so big was Tony’s ‘big tent’ that, shortly after taking occupation of Downing Street, he even invited Margaret bloody Thatcher round for a friendly chat. I remember feeling shocked and betrayed to see that terrible woman invited into our HQ, even if I understood the audacious symbolism of it all. Blair was made of more forgiving stuff than I was. As far as I was concerned, he might as well have invited Darth Vader to Number Ten to discuss how the Jedi could adopt Dark Side reforms in order to appeal to voters from the Death Star. It was the shocking reveal at the end of the first New Labour episode. Young Tony was not Darth Thatcher’s enemy. He was her son.

Pretty soon, being a Labour supporter would make me a total pariah again, only this time to people on the left of me instead of people on the right. My party allegiance throughout the past four decades helps me to understand what it must feel like to be a shirt-maker from Paisley. ‘You’ll never believe this, but there was actually one very brief moment in history when we were really fashionable.’

As I packed away that grainy VHS tape of Election ’97 and returned it to the loft, it felt like we could never be popular again. I thought about those final scenes: the ecstatic Labour supporters smiling and waving their Labour banners and Union flags, the map of Britain turning from blue to red, and me somewhere in that crowd at the Royal Festival Hall celebrating the greatest-ever moment to be a Labour supporter. And it was hard not to ask, What the hell happened? How had we allowed Labour to slide from being this media-savvy, landslide-winning machine, full of confidence and optimism, to become an angry, divided, low-polling opposition, letting down the very people the party was founded to help?

And how had we let the UK mutate from being that hopeful and outward-looking country welcomed back into the heart of Europe, a kingdom genuinely united – England voting Labour, Scotland voting Labour, Wales voting Labour, Northern Ireland voting; well, we never pretended to understand any of that – but where did it all go? How did the tolerance and hope of May 1997 and that ‘new dawn’ lead to the dark night of bigotry and fear of June 2016?

What is the right place for the Labour Party on the political spectrum? In seeking that balance between socialist idealism and effective election-winning popularity, who can name any point in our lifetime when Labour definitely got it just right? Do I want it to be ‘very left wing’, like that man in Oxford thought I was? Or should it be ‘soooo moderate’, like my wife and kids think I am?

I had remained a member of the Labour Party, whether it was led by Michael Foot, Tony Blair or Jeremy Corbyn. I never would have predicted that the last could win a vote to be Labour leader; I would have laughed if you’d said Donald Trump could become the American President, and I placed a bet on Remain to win the 2016 Euro Referendum by a much larger margin than everyone was predicting.

It felt like I knew nothing any more. It had taken me two whole decades to learn it …

‘Something of the Night About Him’

Conservative Party Leadership Election – 19 June 1997

As a writer, one is occasionally asked, ‘Which book changed your life?’, and you are supposed to answer Ulysses by James Joyce or Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdus, casually mentioning how much more lyrical it is if you read it in the original French. But, for me, the honest answer to ‘Which book changed your life?’ is my book. The one written by me.

My writing career had first begun a decade or so earlier, when I had plucked up the courage to walk through the doors of Broadcasting House in London for the open meetings they had for Radio 4’s long-running topical satire show Week Ending. It had taken me a few years of doing dead-end jobs before I even heard of the existence of this secret portal into the world of comedy-writing, and I remember I was shaking slightly as I walked into a room full of confident young men, who all seemed to know the form. But shortly after that, I had a sketch broadcast. It was like some unbelievable magic trick, that the exact words I had typed into my Amstrad 8256 should now be read out on the radio in my kitchen. And then they actually said my name in the credits at the end, and I was inspired to keep going back and give in more material. For months after that, my entire weekends were passed either in giddy elation because I’d had a sketch broadcast on Friday night or abject depression because my efforts had been rejected. Even now, when I hear the show’s old theme tune (‘Party Fears Two’ by The Associates), I get this Pavlovian shiver of anxiety which used to herald either triumph or disaster.

I met another aspiring writer there and we started working together, discovering that being in a partnership more than doubled the quality and quantity of our material. Mark brought a whole new perspective; he came from a different Thames-side village to myself. Pretty soon, we were granted the hallowed weekly commission, and then we became the lead writers on the show and my mum could tell people that her son was a professional comedy writer, which I think she probably did even when she was just queuing in the post office.

One particular production assistant, whose job included timing my sketches for payment purposes, always seemed to log them at just over two minutes rather than just under, which meant I always got paid more. So I married her. Jackie also worked on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, and blushed on stage at all the innuendo aimed at Humphrey’s assistant, but if I met fans of that show I was able to tell them ‘I married the lovely Samantha.’

After a decade of writing TV and radio comedy, I suddenly had an idea for a book, a political memoir tracking my life as a Labour activist from the day Thatcher was elected in 1979 to Labour’s landslide victory in 1997. I wrote a first chapter and an outline of my thrilling bodice-ripper about inquorate ward meetings, and soon I was telling a Tory parent in the school playground how amazed I was to have various publishers bidding against each other for my lefty life story. ‘Yes, John, it’s called capitalism,’ he explained.

I had thought that a book about how I helped the Labour Party lose elections at every level might be of minor interest to a few political anoraks but would soon be gathering dust in the back rooms of second-hand bookshops. However, it turned out that lots of people had been attending poorly attended meetings just like I had. All over the country, thousands of Labour Party members had sat there in draughty tenants’ halls and passed ten-point resolutions calling on Margaret Thatcher to cease her programme of privatization immediately, despite our lurking suspicion that she might not always read these motions right to the end. I had correctly guessed that all Labour Party meetings were just like the ones I’d been to. It was probably the same at the very top. When Tony Blair was sitting there waiting to start a Cabinet meeting, I bet he looked at his watch and said, ‘Well, let’s give it a few more minutes, and see if anyone else turns up?’ When Gordon Brown gave his Treasurer’s Report, did the rest of them simply stare at their agendas, colouring in all the letter Os?

I got hundreds of letters from people telling me that I had written their life story, which I think they meant in the broadest sense, because not all of them could have married Jackie. So many people wrote to me to say that they, too, had been out knocking on doors for Labour in the 1980s that I was amazed we had lost so many bloody elections. I got a letter from the New Statesman. It read: ‘Dear John O’Farrell, Subscribe now and get a free copy of Things Can Only Get Better by John O’Farrell.’ The book went to number one and stayed there for over a month, eventually being knocked off the top spot by Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. I think what happened was that people read my account of being a Labour activist during the Thatcher years and then bought Stalingrad to cheer themselves up a bit.

So, life under the New Labour government definitely improved for this particular voter. Under the Tories, I had been a back-room gag writer. When Labour came to power, I became an author, centre stage and suddenly getting all the credit, and this hadn’t even been one of Labour’s five pledges. Writing a hit book transformed me to some sort of novelty Labour mascot and occasional political commentator. Now when I went into Broadcasting House, it was to do an interview down the line with BBC Radio Three Counties.

‘So, John, are you doing any book events in the Three Counties area?’

(Thinks: Three counties? Could be anywhere.) ‘Oh yeah, in a couple of the counties, here and there. Love those counties …’

I was invited on to Newsnight and Question Time, I got my own weekly newspaper column; I was thoroughly enjoying all the attention. ‘Tell me,’ I asked, ‘how long does this Flavour of the Month thing generally last?’

I got an invitation to a drinks reception at 11 Downing Street for ‘people in the creative industries’, which apparently included writers who spent forty hours a week playing Tetris. I presented it to the policemen on the gate and it seemed they hadn’t changed their mind and I felt secretly thrilled to be doing that same walk that I’d watched ministers do a thousand times on the news. However, in my head, I had always imagined that 11 Downing Street was the first door, with Number Ten just beyond it. So I strode confidently right up to the wrong door and it was only then that I saw the famous number 10 and heard myself say to the policeman, ‘Oh! Is this 10 Downing Street?’

He gave me a look as if I was an idiot alien from the Planet Stupid.

‘Er, yesssss!’

‘Right, so number 11 would be next door, then?’


As I walked away, I could almost hear him thinking, Blimey, and I thought the last lot were a waste of bloody space.

I had expected the inside of Downing Street to be old-fashioned and stuffy, but on the walls of the big reception room there were enormous modern paintings that had recently been chosen from the cellars of the national collection. Later, I got a sneak nose-around the flat above Number Ten and saw the woolly boiled-egg warmers that John and Norma Major had left behind. The stairway was lined with pictures of former prime ministers and I thought, There’s no way I would put up with that in my home! First thing every morning, last thing at night, there’s a photo of Maggie Thatcher staring right at you.

It was around this time that I heard a tantalizing new phrase which spoke of an exclusive secret cabal that intrigued me. William Hague warned the nation of the existence of the so-called ‘liberal élite’. Who are these people? I wondered. Do they really exist? Is there any chance I might gain admittance into this shady, well-meaning mafia?

I have to report that the initiation ceremony to the liberal élite is brutal and testing. I was summoned to a large house in Hampstead, slightly scruffier than those around it, a copy of the London Review of Books on top of the recycling pile by the gate. Inside, I was subjected to three hours of intensive interrogation, including heavily loaded questions such as ‘Chablis or Malbec?’ and ‘More raspberry coulis?’ Around me were tell-tale signs that I was in the HQ of this bien-pensant cult; there were Fabian pamphlets on the coffee table that had actually been read, theatre programmes from the Royal Court, a rental brochure for villas in Tuscany. All of us applying to join the liberal élite were carefully monitored for our level of outrage about Tory xenophobia and the price of organic avocados. They casually referred to the great and the good by only their first names, and I tried not to let on that I didn’t know who they meant when they just said ‘Alan’. Yentob, maybe, or Johnson? – just don’t say, ‘Shearer,’ whatever you do. The final test was a group discussion on second homes and selective education in which we had to affirm the correct moral stance but leave enough wiggle-room to make an exception for ourselves: ‘Oh, well, it’s so difficult, isn’t it? One wants to do the right thing, but one doesn’t want to force one’s politics upon one’s children.’ A few more equivocations and a vague commitment to buying a Toyota Prius, and I was in. I’ll never forget the euphoria I felt on the way home as I chatted in an overly friendly manner to the mini-cab driver about how well Nigeria had done in the World Cup.

For me, ‘the establishment’ had always meant old right-wing men who knew each other from the top private schools and Oxbridge; the phrase summoned up images of judges, generals and financiers dining with Tory MPs in the Carlton Club. But there was a new establishment and, though I can’t say I ever felt particularly powerful or influential, it was important to recognize that I was now on the inside. I had my own weekly column in the Guardian, for God’s sake! How privileged can you get? When my dad left school in Manchester aged fifteen, he went into the offices of the Guardian to see if there might be any entry-level jobs for an Irish boy with no qualifications. He told me the doorman nearly threw him down the stairs. And sixty years later, he was ringing up his son to say that his column was ‘Absolutely marvellous!’ ‘Your best yet!’ he would tell me every week. My mum kept a collection of them by the bed. ‘Whenever I can’t get to sleep, I just read a couple of your newspaper columns and I’m out like a light!’

Writing 850 words every week in the op-ed pages meant that I was now supposed to have an informed opinion on everything; from economics to human cloning to wind farms or whether Railtrack should run the ley lines. ‘I can’t work out your politics, John,’ said the new comment editor Seumas Milne to me on a rare trip into the Guardian offices for a drinks reception.

‘Well, I suppose I want the Labour Party to be as radical and as redistributive as it’s possible to be,’ I began, to his obvious approval, ‘while still managing to win elections.’ I’m sure his smile dropped a little after that. Maybe that emphasis made me a Blairite in his book; maybe even suggesting that the two were not automatically compatible marked me down as a sell-out woolly Menshevik. I didn’t wait to find out; I thought, I’m not going to stand here and be accused of being a middle-class New Labour-type. I’ll go and chat to Polly Toynbee about nice restaurants in Clapham …

It had been much easier doing political satire when the despised Tories had been in power; it was so much harder to be rude about a government for which I had campaigned. So, even now, I kept finding myself writing about the problems of the opposition rather than mocking the party that was actually in power.

In the aftermath of their heaviest defeat since the Second Ice Age, the Conservative Party had to find a new leader. This once-unbeatable party had become something of an irrelevant sideshow, and few people were even watching the shabby parade of the lower-ranking officers who had only been obeying orders under the previous regime. To see how pathetic they looked now, this procession of former bullies and bigots, reduced to sniping at one another in the hope of a few seconds of media attention, well, it warmed my socialist heart.

A ‘dream ticket’ was announced of Michael Howard standing to be Conservative leader, with William Hague running as his deputy. Then young William obviously got home to Ffion, to find her waiting in the hallway for him with a face like thunder. ‘You agreed what? You said you’d work under that slimeball? What the hell were you thinking?! Get back out there and tell them that you’re running for the leadership yourself, you idiot!’

Howard’s candidacy received a second torpedo from one of the ministers who had worked with him at the Home Office. Ann Widdecombe said of her former boss that there was ‘something of the night’ about him. It was a wonderfully suggestive description which crystallized that creepy, sinister aspect that we’d all felt but had never quite put into words before. I know that in politics we are supposed to concentrate on policy not personalities, but it was hard to ignore the fact that Michael Howard couldn’t abide sunlight and had the ability to transform himself into a bat.

Howard tried to restore his reputation by appearing on Newsnight; being as it was conveniently scheduled after sundown. When Jeremy Paxman asked a direct question about Howard threatening to overrule the Director of the Prison Service, the former Home Secretary didn’t answer the question. So Paxman asked the question again. Twelve times. There was something almost heroic about Howard’s dogged refusal to answer this simple, direct question, his inability to change tack or realize that he was being made to look ridiculous. It was like he’d got into the groove now; like Donna Summer repeating ‘I Feel Love’ over and over again, he was just going to keep riffing his prepared line until the synthesizers faded out and everyone stopped dancing.

So the Tory leadership was eventually won by William Hague, but nobody really cared. The Conservative Party was like Neighbours; apparently, it was still going, even though all the big stars had left and no one watched it any more. Young William seemed to lack a certain gravitas, which he now attempted to acquire by wearing a baseball cap and riding the log flume at Alton Towers.

The adversarial nature of politics and the constant search for short-term advantage makes it so tempting to focus your attack on the personalities of the leading players or one-off crass mistakes made by Cabinet ministers – and with the Tories in the mid-1990s, this was the gift that kept on giving. But as Labour went from opposition to government, it became clear that this was a losing game because, eventually, it comes back to bite you. One minute you’re attacking leading Tories for whatever they’ve done in their private lives, and the next minute Robin Cook is leaving Margaret for Gaynor or Ron Davies is trying to pretend it’s completely normal to be getting a bit of fresh air in the woods at half past two in the morning. And then you try to claim, ‘Now, look here, it’s policy that matters, not individuals! Judge us on our results in government, not on silly tabloid tittle-tattle like the taxpayers’ bill for Lord Irvine’s wallpaper.’ (And then you glance at that story again and think, Shit, sixty grand? That is some seriously expensive wallpaper …)

Political discourse had become gentler after 1997. Under Tony Blair, our tribal colours were painted in pastel shades; now, politics was easy-listening, not punk. My youthful hatred of the Tories seemed slightly passé now that they were such an irrelevance, so perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that I was moving on from the binary world of TV satire into the more nuanced world of books.

As well as losing elections throughout the Thatcher and Major years, I had also established a pretty consistent track record for losing at awards ceremonies. We would turn up to the BAFTAs or the British Comedy Awards and notice that our table was definitely not the one closest to the stage; in fact, it was generally out in the hallway and down a flight of stairs. I seemed to spend a whole decade losing to either Margaret Thatcher or Armando Ianucci. We could never seem to beat the Wandsworth Conservatives or Drop the Dead Donkey.

But now, under a Labour government, I felt confident that things were going to change. Everything was more optimistic. Even my hopeless football team had turned it around: Fulham were promoted from the bottom division in 1997 and by the end of Labour’s first term would be promoted to the Premiership; such was life under this new Labour government. In this positive environment of hope and justice, I had high hopes when Things Can Only Get Better was nominated for a very important award that no one had ever heard of before.

Channel 4 had just launched a new programme called The Political Awards, perhaps unaware of the old adage that ‘politics is show business for ugly people’. ‘Who will win the coveted award for Best Select Committee Chairman?’ asked none of the tabloids. However, my opinion of Channel 4’s Political Awards obviously went up a great deal the moment I was nominated for one. The last prize I had received for my prose was a smiley sticker for neatly joined-up letters. I was up for ‘Political Book of the Year’. (Who can forget Karl Marx’s tearful speech when he won in 1867?) Everyone told me I had a really good chance, and I went along to the television recording in Westminster with my carefully prepared speech about this all being so unexpected. There was a lunch and I was put on a table with the other nominees.

But nothing from my parents’ middle-class dinner parties had quite prepared me for being seated with a former Tory prime minister. Ted Heath was the bogeyman of my childhood, an almost mythical baddie who my dad used to shout at on the television news. Ted Heath was the man who brought in the Three-Day Week and ordered television programmes to end at half past ten in the evening. Beaten by the miners, beaten by Thatcher, now he was up against the toughest opponent of them all as ‘the Grocer’ went head to head with John O’Farrell for Political Book of the Year.

Nominees on the other side of the table were chatting away amiably, but I found myself struggling for suitable subject matter for casual chit-chat. Eat really slowly, I told myself as I stared down at my plate. Once you’ve finished, you’ll have no choice but to make conversation. What the hell was I supposed to say to him? ‘Um, so, Ted? Do you think the Spice Girls will get back together?’ Or maybe, ‘Tell me, Ted, how do you think Keegan’s gonna do in the England job?’

I heard a rumour that this award was definitely between me and the former PM. Pah, but what chance does he have? I thought. He hasn’t won anything since the 1970 election. And I suppose when I do beat him he’ll probably go off and sulk for another twenty-five years! The decades of undeserved Tory triumphs are over now, Heath! This is the era of Labour victories; from general elections to book awards, you’d better get used to being on the losing side!

The moment came for Jon Snow to read out the winner. With my fingers crossed under the table, I had a few thoughts about who I should thank as I received the award. And then, sure enough, a cameraman knelt down right beside me. Yes! I thought. This is it!

But instead of pointing the lens at my face, he asked me if I could lean right back so he could ‘get a clean shot of Ted Heath’.

Hang on a minute, I thought to myself. That’s a strange thing to say.

‘No – move back a bit more, mate!’ said the cameraman. ‘But don’t block his path to the stage.’

Hmm, I’m picking up clues here, I thought. I have a feeling for these things.

Some Vague Utopia

European Parliament Elections – 10 June 1999

I think, at some solipsistic level, I had once believed that if I worked really, really hard for the Labour Party, then they would come to power and all the bad things about our society would immediately be put right. Gradually realizing one’s own political impotency is the cruellest part of growing older. I could cope with the loss of hair, the creaky knees the morning after five-a-side football – it’s the insignificance that is so hard to come to terms with, the creeping realization that the world doesn’t change just because you set out to change it.

Labour in Power had once been a fantasy notion, ‘some vague utopia’ in which fairness and tolerance would flourish and all injustice and exploitation would be forbidden – or at least be confined to the borders of Mordor and Wandsworth Borough Council. But here it was: I was finally living under a government of the party I had campaigned for.

‘So … did things get better?’ asked the first questioner at every book event or library reading. This was such a regular opener you’d have thought I might have come up with some short and witty reply by now, but, perhaps because I was so eaten up with anxiety about it all, I always took far too long to answer, I could almost feel the energy in the crowd slipping away. Oh, no – not nuance! Not complexity! No panellist was ever cheered on Question Time for carefully putting both points of view. But this was my life now: bye-bye, certainty, bye-bye, binary politics; I was fair, I saw both points of view; I was the kid in the school whose dad was headmaster.

My friend Pete had always been way to the left of me; he’d briefly been in the Socialist Workers Party before quitting over democratic centralism, feminism and, more significantly, the expectation that he should get up at six in the morning to sell newspapers. Once upon a time, we’d been united in our loathing of Thatcher and Major, but now we argued about the government that followed. He pointed out the failures of the Labour government; I tried to cling on to the positives and not put the word ‘New’ before ‘Labour’ quite so often.

‘I can’t believe New Labour is abolishing trial by jury!’

‘Well, that’s not exactly right, Pete. I mean, I don’t personally agree with that particular reform, but I think Jack Straw is trying to speed up the justice system, and looking at whether a jury trial is appropriate in every single case.’

‘They’ll probably just lock them all up in the Dome. They’ll have to find something to do with it.’

‘To be fair, the Dome was first commissioned by the Tories, and though I don’t personally agree with the decision to build it, I think you have to put it in context of all the hospitals and schools that are now being built as well.’

‘Yeah, with private finance … putting private money into the health service – where will it end?’

‘Well, I mean I don’t personally agree with that particular aspect of the funding …’

‘Why don’t they just tax the rich more and pay for it like that?’

‘Well, obviously, I don’t personally agree with Labour’s pledge not to raise the top rate of tax but, at the other end of the scale, huge benefit payments to the worst off: pensioners’ winter-fuel payments, free TV licences for the elderly, Education Maintenance Allowances, Sure Start? The minimum wage has meant a pay rise for two million people.’

‘Yeah, a tiny one. It’s all just tinkering, trying to put a nicer gloss on capitalism.’

‘But credit where it’s due – Pinochet arrested!’

‘Oh, they’ll cop out on that. They always cop out.’

‘They didn’t with hand guns. Think how many lives that will save. And landmines banned? Peace in Northern Ireland, devolution, six hundred hereditary peers abolished.’

‘And ninety-two left in place.’

‘Okay. But Labour have cancelled Third World Debt.’

‘Yeah, now all the students are going to be in debt instead.’

Well, I don’t personally agree with that particular policy …

That became a sort of catch phrase, an equivocating admission of my guilt by association before we could start discussing whatever Labour were doing. But then Pete had previously been opposed to everything Neil Kinnock had done; he had been against John Smith; it’s no good being furious about Tony Blair’s changes to the Labour Party, Pete, you’ve already used up all your go’s. He had even opposed independence for the Bank of England, while I had enthusiastically supported it. Obviously, neither of us knew what the hell it actually meant, but it showed where we were both coming from.

But Pete was sincere and consistent, I respected him for that. What I couldn’t stand were the privileged liberals who had supported Labour for five minutes and were now wringing their hands in sorrow that it had apparently all gone wrong. One such acquaintance told me with a heavy heart that he was resigning from the Labour Party.

‘Really?’ I said, a little bemused. In truth, I’d never have guessed this bloke had ever been a member. ‘Um – when did you join?’

‘In ’96.’

Well, that doesn’t count, then! I was screaming inside. If you held off joining the battle until it was obvious it was won, you don’t have the right to storm off in a huff at the first scent of difficulty! Of course, I couldn’t actually say that; all members are equal, even if, deep down, I felt that some members were more equal than others.

In the newspapers, I’d regularly read that another famous actor had announced that they’d become disillusioned with Labour, and these fair-weather celebrity supporters annoyed me even more. They’d been happy to associate themselves with Tony Blair when he was the charismatic new star on the scene but so quick to wash their hands when supporting Labour became last year’s fashion. We should have launched a support group for these celebs; we could have called it Luvvies Labour’s Lost. I was half-listening to the news on the radio one Sunday morning when my ears suddenly pricked up at the novelty item at the end of the bulletin. ‘And, finally, the writer of Things Can Only Get Better says he no longer supports the Labour government.’

‘What?!’ I exclaimed out loud. ‘I never said that!’ And I racked my brains for something I might have said that could have been misinterpreted or distorted. And then I realized who they meant. I had nicked my book title off a songwriter. They weren’t talking about me at all. I’d been caught thinking it was all about me, just like so many other people whose politics were more about how it made them look, rather than what was really important.

What the papers were not telling us (perhaps because Downing Street wasn’t telling them) was that, after eighteen mean years of the vilification of people on benefits, of increasing poverty and cuts that always hit the poorest, the tide was flowing in the other direction. The income of the poorest tenth of the British population went up around 9 per cent during the first three years of the Labour government and, believe it or not, the very richest saw a small reduction in their wealth. But you had to be a political nerd to pin down these statistics; it was like the Labour government were doing the redistributive bit in secret.

But there were also times when the tone of the Labour government felt so wrong. When Jack Straw talked about crime or immigration, it was like our family had this right-wing grandfather who you didn’t want talking to your friends at Christmas. On that dawn after Election Day, Tony Blair had proclaimed, ‘We were elected as New Labour – and we will govern as New Labour!’ I had cheered along with everyone else in that crowd because, frankly, the mood we were all in, we would have cheered if he’d recited all the lyrics to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. But what the new Prime Minister was basically saying was, ‘You know all that being friendly to business, working with wealth-creators – we weren’t just saying all that shit to get elected – we really think that’s the way to go!’ Stephen Byers, the Trade Secretary, actually said that wealth creation was more important than wealth distribution. This was quite a staggering statement for a Labour minister to make. I tried not to dismiss it out of hand, just to entertain for a second the concept that the best way to help those who get a small slice of the cake is to make the cake bigger. But, in my bones, I knew this could not be right. What’s the point of a Labour government if only to be more competent than the Conservatives?

Perhaps they are just being smart? I wondered. Maybe they are playing the long game, keeping Middle England on-side, avoiding panic in the City and keeping quiet about their steady plan to transform Britain over the long term through winning more than two elections in a row (something no other Labour government had ever achieved). Perhaps the more radical stuff is yet to come? After all, Mrs Thatcher barely got going during her first term – all her really sweeping changes came after she was re-elected. In June 1997, Tony Blair had gone to a council estate in south-east London and pledged to abolish child poverty in twenty years. Maybe, in June 2017, I would be looking back over the endless succession of Labour governments and feeling a sense of enormous pride that this target had been reached. Maybe, by 2017, Tony Blair would be some kind of mythical folk hero, his popularity so much greater than the grudging respect he was granted during his first term?