John Redwood

The aromatic whiff of a log fire and the sound of shoes crunching up a gravelled drive are all that disturb the drizzly Saturday afternoon air in this secluded, woody enclave of Berkshire. It is growing dark and the glow from the sturdy Thirties redbrick house is welcoming, So, too, is the trim, fine-featured chatelaine with the twinset and silver-blonde bob who appears in the porch and opens the front door before there is need of a knock.

‘I think there’s one toasted tea cake left,’ Gail Redwood says as she leads the way past a row of waxed jackets, around her husband’s furry, clown-size reindeer-head slippers (a novelty Christmas present), and on into the drawing room. ‘And there should still be a tolerable cup of tea in the pot.’

As PG Wodehouse might have said, if not actually disconcerting, this scene of charming domesticity is far from being concerting. For a question mark hangs over it like a bruised cloud: why on earth are the Redwoods inviting a journalist – a journalist, for goodness sake – into their gracious home for a rare and privileged glimpse of their soft furnishings? After all, the Majors never allow anyone within 100 yards of their log fire in Huntingdon; the Blairs do, but only as far as the office at the back of their house in Sedgefield. The answer is obvious; and even more so when the 45-year-old Right Honourable Member for Wokingham – and leader of the Eurosceptic Tory right, since his challenge to John Major a couple of years ago – heaves into view.

He is looking casual (in slightly faded blue cords, open-neck shirt and woolly, speckled, cream pullover) and relaxed – or at least trying to look relaxed, because he has a gangly body and at first, as he stands by the fire, its language seems a little self-conscious. Perhaps to give his hands something to do, he turns and throws a log on to the fire, making it spit and crackle. More likely, though, he does this in order to offer a glimpse of the human face of a politician who has suffered more than most from accusations of appearing too cold, too logical, too, well, extraterrestrial – for, as we know, ETs don’t throw logs on fires.

The face on offer, then, is the one he would like us some day to be watching on our television sets before we tuck into our roast beef and Yorkshire puddings of a Sunday: the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, at home, in a jumper, by a fire, reacting to the latest Blair outrage. John Redwood doesn’t say this, of course, but then he doesn’t need to. The remark he does open with, however, suggests that he may still have some ground to cover on the road to looking more human, more ordinary, more of the people. Above the copper fireplace, framed by the dark wood panelling of the wall, is a painting of Elizabeth I. When asked about it, Mrs Redwood makes a topical joke: ‘Now, she was the original Spice Girl!’ And we all laugh. But when Mr Redwood takes up the theme – ‘Yes. Made a fortune from the Spice Islands!’ – the room falls silent, a gust of wind picks up outside and from somewhere in the far distance comes the melancholy sound of a dog howling.

The comment is just too brainy, too literal-minded, too academic. And it reminds you that, from the collar up, John Redwood stands alone. This is the man who, cursed with a First in History from Oxford, made matters worse by becoming a Prize Fellow of All Souls at the age of 21 and, worse still, by dashing of a doctorate in Philosophy in the evenings (while working during the day as a merchant banker). This is the man who, at 32, was appointed head of Mrs Thatcher’s Downing Street Policy Unit and, in an idle moment, worked out how to return Britain’s nationalised industries back to the private sector. This is the man who, in order to relax, plays chess with two computers, one he knows he can beat, one he is sure he can’t.

And as if the bulging forehead isn’t enough to live down, John Redwood has also acquired, along the way, a reputation for being socially awkward – even socially unaware, to the degree that he cannot spot a political minefield when it’s staring him in the face. On that fateful Monday morning in June 1995, for instance, when Redwood launched his impromptu leadership bid, the Crazy Gang, as represented by Tony Marlow (wearing his loud striped blazer) and Teresa Gorman (goggle-eyed in her fluorescent green dress), managed to insert themselves into Redwood’s overcrowded press briefing. In the confusion – and social awkwardness – of the media scrum that ensued, the maladroit Redwood allowed himself to be photographed in front of Gorman and Marlow. The flashbulbs popped and the damage to his credibility was done.

But perhaps getting into awkward places is something inhabitants of Planet Redwood do simply for their own amusement. For in the drawing room there is a long blue sofa, which seats four people, and I find myself hovering near to the end seat. As Redwood invites me to sit down, he sits down, too, in the next space. Almost touching, and with our backs deep in the upholstery, we talk for a while without making eye contact, staring at our knees instead, like two strangers on a bus. After a few minutes, I perch on the edge of my seat, swivelling round to face him, and he – gratefully, I suspect – half-turns round to do the same, one ankle tucked under the opposite knee, his head propped up on his hand. Gail Redwood comes over and tactfully occupies the acre of space at the other end of the sofa.

At close quarters, John Redwood’s speaking voice is measured and subdued, in contrast to the laugh he occasionally emits – haha! – which is short and strong. But there are none of the erratic shifts of pitch that characterised the voice we so memorably heard in his leadership press conferences. As one writer put it: ‘The man has an unreal use of volume and emphasis, which he unleashes on words! without warning. He speaks like a man trying to stop himself falling asleep.’ Mock him though they might, even Redwood’s political enemies would not deny that he is an honourable man, loyal to his party. But when John Major challenged him, and others, to ‘put up or shut up’ he says he found himself left with no option but to resign. ‘I took that comment to mean that the views I had been expressing continuously in private were no longer acceptable. I thought, “Well, I can’t live with this. I can’t work in a Cabinet where I’m not allowed to say that VAT on fuel is wrong or that we’re not allowed to make up our own minds on a single currency.” People were saying I was radical or risky and yet I was the one sticking to traditional Conservative values and, indeed, to our 1992 manifesto pledges.’

But ‘risky’ is not the adjective most used about Redwood in his leadership campaign: ‘scary’ was. Indeed, his cold intellect – along with his inscrutable, lupine features and quizzical eyebrows – earned him the nickname Vulcan, after the home planet of the emotionally challenged Star Trek hero, Mr Spock. At first, Redwood says endearingly, he didn’t understand the joke, then a friend explained it to him and he found it funny. But to this day there still seems to be some confusion in Redwood’s mind as to who Vulcans are and what they stand for. Thus:

Mr Redwood – ‘I took it to mean that they didn’t have any dirt on me and, because to err is human, I couldn’t have come from this planet, but from another one. It was a backhanded compliment.’

Mrs Redwood (perhaps thinking about dead sheep or Welsh windbags): ‘There are a lot worse things you can say about a politician!’

Mr Redwood: ‘Yes, I don’t think staying cool under pressure, keeping a clear head, is a fault in one who might be called upon to lead. Of course you have to understand how people feel about things as well. It was very mischievous of some journalists to suggest I don’t have passions and feelings. I do have a sentimental side. I can be moved by classical music, for instance, although not to tears.’

Mrs Redwood: ‘No, it’s films that make John weep! He was in floods when we watched Shadowlands and The Remains of the Day!’

Mr Redwood checks his side parting with his hand, folds him arms, hunches his shoulders, and mumbles a few words of admiration for Sir Anthony Hopkins before taking the passion theme down a less personal route: ‘I feel very passionately about the need to preserve a self-governing democracy in this country…’ Alongside the sofa is a grandfather clock which the Redwoods commissioned, complete with a carved acorn, the symbol of Wokingham, on top. As Redwood’s patriotic theme is developed, the grandfather clock announces that it is five o’clock and in so doing reveals itself to have the same arrangement of chimes as Big Ben.

‘… and British identity is related to our lives together as a very successful people that has always been on the right side…’ Ding-dong-ding-dong! Dong-ding-dong-ding! ‘… a people that has always gone to war to resist tyranny. British identity is related to one sovereign…’ Bong! ‘… one church…’ Bong! ‘… one parliament…’ Bong! ‘… one set of laws…’ Bong! ‘… and the English language…’ Bong!

That’s Vulcan humour for you – or so it would be nice to think, for Redwood, with the insouciance of the comic, gives no hint as to whether he is aware of the chimes that so affectingly accompany his speech. A more glaring example of Vulcan behaviour emerged on the Thursday that John Major resigned as leader. Westminster and Fleet Street went into a frenzy trying to find out whether Redwood would stand against him. For four days Redwood exhibited disturbingly alien cool: not bothering to answer his phone; nonchalantly choosing instead to play village cricket. Had the man no nervous system? ‘Although I felt calm,’ he now says, ‘I agonised and agonised and agonised for those four days – apart from during the cricket match on the Sunday when I could switch off completely and enjoy the game – I went strawberry-picking on the Saturday, but they didn’t spot me! Haha! I didn’t make up my mind until I spoke to the Prime Minister on the Monday morning – he didn’t seem to want to talk very much and I thought it was a time that maybe a conversation would have been a good idea.’

The Vulcan nickname, of course, owes much to his dogged love of logic. From 1973 to 1987, for instance, he worked in the City, first at Flemings, then at Rothschilds, places where employees often stay late regardless of whether they have deals to do. ‘I used to work very hard,’ Redwood remembers. ‘I concentrated, got my work done and left at 5.30pm on the dot because that’s what my contract said. Yet colleagues used to criticise me for it.’ He doesn’t seem to see why. Any more than he sees the inadequacy of his answer to the unoriginal but morally imperative question about his support for capital punishment: hypothetically, would he be prepared to pull the lever himself Although the answer he gives doesn’t actually start with a ‘But that’s illogical, Captain’ it is, nevertheless, a response Spock would be proud of. ‘I have no intention of applying to be a public hangman. I can see no circumstances in which I would have to do it or be expected to do it.’ Try again. Surely, given his academic training, he can offer a sophisticated justification of the death penalty on moral or utilitarian grounds? ‘Can I? My main reason for supporting capital punishment is that most of my electors do.’ And again. Just because a lot of people believe something, doesn’t make it right. ‘No. But then it doesn’t conflict with my view.’

Sometimes, though, a Vulcan’s logical mind can get to the heart of an issue more efficiently than can the woolly, obfuscatory mind of an Earthling. Redwood, for instance, was the first to start referring to the innocuous sounding ‘single currency’ as the ‘abolition of the pound’, a phrase which has since entered the language and which, with its brutal clarity, brought home to a lot of people what a single currency actually means. Again, for many people, Redwood put his finger on the exact cause of the Church of England’s current malaise when he said that it seemed embarrassed about its spiritual and moral role in the community. By contrast, John – and Gail – Redwood are anything but embarrassed about their enthusiasm for Christian family values. ‘You can’t trust people who say they believe in family values if they are doing the opposite at home,’ Mrs Redwood says in a soft level voice. ‘It would be so crass, so hypocritical.’

The couple met in the first week of their first term at Oxford and, although Gail Redwood says she doesn’t think it was love at first sight, she does add, with a wry tilt of the head, ‘Oh, I suppose it was fairly soon after.’ Mrs Redwood is refreshingly scornful of the expectation that a politician’s wife, even one who qualified as a barrister, should be seen but not heard at Conservative Party functions: ‘Nothing worse than being introduced to people who make superficial conversation with you because they think you won’t have anything interesting to say,’ she says with a peeved arch of the eyebrow. Even so, she is – and John Redwood must know she is – a ‘secret weapon’ to rival even the Prime Minister’s wife. For she combines the down-to-earth modesty and charm of a Norma Major – she will say, for instance, that she never has time to think about clothes and isn’t even sure where the clothes she is wearing came from – with the high-powered career of a Cherie Blair (Gail is company secretary of British Airways, as well as being a mother to Catherine and Richard, the couple’s two teenage children).

Drifting across the hall from Redwood’s study is the sound of a television showing highlights from the Scotland v Wales rugby match. We are still sitting on the blue sofa and, as he pops into the study to hear the final score, I cajole him into admitting who he wants to win. With disarming honesty he says: ‘Oh, I don’t really care now that I’m no longer Secretary of State for Wales.’ Then, pulling himself together, he adds: ‘Oh, I suppose Wales!’ A chance to examine the bookshelves in Redwood’s study reveals few surprises: lots of history books, half a dozen video tapes of Commons debates, the odd book on wildlife and butterflies and countless volumes with titles so dull they swim before the eyes, blurring into one big, bedtime read from Hell: Inflation; Nationalised Industries; Privatisation: Theory and Practice; Foreign Exchange Rates…

Apart from a small Welsh coat of arms hanging up in an alcove, there is little evidence of John Redwood’s time in the Principality. Dafydd Wigley, president of Plaid Cymru, once said that Redwood ‘went down like a rat sandwich in Wales’. Presumably the feeling was mutual, given reports that Redwood only stayed one night in Wales during the first five months of his office, preferring instead to commute back to Berkshire. (He said at the time that he was the first politician to be criticised for wanting to sleep with his own wife – a pretty good and pretty human joke.)

But perhaps the real reason Redwood has so few tokens of Wales is that they remind him of the buttock-clenching moment he was caught on camera trying and failing to mouth the words to the Welsh national anthem. Although he was considered to have been a firm but fair Welsh Secretary, even his best friends could not claim that he ever really empathised with the Welsh people. ‘The reason they said that was that I had no time for Welsh nationalism and I didn’t learn the language,’ Redwood says when this is put to him. ‘I took a decision at the beginning that I was not going to have time to learn it to a high enough standard – and there is nothing worse than an Englishman wrecking the language. It was better to be honest.’ Even so, Eric Howells, Tory chairman in Wales, once observed that Redwood has trouble relating to ordinary people. ‘Well that is wrong,’ Redwood tells me. ‘I see myself as coming from the marketplace.’

While it is true that his father was an accounts clerk and his mother a shop manageress, there is something a bit patrician about Redwood’s manner. It is almost as if he, like Coriolanus, is secretly contemptuous of the many-headed multitude, as if his nature is too noble for the world. He doesn’t see it this way, though. Indeed, he prides himself on his patriotic, Euro-bashing, hang-’em-high populism (‘What’s wrong with having popular views?’ he says. ‘I’m a democrat, for Heaven’s sake!’) But doesn’t he empathise with Coriolanus just a little bit? ‘No!’ Redwood laughs. ‘I did learn some of my politics from Coriolanus. And Macbeth. But I could never be Coriolanus. He is far too certain. I want to shake him and say, “Who the hell do you think you are? Get down there, boy, and talk to the people.”‘ The thought is interrupted as Joe, the Redwoods’ well-fed cat, ambles over for a stroke.

The grandfather clock chimes 7.30pm and the Redwoods show me the corner of the drawing room they have devoted to watercolours of Oxford. In another corner there is a tape and CD collection which mostly features the sort of classical recordings that move John Redwood (though not to tears). There are quite a few middle-of-the-road tapes – Kate Bush, Elton John, Neil Diamond, Cliff Richard – and a rather alarming number of recordings of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. The most up-to-date album seems to be by Beverley Craven.

But there are no tapes by Lightning Seeds, which is surprising given that John Redwood once wrote an article for the Guardian in praise of them and other Britpop bands like Oasis, Blur and Supergrass. ‘For me to be writing about Britpop’, it began, ‘might seem about as likely as John Prescott writing an article on how much he appreciates the Latin verse of Virgil.’ Much to the chagrin of Lightning Seeds, Redwood went on to quote their lyrics (‘Everything’s blue now, oh lucky you… there’s nothing to lose’) saying that it was a message to Tories. The Guardian columnist Matthew Norman, who had suggested the article, made it his mission in life to discover the boundaries of Redwood’s Britpop knowledge. (Norman regularly rang him up to test him. And, even though Redwood lists one of his recreations as ‘not reading the Guardian’, and even though he knew he was being teased, he always played along, answering Norman’s pop trivia questions as best he could. Norman believes that, had he not pushed his luck too far one day by calling Redwood out of an important meeting just so that he could ask whether the Smurfs could ever recover from the defection of Father Abraham, Redwood might still be the Guardian’s youth culture correspondent to this day.)

A cynic would say that, of course, this is what you’d expect from a politician who’s trying to get elected: be human, not Vulcan; be normal, not desiccated; show you have a sense of humour, not that you are stuffed to the gills with serious purpose. A cynic would say that this is why he tells me he painted the ochre walls of his drawing room himself and that, since moving into the house three years ago, he has become quite handy at DIY. And that is why he says that, although he enjoys decorating, he prefers to unwind by chopping logs (like Gladstone, curiously enough). This is why he says he likes to do his own shopping at the supermarket and why, when the question that floored George Bush – Do you know the price of a pound of butter? – is tried on him, he has a ready answer. ‘No, I don’t because I don’t buy butter. I buy Olivio. See! I even know the brand name!’

But the cynic would be wrong. John Redwood really does seem to enjoy doing these things. He does have a hinterland. The jumper isn’t just for show. And, contrary to one’s expectations, he is quite wry. On one wall of the dining-room next door there are half a dozen large cartoons that chart the history of Redwood’s political career. One shows John Major as a weathervane dressed in lederhosen with Helmut Kohl as the menacing raincloud overhead. Two depict John Redwood naked: one, captioned LOVE LOCKED OUT, shows him standing forlornly in front of No 10; the other depicts him as The Thinker. ‘I don’t know why I always have to be naked in these,’ Redwood says. ‘I’m surprised they know what I look like without clothes on. As far as I know, it’s never been revealed.’ Again, not a bad joke.

Have these cartoons of a naked Redwood – a little vulnerable and innocent, perhaps, but with a certain moral purity and openness – got it right? He tells me that he believes he is not a calculating politician but one who acts on instinct. Perhaps the truth lies between the two: that he is a canny politician. After all, he did come away from the leadership challenge looking more courageous than Portillo and less treacherous than Heseltine (‘I wasn’t an assassin because John Major put his job on the line. He invited a contest. As soon as I lost, I went on TV and said, “I admit defeat, long live John Major.” You couldn’t do more than that. I think that the party was sympathetic to me because I had done all in my power to have a decent, honest contest.’)

And decent, honest contestants – like nice guys – often finish last, even if they lose romantically. On the opposite wall, above a mantelpiece with a bust of Beethoven on it, there is an exquisite oil painting on wood, dated 1756, which Gail Redwood inherited from her father, an auctioneer. The painting is of that other conservative young pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. As a History scholar, Redwood will not need reminding what happened when, almost exactly 250 years ago, that ‘king o’er the water’ raised his standard. Will Bonnie Prince John be any more successful in wresting the Tory crown from the leader’s head? Perhaps it is too early to ask. The painting prompts another question, though: Do you suppose Bonnie Prince Charlie really was bonnie? Redwood’s answer couldn’t be cannier: ‘He was to those who believed in him!’

A few days after this interview appeared, just before the general election in 1997, a psychiatrist contacted me. ‘You may not have realised it,’ he wrote, ‘but your profile of John Redwood suggests that he has a number of characteristic which match those of Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. The literalism, the gangly body, the social awkwardness, the lack of eye contact, the dogged love of logic… It’s the same symptom which the US press is hinting at for Bill Gates. For those of high intelligence it is by no means disabling, and might indeed bring enormous advantage because of the single-mindedness it generates.