With the media spotlight back on Tony Blair and the Chilcot Inquiry, it’s an interesting time to interview Philip Collins. Probably most widely known as the Chief Speechwriter for Blair while he was PM, this is a man who was privy to the inner workings at Downing Street. He has since transitioned to the role of columnist and chief leader writer at The Times. He’s also Associate Editor at Prospect and chair of the board of trustees at the independent Think Tank demos. There is certainly a lot to fit into our ten minute interview. He is, however, essentially a wordsmith by trade, and I am intrigued to speak to him in person.
As I introduce myself and my role for the paper, we launch into a discussion about the future of print publications. I explain that our own Exeposé has a loyal print following. “There will come a time, probably, when there is no print newspaper, but, we’ve had all those predictions too about books. People like books. They are nice objects. We’ve got a whole generation for whom a newspaper is a nice object. It remains to be seen whether your generation has the same feeling and the same loyalty,” he offers in response.
My point is that Corbyn will not be PM. (He’s more likely to be Pope). And that is what I call losing. https://t.co/1mqRhDB0sQ
— Philip Collins (@PCollinsTimes) November 2, 2015
“I don’t even own a tablet,” he tells me, provocatively. “I’m against them.” He is, however, on Twitter. I refer jokingly to his scathing tweets about Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He chuckles, before answering my question about the source of Corbyn’s appeal. “I think his appeal is partly horror at the rest of them. For a man who has been in politics for 35 years, it’s a peculiar thing to embody the feeling of anti-politics, but he does. The other three candidates in the Labour leadership election didn’t inspire anybody.”
He points out the two sets of Corbyn supporters – the optimistic new Labour membership and the older membership who have grown tired of defeat and compromise. Neither of them are looking to win the next election. “That’s not the point. The point is to express yourself and to say ‘this is what I think, this is the sort of Labour party we should be’.”
I ask whether Collins thinks the Labour party could still do valuable work before 2020, with Corbyn as its leader. His response is simple: “No. Not really. I think it’s a bit of a myth.” He refers to the latest defence of the Corbyn supporters – that they can hold David Cameron to account. “A government is held to account best when the public thinks there is an alternative. That’s what scares a government. There is no prospect, really, of a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn. Cameron and Osborne know that so they’re not frightened. The tax credits fiasco, for example, might have been a really big political event but realistically no one thinks that’s going to be down to the credit of the Labour party.”
I ask him what he thinks of Jeremy Corbyn’s PMQs, as he is uniquely placed to know what goes on behind the scenes. Is it engaging the public or giving Cameron an outing? “PMQs was novel for about half an hour and then it becomes dull. When you’ve been Prime Minister for a long time, you become really well briefed and you really know your stuff. And Cameron now is in command of his material. So when he’s got these open-ended questions, he can just display the answers. To actually catch someone out in that arena, you’ve got to be very very adept and quick, and it’s not easy.”
if he’s taken some of that pantomime element out of it then I’ll applaud him for that
If PMQs is a test of political theatrics, I put it to Collins that perhaps there are more important battles for Labour to win. “It’s not the difference between victory and defeat so I wouldn’t be too hard on Jeremy Corbyn for his PMQs performances,” Collins says. “I think they’re fine. It is a silly pantomime on occasion. And if he’s taken some of that pantomime element out of it then I’ll applaud him for that.
Moving to British politics of the past, I couldn’t resist raising the issue of the Chilcot Inquiry on the nation’s role in the Iraq War. With Tony Blair recently conceding on CNN that “mistakes” were made, in a qualified apology, I’m interested to hear Collins on Blair’s legacy. “I think you will have to search very hard to find anybody who will have their mind changed by Chilcot,” he says. “Chilcot will simply be confirmation of everyone’s prior view … The legacy is essentially some public service improvements, Northern Ireland and Iraq. That’s, basically, the Blair legacy in a nutshell. Just remember, Blair won a general election after Iraq. In 2005, he won an overall majority of the kind Labour have only won with Blair after the Iraq War.”
some public service improvements, Northern Ireland and Iraq. That’s, basically, the Blair legacy in a nutshell.
With the tide of opinion now strongly opposed to the former Prime Minister’s decision on Iraq, I wonder what Collins would be advising him to say were he Blair’s speechwriter today. Collins chooses his words carefully. “If I was his speechwriter now, or actually for the last couple of years, I would have been pushing him to be more contrite about it. To do what he did recently with CNN and to note that, whatever the initial decision, the consequences have been largely calamitous.”
Collins is quick to add that he was never persuaded by the case for intervention in the first place. He puts it bluntly: “If the case from the beginning had been ‘this man, Saddam Hussein, is a genocidal maniac who slaughtered his own people and is in serial denial of the UN’ then at some point the UN would either have to concede that it means nothing or do something about it.”
However, as the intelligence was “so horribly wrong”, it was indefensible. “I would have been advising him, and indeed have – and lots of people have – to be a bit more repentant. Not about the original decision, on which he is not repentant and therefore shouldn’t apologise, but on the consequences which have been bad.”
Collins’ interest in politics is clearly as sharp as ever, and it fuels his opinion pieces for The Times which are published several times a week. I ask him about the transition from speechwriting to writing for a national newspaper. “It was really nice actually to come out from behind the persona of somebody else and write in my own voice,” he says, sincerely. “My experience, from when I was in politics, is exactly what I now write about, so the transition in subject terms was quite easy. Working for a Prime Minister, you get a broad grounding. You get to know a little bit about a lot of things, and that’s perfect for Comment writing. Having seen things from the inside gives you a perspective that no one else in journalism has got.”
Although Collins’ route to becoming a columnist is somewhat unusual, I decide, while I have such a prominent writer in front of me, to ask for his recommendations to Exeposé writers looking to enter the world of journalism.
poorly directed reading has turned out to be a fantastic apprenticeship for writing columns in a paper
“Read,” he states. “I am incapable of reading what I should be reading. I always have been, ever since I was a student, and I didn’t realise how well that was serving me. All that mad, poorly directed reading has turned out to be a fantastic apprenticeship for writing columns in a paper. Also, read good writers,” he adds. “I read a lot of poetry. I read a lot of very good prose because I like the music of language. So that gets into your own writing. And you only develop a style by copying.”
On entering journalism itself, he reminds me that there are two ways in. Student journalism and newspaper work are good places to start. However, he knows full well that not everyone is hungry for a scoop, using himself as an example.
“I’m the opposite of an investigative reporter! I’d be so grateful that anyone had spoken to me, I’d just leave! There are people who are brilliant reporters. They’ve got a real nose for sniffing out where the story is. If that’s what you want to do, then you should just go directly for it.” For those who write analysis, there is often a more circuitous route into journalism, via politics, law or sport, for example. “The great beauty of it is that a newspaper contains about 50 subjects,” he enthuses. It’s sound advice, and many of us ought to take heed in hope of a career as varied and interesting as Philip Collins’.