Nobody knows the pressure of being Home Secretary better than Alan Johnson, whose wife had an affair with their close protection officer while he was in the job. So the Labour heavyweight turned award-winning writer has been watching the BBC’s Sunday-night drama Bodyguard, starring Keeley Hawes, more suspiciously than most.
‘They got the pressure of the job right. She’s always in the back of her car doing paperwork, she’s always got a box there, it’s unrelenting. When you’re a minister, you’ve got that red box every night. The whole civil service works towards giving you five hours of work to take home with you at whatever bloody time you leave Parliament, which is often ten o’clock at night.’
‘I think they got hold of someone who has some idea of how the Home Office works – but only some idea. There are glaring anomalies.’
Nobody knows the pressure of being Home Secretary better than Alan Johnson, whose wife had an affair with their close protection officer while he was in the job
‘There’s only so much you can say when you know all the state secrets! A simple one: he’s still following her around in the Houses of Parliament. That’s a safe space, you don’t need your bodyguard to stand at the door of your office. But I know if you’re going to make a story out of it you can’t have him waiting outside all day, he’s got to be on the scene.’
Bodyguard has captured the biggest ratings for a drama series for more than a decade – but when we meet, Johnson has not yet seen the scenes that will surely make him squirm the most. The Home Secretary Julia Montague gets very close and personal indeed with her close protection officer David Budd (Richard Madden). That must make him wince, because the parallels with real life are uncanny: Alan Johnson was Home Secretary under Gordon Brown in 2009 when his wife Laura began an affair with his personal bodyguard, Paul Rice.
Just like in Bodyguard, Rice, 45, became the new Home Secretary’s close protection officer in the wake of his own marital breakdown, while he was living apart from his wife and child. A police inquiry into how an officer acting as close protection to the Home Secretary had an affair with the Home Secretary’s wife heard that he and Mrs Johnson, 47, arranged to meet in secret when he was off duty.
Bodyguard has captured the biggest ratings for a drama series for more than a decade – but when we meet, Johnson has not yet seen the scenes that will surely make him squirm the most
Alan Johnson kept silent when it came to light in 2010 (and refuses to discuss it today) but his sister Linda said at the time: ‘I know he will be absolutely devastated.’
The betrayal was even more shattering because it emerged after Labour lost the election and Johnson lost the big job at the Home Office – and he reveals for the first time today that he had a burnout in the midst of it all.
‘As soon as the electorate decided to dispense with our services I had a midlife crisis kind of thing. I’d just turned 60. I went out and bought myself a convertible! I needed a new car. Black Astra Sport. And I went to a music shop not far from the Houses of Parliament and bought myself a Yamaha acoustic six-string guitar. I can just pick it up and play.’
This is a revelation, because the pain of those days has been too great for Johnson to speak about before. But music saved him, as it has done many times over the years. He talks about this in his new book, In My Life: A Music Memoir, which covers the 25 years before politics, when he was still trying to be a rock star and songwriter as well as a postman, union rep and family man with three children. Every chapter takes a song from that year as its theme.
So we learn how Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby singing True Love on Family Favourites on the wireless in 1957 gave Johnson and his mother Lily some respite from his father’s drunken post-pub rages.
That’s a reference back to the stories he told in his first memoir, This Boy, which won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize and the Orwell Prize for political writing. It told how his heroic 16-year-old sister Linda rescued him from being put into care after their feckless father abandoned the family and their mother died at 42.
The new book says he and his sister bought The Bachelors And 16 Great Songs for his mother as she lay dying in hospital in 1964 but the album was unplayed when it came home. ‘She never did.’
Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone was the song of the following year, when he discovered the delights of love while playing records with a girl called Ann (as her mum stayed resolutely in the kitchen).
‘I was never subjected to a lesson at school that could be described, even loosely, as sex education,’ he writes. ‘It was in Ann’s snug little bedroom that I learned everything I needed to know about the erotic pleasure of “playing records”.’
Hey Jude is the song for 1968, when he married his first wife, Judy. They split up two decades later when he had an affair with the younger woman who would become his next wife: Laura, a union official 13 years his junior. She was by his side as he soared towards the top of the political charts, achieving one of the great offices of state, but the schedule was so demanding that his beloved music got left behind.
‘When I was a minister, I never picked up the guitar once. Eleven years. Pressure of work. You’re doing two jobs. You’ve got to have a place in London and you’ve got to spend time up in the constituency, which for me was Hull. Where’s the guitar?’
Alan Johnson with ex-wife Laura at the 1997 general election. . The couple divorced after more than 20 years
The marriage went the same way as the music, once he was in the Home Office. The couple divorced after more than 20 years, with a son who was then ten years old. So does he think Bodyguard is based on what happened to them? ‘I suppose it’s modelled on Amber Rudd. His name’s Budd. Bit close isn’t it?’
The former Conservative Home Secretary didn’t have an affair with her protection officer but has said of the series: ‘I love it, and it’s a pretty accurate depiction of what the relationship is like between a Home Secretary and their bodyguard, in the sense that they are incredibly close to you a lot of the time – although obviously not that close!’
Johnson, a plain-speaking man of the people, was a hugely popular figure across the political spectrum. Many supporters wanted him to stand for leader after Gordon Brown’s defeat in 2010, but he turned down the chance. He stood down as Shadow Chancellor as well not long afterwards, saying: ‘I have found it difficult to cope with personal issues in my private life while carrying out an important front-bench role.’
It’s tempting to say that Labour would not be in the terrible mess it is now if he had been leader. ‘Well, resist the temptation! I couldn’t have changed the course of history for the Labour party.’
Johnson stayed on as MP for Hull until the last election and it was in the constituency that he met Carolyn Burgess, the owner of a translation company.
‘I’ve found love again,’ he said in 2014. ‘This is the happiest point of my life.’ They were married the following year but kept it so secret that even their colleagues didn’t know.
He has recently had an astonishing reunion with his old guitar from the Sixties, bringing back powerfully emotional memories of his mother.
‘We were forming a group, I needed an electric guitar and I saw this Höfner in the window of a music shop in Soho. I loved it, but it was £35. There was no way I was going to be able to pay for that,’ says Johnson, who was just 17 in 1967.
His mother Lily had recently died after a long spell in hospital. ‘My sister told me Mum had squirrelled away 40 quid in a Post Office account to give me on my 18th birthday. She said I could have it early. It was like divine intervention by my mother from beyond the grave. Imagine how much I loved that guitar!’
He used it in a mod band called The In-Betweens, who played the London circuit and were on the verge of a breakthrough in 1968 when all their gear was stolen from a pub in London, including his beloved Höfner. ‘We had no insurance, so that was that.’
Alan Johnson talked about this on the radio and was heard by a man up in Edinburgh who had a Höfner to sell – so they met up in the lobby of the Holiday Inn at Hull Marina. ‘As the case opened, I thought, That’s my bloody guitar!’
It was a cherry-red Höfner Verithin electric guitar with a mother-of-pearl inlay, the spitting image of the one stolen half a century before. ‘I didn’t clock the serial number when I first had it but everything about it was the same. I just felt like we were being reunited. I paid £800 to get my own guitar back. This was an important emblem from my youth. It is probably my most precious possession.’
Did he suspect the seller of being the original thief?
‘He had the reasonable alibi of not having been born at the time of the crime!’
So Johnson has found new love and been reunited with his guitar, recapturing the passion for music that is evident in his book. But there is one love affair that seems over for him right now and that’s his long relationship with the Labour Party.
‘I could never vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader of this country. It’s like we’ve got the Islington correspondent of the Morning Star running the party. I’m wondering where my party has gone. You can put that in.’
Johnson has been a union and Labour man all his life; nobody can doubt his loyalty. But he believes Labour has gone back to the vicious in-fighting of the early Eighties, only the hard left are now in control. ‘It feels like it’s not my party any more. The trade union movement was always the ballast, holding the party down to earth when its leadership went away on flights of rhetoric, but it’s not a party rooted in the working classes now, despite a huge, growing membership. I’m a dissident in my own party now. Jeremy was a dissident in the party for a long time, now these people are in charge.’
What about anti-Semitism? Corbyn has been accused of it personally and Labour was torn apart all summer after refusing to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s widely accepted definition, until a furious row saw that decision overturned this month. ‘I found it difficult to believe that he is an anti-Semite. That’s not Jeremy. But it’s the basic political ineptitude of not adopting that full definition. It’s just staggeringly stupid to say: “Oh, we know better than the Jewish community.” That’s inept, and in the end that’s what Corbyn is. He’s not our great saviour, he’s our Iain Duncan Smith, except he did better than expected at the last election.’
Footage of Corbyn criticising ‘Zionists’ was taken by the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs and others as a straight attack on British Jews.
‘The clip of him talking about Zionists, that is terrible. He ought to apologise for that, because if he’s not a racist – and I tend to think he is not – then he’s said a lot of things he has got to clarify, in that respect.’ His old boss Tony Blair has said Labour is unlikely to win back the middle ground, so does he agree?
‘After the party conference you might get people saying, “This is not recognisable as the Labour Party any more.” I think there will be splits, but I don’t think there will be an attempt to get an SDP-type party off the ground, because I don’t think that’s what Labour people want. They want their party back, in a sense. They want their trade unions to do some pretty brave stuff as well, to make that happen.’
Talking of Tony, was he never tempted to jam with Blair, who kept an electric guitar in his office at 10 Downing Street?
My musical highlights – and a few bum notes…
Grace Kelly, 1957
‘As the men returned from the pub at closing time the mean air of Kensal Town would be scented with the smell of roasting meat. Steve [my father] rarely returned with a song in his heart and when he did it soon gave way to the beer in his belly. He would become morose and occasionally violent. For my mother, those two hours on a Sunday lunchtime listening to Family Favourites provided a serene interlude.’
‘I so wanted to display my allegiance to Bowie by getting Judy to use her considerable artistic skills to paint me into character as Aladdin Sane. But I was married with three children at the time. So my face went unpainted’
All My Loving
The Beatles, 1963
‘With The Beatles was the first LP I ever bought and it cost half what I’d earned from a weekend on the milk float and two freezing evenings a week delivering paraffin. That year I entered my teens and one night in November The Beatles entered my soul. I would be with The Beatles for the rest of my life.’
Summer In The City
The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1966
‘That summer I fell madly in love with a girl, Stephanie Blake, only to be spurned for an older rival. When she packed me in, she at least had the good grace to do it to my face, gazing at me sympathetically as she broke the news that she wanted somebody more mature. Which was fine, except the guy she dumped me for was her cousin.’
David Bowie, 1973
‘I so wanted to display my allegiance to Bowie by getting Judy to use her considerable artistic skills to paint me into character as Aladdin Sane. But I was married with three children at the time. So my face went unpainted – and remained that way until Event’s recent photo-shoot (above).’
‘With The Beatles was the first LP I ever bought and it cost half what I’d earned from a weekend on the milk float and two freezing evenings a week delivering paraffin. That year I entered my teens and one night in November The Beatles entered my soul. I would be with The Beatles for the rest of my life’
Watching The Detectives
Elvis Costello, 1977
‘I’ve followed Elvis Costello through everything he’s done… If Lonnie Donegan was the musical hero of my childhood, The Beatles of my teens and David Bowie of my 20s, Elvis Costello gets the lifetime achievement award.’
‘Never, no. Tony wasn’t a proper musician. He used to wear loon pants for God’s sake, and jump around at Oxford. We were in a mod band doing west London, completely different. He might get his Fender Telecaster out one night and play it loudly, but it’s not the same as what we used to do. So I never got the call. Just as well I suppose.’
And with that he gets up to dress up like a Beatle and Bowie, and leap around the photographic studio with a huge smile all over his face. After all he’s been through, Alan Johnson has got his guitar and his mojo back – and music is one love that will never die.
‘In My Life: A Music Memoir’ by Alan Johnson is published by Bantam Press, priced £16.99. Offer price £13.59 (20 per cent discount) until September 30. Order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15