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Margaret Beckett: ‘It’s not easy when you know your colleagues aren’t fully behind you’

The longest-serving female MP on why Johnson was the worst prime minister of her lifetime
July 21, 2022

A week is a long time in politics, and Margaret Beckett has been an MP for some 2,280 of them. She entered parliament in 1974 and was given her first taste of frontbench politics by Harold Wilson. She has held ministerial roles from education to business and the environment, culminating in her appointment as foreign secretary at the end of the Blair years. Beckett recently announced that she will stand down at the next election—as holder of the record for the longest-serving female MP ever. 

So what enduring lessons has she learned about how politics works?

“I realised,” Beckett says, “that all these people who are trying to do good things, they’re all working within a framework of rules. And those rules are set in politics.” Having joined the Labour operation as a staffer, Beckett “was working with MPs all the time. And I quite quickly came to the conclusion that maybe I could do what they did… and there was just a huge amount of luck, as there so often is—people totally underestimate the amount of luck there is in politics.” Beckett was selected for the bellwether seat of Lincoln. She won a small majority in October 1974, and Wilson squeaked back into office.

Wilson was “absolutely brilliant. He had this fantastic memory [and] a very sharp wit.” When he resigned in 1976, “we were all stunned.”

Beckett remained as schools minister when Callaghan became leader, but lost her seat in 1979. She returned as MP for Derby South in 1983, the year of the Thatcher landslide. There followed 14 years on the opposition benches, during which she rose to deputy party leader.

What has been her most difficult moment in politics? “Pretty unquestionably when [Labour leader] John Smith died [in 1994].” Beckett was put in charge overnight, on the cusp of European elections. “That was a very difficult time,” she says. “The public were great. The party was not so enthusiastic. And some of that was extremely difficult… because it’s not easy when you know your colleagues aren’t fully behind you, and yet you’re the one who has to deliver.” Beckett “was determined not to let John down.” She led for two months until Tony Blair took the reins.

Beckett believes that, thanks to Smith’s groundwork, the party was “on course for a major victory anyway” in the 1997 general election, now a quarter of a century ago. “I know that there’s a view expressed in some quarters that we only won because of Tony. I’m sorry, I think that’s just nonsense.” 

Is Keir Starmer the right person to lead Labour back into office? “I think Keir is terrific, I genuinely do,” she says. “He was very unlucky with the pandemic, because it meant he couldn’t behave the way a leader of the opposition normally would, and that really handicapped him.

“I’m always loyal to the leader of the party, with one odd wrinkle. I couldn’t bring myself to say that I had confidence… in Jeremy’s leadership,” even though “the team around Jeremy wanted absolutely rigid Stalinist obedience to the leader.” Bafflingly, she nominated Corbyn for the leadership race in 2015 in order to widen the field of candidates, and has since confessed to being a “moron” for doing so. Is there still lasting damage from the Corbyn era? “I’m sorry to say I think there is some, yes.” 

There must be relief that Boris Johnson is on the way out. He was “unquestionably… no competition” the worst prime minister of Beckett’s lifetime—and since becoming an MP she’s seen nine of them. “He’s in a league of his own.”

How do we encourage better people into politics? “I mean, I’m very glad I’m not starting out now,” she says. “Being a candidate is extremely expensive… it’s time-consuming,” plus “now, they all have to be on social media.” Still, the younger cohort is “a formidable generation, on both sides of the house.” They will know that if you’re an MP today, “there’s a sense in which you’re never not on duty.”