Greasy Pole: Dobson Drops Out?
Imagine you have to allow extra time for your morning dash to the newsagent because of the people who want to shake your hand and engage you in gossip. Imagine you once saw yourself as the ideal choice for the most prestigious and demanding job in the capital except that nobody of any influence agreed with you. Imagine you held a series of ministerial jobs but were demoted and retired to the back benches to attract attention by your beard and heavy-handed jokes. Imagine you are Frank Dobson, who recently announced that after 35 years he will not stand again to be the MP for Holborn and St. Pancras – which stimulated the appetites of some powerful and hungry hopefuls to succeed him.
Appropriately for someone born in York, Dobson came from what is often called up there a railway family. He then switched to the more fertile environs of the capital. Along the way, in 1971 he was elected as a councillor for the London Borough of Camden with its reputation as a hotbed of the wildest leftwing delusions, asserted by their flying the Red Flag above the Town Hall. Dobson’s experience as a councillor locally made him the obvious choice as the parliamentary Labour candidate for Holborn and St. Pancras, where he won in the 1979 general election and which he has held since. His reputation as a bit of a bruiser – and perhaps also for re-circulating ‘dirty’ jokes along with the equally unremarkable clean ones – marked him down as promotion material for a future Blair government. In this he was helped when in 1994 he led the Labour Party response to the infamous ‘homes for votes’ policy of Westminster Council, driven by the Tesco heiress Lady Shirley Porter who evaded an Order from the Law Lords to repay ￡27 million of the ill-gotten gains by staying for a while in Israel (eventually coughing up ￡12 million).
As a rapturous Tony Blair swirled through Number Ten, his first job was to organise a team of ministers who could deal with the changes imposed by the previous Tory government. In this the NHS was a priority so that his appointment of Dobson as the minister responsible was particularly significant. But he was not completely satisfied with his choice: ‘At the helm of the NHS, I had put Frank Dobson. This, in itself, indicates how little I understood when first in office… He was one of many who considered New Labour a clever wheeze to win’. Yet there was evidence that Dobson’s problems were deeper seated. In the 1981 election of Labour party officers he voted for Tony Benn until the pressures of reality disillusioned him so that he said he preferred ‘sane left’ leaders; examples were Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband and Blair himself (‘who else was there?’ Dobson helplessly asked).
Late in 1999 Dobson was lined up to be wangled out of the Commons and was internally selected by Labour to stand as their candidate in the inaugural election for Mayor of London (a choice which stank, according to then MP Chris Mullin). A small problem for him was that in the election itself he would be up against the seasoned, subtle Ken Livingstone standing as an independent (which was a breach of his solemn assurance that he would not be a candidate, but never mind – we are talking politics here). Blair assessed Dobson’s chances ‘about as much as … Steptoe and Son’s horse had of winning the Grand National’. Livingstone beat Dobson humiliatingly into third place, which left him bitterly to reflect on the fact that his successor in charge of the nation’s health was Alan Milburn, once a left-wing bibliophile who ran the ‘Days Of Hope’ radical bookshop but then built himself into a millionaire consultant for massive private companies such as Lloyds Pharmacy and Pepsi; apart from those he set up his own very lucrative media company.
In the general election of 2001 Dobson was re-elected and quickly confronted with the realities of matching what he might have called his conscience with what the Whips would have been aware of as his ambitions. In 2003 there were some votes in the Commons on the issue of the war in Iraq. The Attorney General Goldsmith had done the work needed to enable Blair to claim that an invasion of that country would be legal. As if that would have made any real difference. Dobson was treated as a possible rebel in the intended Commons debates and he was offered the job of High Commissioner to the Republic of South Africa as a bribe for supporting the government. But that was not effective enough to deter him. The war went ahead and we are now reminded, day after day, of the merciless futility of it all, in the fighting and the desperate plight of the people there.
In June 2011 Dobson was the focus of media attention because he was a tenant in a flat owned by Camden Council; he said he did not know how much rent he paid, which triggered some lurid speculation (one guess was £160 a week when other flats in the same luxurious building went for ￡1000). This, with the fact that he and his wife have a comfortable joint income and own a large property in Yorkshire, did not help him keep his image of a lovable eccentric. Tessa Jowell, who was one of his junior ministers, recalls him padding about the ministry office without his shoes on, at times with a bare toe peeping through a hole in his sock: ‘We all absolutely adored him. I love him – he’s a person of incredible generosity and loyalty’.
Among Dobson’s other fans, one of the more likely successors for Holborn and St. Pancras, is Sir Keir Starmer who as a KCB and a QC and ex- Director of the Crown Prosecution Service is unlikely to unbalance his staff by showing them his bare toes. Unless he were to have the same effect by his view of the political situation: ‘It would be an honour for anyone to succeed Frank Dobson . . . Our constituency needs an MP who will be able to influence a future Labour government’ – something which the tempestuous, unachieving life and times of Frank Dobson exposed as impossible.