Andrew Marr has forthright opinions on the journalistic trade. He is adamant that it is a “trade” – very much “not a profession”. He speaks of how it is “one of the most insecure” of all jobs, and any attempts to get a foothold in the industry are “uncertain”, but suggests that all of that is worth it, because it is the “one of the most interesting things” one could possibly do for a living.
For the most brilliant political journalist and interviewer alive today, working for the BBC must have similar huge pros and cons. The Andrew Marr Show – a programme he speaks about proudly, as a show aimed at a much broader audience than just “political anoraks” – allows him to speak to a plethora of political titans: he has, for example, interviewed both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. But, in working for the BBC, the need to be scrupulously impartial constrains his ability to be really outspoken with the range of insights provided through his vast contacts and prodigious intelligence.
That said, when I ask him whether he thought the end of Cameron’s premiership will go smoothly, his response is emphatic: “No. It never does.” He is also clear in stating that the Prime Minister “made a mistake” in saying that he would leave office before the end of his term. Marr then recounts Tony Blair telling him how smoothly his exit would go: “I remember Blair said to me, when Paddy Ashdown resigned [as Lib Dem leader] – he’s going while people still want him there. That’s exactly what I’ll do.” But, of course, Blair ended up being pushed out by the Brownites in 2007.
But one should not impute from that a negative forecast for the Conservatives’ fortunes. Marr observes that “the Labour Party is in a terrible state – it was even before Corbyn was elected … even Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper … Liz Kendall, they couldn’t win a general election”. Moreover, he seems to cast doubt on the prospect of the likely successor Osborne causing the predicted troubled dénouement to Cameron’s time in office: “Cameron and Osborne are very different to Blair and Brown … they’re very close”. He also speaks positively about Cameron as “still underestimated”, but “hated by large sections of his own party and the media”. I ask him if this is “because of the Eton thing”. He nods and says “there are plenty of people in the Tory Party who will say ‘I’m a proper Conservative’, meaning they grew up in a council house, they’re quite socially conservative, they’re against gay marriage …” The clear implication is that Cameron is “hated” because he is seen as part of a metropolitan Establishment elite.
Marr comes across as sympathetic to Cameron, but he doesn’t speak about him with anything close to the same ardent enthusiasm with which he speaks about Barack Obama. When I ask him who his favourite interviewee has been, his eyes light up as he says the name of the current President, giving the simple reason, “because he’s so intelligent”. In most interviews, he says, “you try to steer the conversation”, but Obama would “just take it off in another direction, with a big grin on his face”.
On the topic of American politics, I ask Marr if he was surprised at the results of the Iowa caucuses, in particular Cruz’s victory over Trump and Rubio coming a very close third. “I was surprised at the latter”, he says, going on to speak very positively of Rubio, in particular his assertion that “anger is not a policy”.
He is similarly vociferous about what style of interviewing he doesn’t favour. Marr is often pressing, but far from aggressive in his questioning of politicians. I ask him point-blank if he dislikes it when interviewers adopt an attack dog approach à la Jeremy Paxman. He demurs at the mention of Paxman, saying “I don’t want to talk about colleagues or future colleagues”, but does state that he often disapproves of “rolled eyes and curled lips” when journalists are asking politicians questions. “It has to be about the interviewee, not the interviewer” is Marr’s philosophy.
That aphorism sums up the magnificence of Andrew Marr. A man without any trace of an ego, he has evidently risen to the pinnacle of an often brutal trade by being the opposite of brutal. And in conversation he is just as engaged, just as perceptively receptive to what the other person is saying as he is when conducting political interviews on TV.