It feels like an inversion of the natural order of things to be on Michael Crick’s doorstep. In almost 40 years as a political reporter Crick has made the kerbside ambush of his subjects, outsize furry microphone to hand, something of a personal art form. During his long stints as political editor of BBC’s Newsnight and as political correspondent at Channel 4 News it was said that there was no more alarming sentence for a government minister than “Michael Crick is waiting for you outside”. For a select few – Jeffrey Archer, Michael Heseltine, Michael Howard – those words have only been eclipsed for anxiety by “Michael Crick is writing your biography”.
Crick’s house is a friendly double-fronted Edwardian terrace just off Clapham Common, south London. He bought it with his mother, Pat, 31 years ago, moved in with her for a while when his first marriage ended and since her death in 2010 has lived here with his partner, Lucy Hetherington (daughter of the former Guardian editor Alastair), and their daughter, who is now 15. He greets me grinning and a bit stir-crazy from 10 days of asymptomatic Covid quarantine, the itinerant gumshoe confined to quarters. We sit at opposite ends of a sofa in the bay window of a book-crammed through room. Crick, a boyish 63, is an obsessive collector not just of uncomfortable facts, but of much else besides. He has “just about” (said through gritted teeth) every Manchester United match day programme since the war. He also hoards political toby jugs. A lineup of the latter on his mantelpiece includes, prominently, the subject of his latest book, Nigel Farage, gurning in a spivvy suit and a gangster’s fedora.
He had been thinking of writing a book on Farage for seven or eight years before he got down to it over lockdown. The first bit of digging he did back then was into the details of a letter a teacher once sent to the head of Farage’s school, Dulwich College, when Farage was proposed as a prefect, complaining of the future Ukip leader’s “publicly professed racist and neo-fascist views”. In the course of 300 interviews with Farage’s friends and enemies since then, Crick has pieced together the definitive portrait of a character he describes as “the most significant [British] politician of the century so far…” If that billing sounds, to liberal ears, like a deliberate provocation, Crick makes a powerful case in the nearly 600 pages of One Party After Another. Farage emerges from Crick’s book both as the ultimate chancer – cheating death and political all-comers and wives and Eurocrats – and the instinctive disruptor of our political times, singlehandedly shifting both the focus and manner of debate.
Some of Crick’s motivation is always setting the record straight, like a frustrated schoolmaster. “Farage has done his own memoirs twice, a lot of which needed correcting,” he says. And then, of course, he knows a story when he sees one. “He was always guaranteed box office for a news reporter. You would ask five questions, you’d get five great answers.” This was in contrast to some of Crick’s more tongue-tied political subjects over the years, who have rarely been moved to speak even when our intrepid reporter has been chasing them along the pavement. (There are YouTube compilations of Crick’s best gotcha moments. His own favourites, in no particular order, include the moment he trapped Tony Blair in a lift; the time MEP Godfrey Bloom bashed him over the head with a copy of the Ukip manifesto after Crick pointed out it contained no black faces; and his delicious line to the notably taciturn Iain Duncan Smith: “Aren’t you are taking this ‘quiet man’ thing a bit far?”)
By contrast, Farage has always been happy to answer what Crick has thrown at him; he sees him as a consummate communicator. “Some, like Heseltine, are great on the platform, but hopeless with people. Farage can do both,” he says.
The early reviews of the book have fallen over themselves to praise Crick’s tireless information gathering, his peerless grasp of telling detail, while expressing frustration at his refusal to pass sentence on his subject. “Quite how far-reaching Farage’s legacy will be – how damaging or beneficial, or a combination thereof – it’s far too soon to judge,” Crick writes. “It is too limp of the author not to come to his own conclusion,” Andrew Rawnsley suggested in this paper.
Crick rejects the argument that a reporter can ever be too even-handed. Given the weight of evidence, though, is there not a clear case that Farage’s “breaking point” concentration on immigration is destructive and dangerous?
“Yes, of course,” he says. Before continuing: “I don’t think Farage is a racist, though there is plenty of evidence that he was a both a racist and an antisemite in his teenage years. And he does, I think, like [his hero] Enoch Powell, pander at times to racists.” On the other hand, he says (there is always another hand), “the issue of cross-Channel migrants, say, is a legitimate issue and for a long time nobody else was mentioning it”. And then: “One good effect of Ukip is that it actually took support away and eventually won the battle with the BNP.”
Though he catalogues every dispiriting tactic in Farage’s power-hungry manipulation of populist sentiment, there seems to be a lot he also admires.
“I admire his persistence and his energy,” he says. “I don’t admire his pandering to racism, I don’t admire his ruthlessness. He was Stalinist in the way he ran Ukip. But clearly he does have a charm. I’ve had some good laughs with him.”
The thread through Crick’s biographies, which began with his meticulous and sometimes gleeful dismantling of the many lies of Archer, is this fascination with extreme contradiction in certain personalities.
“I write about charming monsters,” he says. “I think two-thirds of really successful high-achievers are charming monsters. Alex Ferguson [the highly reluctant subject of another Crick book] is a perfect example. When he is charming, he’s a delight, totally thoughtful and considerate. And yet he can be an absolute bastard, utterly ruthless, cut off people who were his friends, exactly as Farage has done. That combination has taken many people to power. I’ve no doubt even Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein had certain charms.”
Does he think writers are drawn to explain the attractions of human behaviour they fear or lack in themselves?
“I suppose so,” he says. “Are there aspects of me that are like some of these people? Well, in very small ways. I can certainly be very difficult at times.” He hoots with one of his frequent, likable self-deprecatory laughs. “I’m not sure many people would identify any charm.”
Another part of the attraction of Farage as a subject, I think, is that it gave him a chance to say “I told you so”. Like anyone with a background outside the south-east of England – Crick did much of his growing up in Manchester – the Brexit referendum result came as little surprise to him.
“About three weeks beforehand, I was telling people that Brexit was going to win,” he says. “But I don’t think many of my colleagues at Channel 4 News – or at the BBC – believed it, because they mainly mixed in liberal circles and they didn’t want to know that there were vast numbers of people out there who had serious misgivings about immigration and about Europe.”
That kind of wishful myopia, he suggests, is one of the reasons he recently decided to end his 10-year stint at Channel 4 and take up a role at the Daily Mail’s “in depth” Mail+ project, contributing a characteristically entertaining and informed weekly online video report, as well as a Friday column.
“I ended up having arguments [at Channel 4],” he says. “Under the then editor [Ben de Pear], I felt the programme was on an anti-government, anti-Brexit crusade. It made it very difficult to do your job. And to me it was wrong. I was brought up in the tradition of David Nicholas, who was editor of ITN when I first joined 40 years ago, and who just turned 91. He used to say, ‘If we get an interview with God, then the first thing the newsdesk has got to do is get on to the devil’s office and give him the right to reply’.”
It seems perverse to respond to that perceived partisanship to take up a job at the Mail, the news organisation that arguably has done most to polarise debate before and since the EU referendum. Was one of the attractions giving two fingers to the “liberal establishment”?
“No,” he says. “The attraction was it [Mail+] was a new venture. And they came along and offered me this great job.”
“Yes and for two and a half days a week. It’s bloody hard work. For the first time in a long time I don’t have a producer, so I do all the films on my own, but I have a lot of fun and total freedom.” The flexibility also allowed him to devote more time to his book and to indulge his anorak’s passion for constitutional politics by helping to set up an academic unit at Manchester University, which will monitor the selection process of MPs.
Crick has been a political animal for as long as he can remember. His parents, both teachers, met when they were both officers at the socialist club at Cambridge University. His father gave up that cause, but his mother, who collected miners’ badges in old age, remained committed. “She died before Corbyn came to prominence, but she would have been a big Corbyn supporter,” Crick says. “Whereas my father’s politics are now much more like mine, more centrist and a bit cynical.” Crick describes Boris Johnson as “easily the worst prime minister in 100 years”. But he also tends to agree with his old man “that if you think the Johnson government is incompetent, then a Jeremy Corbyn government would have been 10 times worse”. Crick’s first book, on Militant tendency, remains the seminal account of how a fringe political force can manoeuvre itself into power. His plan was always to go into politics, but when he was offered a clear run at the safe Labour seat of Bootle in 1990, he declined, acknowledging “it was more fun to be a journalist”.
Crick was a scholarship boy at fee-paying Manchester grammar school, where he wrote “the Fifth Column” for the school magazine. Several of his political friendships were formed at Oxford, where he was editor of the student newspaper Cherwell and president of the Oxford Union (as well as gaining a first in politics, philosophy and economics). Hearing him talk about those years is to be reminded of the incestuousness of Westminster. He was a contemporary of former Tory ministers Dominic Grieve, David Willetts, Damian Green and Alan Duncan. As union president, he succeeded Philip May, whose girlfriend, the recently graduated (and “very glam”) Theresa, spoke at his first debate. She was one of three acquaintances who became prime ministers, along with Malcolm Turnbull in Australia, with whom he keeps in touch, and Benazir Bhutto.
What does he think about that apparently indestructible conveyor belt to power?
He thinks both that it’s inevitable – Oxford has always attracted an intellectual elite – but also that its influence is waning. He has in any case always tried to maintain a scrupulous distance from politicians.
“I’ve had a handful of friends who are politicians – I used to go to football matches with Chris Grayling – but the number who’ve been here [to Clapham] in 30 years is probably about three. I’m a bit like Farage in that respect; I regard myself as a sort of anti-establishment person and yet I want to be inside it in a way. I’d never join a gentlemen’s club, but I’m not averse to going to them. I do the old boys’ column for the school magazine.” He gives another of his frequent hoots of self-mockery. “There is,” he insists, “a long tradition of establishment revolutionaries.”
Some of the most fascinating material in the new book is Crick’s account of Farage’s formative relationship with his parents: the alcoholic stockbroker father and the mother who was a very enthusiastic nude model for the Women’s Institute in Surrey. If you were to seek similar insights into Crick you would no doubt want to dwell on the two sticking points of his childhood: his inevitable marginalisation within the family after the arrival of triplet sisters and the fact that his parents split up when he was 18. “I carried on living with my father in the holidays; my three sisters went to live with my mother,” he says. His father was “very much more academic” than him and a rugby man rather than a football fan. Part of Crick’s rebellious streak saw him follow his beloved Manchester United, home and away from about the age of 12, hitchhiking alone or on the train; he once tried to have his name changed to George Crick in honour of his hero, George Best. When Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB tried to take over the club in 1999, he took months off from Newsnight to work on a (successful) rearguard action.
There was in his early journalism a powerful sense of moral outrage about him. He was, by the accounts of contemporaries, a natural in the role of the martyred messiah in a school mystery play. I remember covering Jeffrey Archer’s perjury trial for the Observer. However early I arrived in court, Crick, his pencils metaphorically sharpened, would already be in place. You wouldn’t say he has lost his edge since then, but perhaps become more alive to cases for the defence.
I remind him of something he said to the Telegraph in 2007 not long after his marriage ended following his admission of an affair. The interviewer wondered if those events made him feel more sympathetic towards Archer? “Yes, I suppose so,” Crick answered at the time. “Indeed, to people in general. Ten years ago, I would have been horrified by the idea that I would have had an affair and I wouldn’t have been very understanding with myself. I am a lot more understanding of people when that happens.” Reading his current book, I sense that empathic impulse has advanced with age?
“Well,” he says, “yes. Life is certainly complicated. And Farage is a case where his life has been very complicated. As with the prime minister, his affairs are part of the political story.” (Or as one quoted aide to Farage puts it, less delicately in the book: “He’d shag anything that let him.”)
If Crick remains fascinated by recklessness, he also knows that stories never end when the cameras retreat. I’m not surprised to discover he sees all the subjects of his books as lifelong projects. He religiously keeps up with Archer’s novels, for example. When he saw Archer, a man he did more than anyone to incriminate and ultimately incarcerate, recently at a book launch, he couldn’t resist sidling up to say hello. He has long coveted a plan to make a radio documentary about the novelist and his conman father (and Archer’s “unknown” half-sister, a baroness who was married to an American presidential candidate). What did he say?
“Well,” Crick recalls, laughing, “I said, ‘I know you and I’ve had our differences, but can I take you out to lunch?’” Archer didn’t say no outright, so Crick believes it will happen.
I sense he half-fears, half-relishes the idea that he might find himself in a similar kind of long-term dance with Farage. “I was,” he says, “a bit sad that I had to finish the book in the end.” He felt there were still things to discover, not least perhaps a little more about Farage’s curious relationship with Julian Assange, which Crick examines without ever fathoming. He has no doubt that there will be dramatic future chapters in Farage’s career (he points to a poll he discovered that suggested 54% of Tory party members would favour him as their next leader). That’s the other thing about these charming monsters, however much you expose them to the light – and no one works harder at that illumination than Crick – they don’t simply disappear. They invariably come back for more.