During a run along the Thames, the writer, commentator and fastest ever MP, Matthew Parris talks about marathons, the lack of talent in politics today and why young people shouldn’t join the Conservative Party.
When I asked Matthew Parris to take part in a ‘running interview,’ he replied: “My knees are completely buggered so it will have to be a very gentle run indeed,”. This was something of a relief: at his peak I would have had to sprint just to keep up with the former Tory MP and conversation would have been out of the question.
Now 67, it has been such a long time since Parris last went for a run that I have to lend him some shoes. But he emerges from his East London riverside flat looking sprightly enough and proudly sporting a very 1980s-looking Matlock Athletics Club vest, a brave move on a crisp January morning.
Parris’s finest running days might be over but it’s clear that the former Times political sketch writer, regarded by many as that paper’s greatest ever incumbent in that role in Westminster, has lost none of his competitive nature. “I still enjoy overtaking people on escalators,” he quips. “It’s perhaps the last remnant of what I loved about being in the lead pack on a run.”
Before turning to journalism Parris was the Conservative MP for West Derbyshire in the early 1980s. It was during that period on the backbenches that he set a personal best in the London Marathon of 2 hours and 32 minutes, making him the fastest ever MP by a considerable margin. To put it into perspective Parris’s time that day is only about 10 minutes outside the Olympic qualification threshold. “It was way ahead of my expectations. I knew it was the best I was ever going to get,” he tells me. Not long after this he gave up running.
After attaching a microphone to his vest we set off along the Thames Path on the south bank of the river, heading west towards Tower Bridge and are soon discussing training plans. “An MP’s life was conducive to marathon running: you have showers [in the Commons] and long periods with nothing to do between votes…much better than a nine to five job,” says Parris.
Although more people are running these days and training regimes have improved Parris is confident that his record as fastest MP will remain unbeaten because, as he put it, “no-one with any real talent has hit the political scene for some time”. Does he mean running talent or political talent? “Well both actually,” he says as we pick up the pace a little.
Parris did sometimes run into trouble during his stint as an MP. On one occasion he was stopped by a suspicious and incredulous policeman when running home from Parliament late at night. On another he accidentally strayed into a minefield while out for an early morning jog during a trip to the Falklands.
His decision to leave Parliament after just seven years surprised many but, as we settle into a conversational speed, he tells me that he has no regrets about giving it up for a career in journalism. “In the House of Commons no cabinet minister ever invited me to dine with them, now they do all the time,” he says before instinctively clarifying that that is not meant in a boastful way.
It is clear that writing has given Parris a sense of fulfilment that politics never did. Much like his writing, Matthew’s running style is simple but effective and he glides smoothly along the cobblestones of Limehouse. Given the temperature I offer him a pair of gloves but he prefers his old trick of wearing socks on his hands. The following week he is due to climb Mt Kenya for which one hopes he has packed something more substantial. His impressive track record as an experienced traveller and mountain climber would suggest that he’ll manage.
Having spent the past 30 years as a journalist and commentator, Parris takes pride in understanding the popular and political dynamic. This is, at least in part, why 2016 left him so dispirited. “I had thought I knew my own countrymen and had a finger on the pulse of popular opinion, but plainly I didn’t. I just got it completely wrong,’” he admits.
The EU referendum clearly put him in a tricky position. In his autobiography, Chance Witness, he talks of “instinctively hating” Brussels and its “Soviet-like officials”. But at the same time he is “repelled by the Tory Eurosceptics” and sees good arguments for closer union. So, while a committed and defiant Remainer, he found it hard to make a positive case. Mostly he just feels that the result has exposed Britain “as a meaner and slightly poorer place”.
Pausing to stretch in King Edward VII Memorial Park, Parris explains why, Brexit aside, he remains more optimistic than many: “This is not the 1930s. Nobody is starving. People’s incomes took a bit of a dent after the financial crisis but are now more-or-less back to where they were. I just don’t see, in the condition of the people, the explanation of any rise of anger against the establishment.”
So what was behind the sudden, unexpected, political shift? “I think,” he says, “it’s a bit of a fashion and it may just blow over. Populism thrives on opposition and dissent and on hating the powers-that-be. But once the populists become the powers-that-be and have to do something, they discover the extreme difficulty of doing anything in government, it tends to fade. And I’m still hopeful it will”. I’m reminded of his prediction in the late 90s that the allure of New Labour’s PR would fade; on that occasion he was right, albeit about a decade premature.
As we pass Shadwell Basin Parris points to the place where, in 2010, he emerged from the water after swimming across the Thames. “I got swept away by the tide. That was fun.”
Parris first joined the Conservative Party as a student and, as we near the end of our run. I ask him whether he would do the same today. “I’m worried,” he says, pausing, as we complete the final yards, our breathing heavy in the cold morning air. “I think that the angrier and less thinking part are in the ascendancy. I imagine now that as a young person of a basically liberal disposition you would be stuck for a party to join and the Conservative party would not look very attractive”. He has further concerns about the potential for some kind of a purge within the party by a faction living in another era whereby candidates would “have to demonstrate their Brexitness”. Or should that be Brexocity? We settle on the latter.
In a metaphor revealing of his upbringing in southern Rhodesia he compares the current division of political parties to the artificially imposed post-colonial borders of Africa. “We are stuck with parties that no longer reflect the forces of modern Britain. I think there has to be a realignment but it might take time and bloodshed,” he remarks. And his position on a redrawn political map? “If part of my party wanted to join others I would be part of it. But I think I will probably die a Conservative.”
After a post-run cup of tea at his flat I depart with the feeling that Matthew Parris’s experience of running marathons, battling currents and climbing mountains might just come in handy as a Conservative moderate in 2017.
Route: Limehouse Thames Path
Distance covered: 4.3km
Conversational speed: 9km/hour
Stretching breaks: 2
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Photographs by Madeleine Dolling