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COMMONS MAN; THE BRIAN READE INTERVIEW: DENNIS SKINNER; HAPPY 65th BEASTDAY TO THE TERROR OF THE TORIES.

Dennis Skinner has spent the past 27 years battling against the Cult of Personality.

But with a personality that ensured cult status, he never stood a chance. Even the Tories, not known for their imagination, noticed that.

This week they planted a question in the House of Commons about retirement incomes, just so they could bring up the matter of his age - 65.

They laughed and they laughed. Dennis Skinner is 65. What a joke.

Dennis Skinner didn't laugh. He takes Parliament seriously. He believes it is about the common good. About setting Britain right.

His response after Tuesday's Question Time was dismissive. "God knows how much time they spent planting the question and planting the answer.

"It's the embodiment of the Tory Party, just playing public school games."

And, when it comes to politics, Dennis Skinner doesn't play games.

He's The Beast of Bolsover. The Mavericks' Maverick. A man who would cut his hand off if he thought it was on the verge of accepting a favour.

A man who has learnt not to trust the enemy. Including me.

"What's your angle?" he barked when I requested an interview.

"There isn't one," I replied.

"Look, I took a socialist pledge with my wife never to speak about our private life. I've never used my family politically so I don't see why I should have to talk about them.

"I'm not David Mellor you know."

Eventually he cracks and agrees. Then cancels. Then a quarter of an hour later he rings me back.

"I'll do it. I've sat here the past 15 minutes feeling like sh**. I promised ya, and I don't break promises. I don't want to do it mind. I hate interviews. Elitist crap."

He repeats it when I meet him in Westminster.

He's a squat figure, with the build of a middleweight boxer in grey sports jacket and red tie, surveying his manor like Jimmy Cagney in White Heat.

An MP who turns up to this building more than any other MP in order to "establish me working-class credentials".

I fear an hour spent with an unreconstructed Stalinist reciting iron ore production figures. Instead I get something different. The Pussycat within The Beast.

An Only Fools And Horses addict who thinks Trigger is the funniest man to draw breath.

A Coronation Street fan who can't get his head around Jack and Vera Duckworth running the Rovers.

"Here's these two people who never had two ha'pennies to rub together becoming entrepreneurs with pigeons in their backyard. No bloody way."

He even sings. In a strong voice that needs no microphone, honed from years of doing Frankie Lane impressions in pubs. It's a song he composed and crooned a few years ago at a Labour revue, to the tune of I Wonder Why:

"I hear Thatcher but there's no-one there,

I smell Tebbit and his greasy hair.

All the time they said she walked on air.

I wonder why,

I wonder why.

Leon's tossing in his sleep at night,

Heseltine has lost his appetite.

Stars, they used to twinkle in her eyes.

And now they're telling lies,

And we know why."

He loves it. He's a showman. That's why he's in his front seat during every debate to hammer the privileged on behalf of the working class. He was one of nine children born to a staunch trade unionist miner in a Derbyshire pit village. He passed the 11-plus aged nine and went to grammar school before passing up university in favour of the pit. He stayed a miner for 21 years.

When the Bolsover seat became vacant in 1969, the miners pushed Skinner forward - and Westminster was in for a shock.

On his way he made three decisions which would single him out as the most maverick of post-war politicians.

"I refused to pair. I realised Tory MPs needed to be away to make money on the side, or to swan off to Ascot, and decided there was no way I was joining in organised truancy.

"Secondly, no foreign junkets. I've never used a passport for extra-parliamentary visits.

"And third, no drinking in the Westminster bars. No one could work in the pit and drink at the same time, so why should they do it here? "Besides I don't want to get into a room where it's `all pals together' because it's not. My philosophy is contrary to the Tories. I don't want to spend my evenings laughing with people who just look after number one."

This is not a man to offer cash for questions.

He married his wife Mary in 1960 and has a grown-up son and two daughters. He and Mary separated amicably in 1989, but he refuses to speak about it.

"Overall Dame Fortune has smiled on me," he says. "I could have finished up on the scrap heap. Instead I landed on my feet."

IF LIFE has taught him one thing, it is that we all have to "stick together". It is a phrase he continually repeats.

"You can't live by yourself, you know. Robinson Crusoe only lasted until Friday.

"Unemployment is our biggest scourge and I tell Tony Blair that all the time. It's breaking the social fabric. When I entered Parliament there were houses in my constituency where the doors would be unlocked at night. Now they're locked three and four times over.

"That is the reality of Thatcherism. The idea that you look after Number One. A crazy concept. I'm amazed the British people swallowed it for so long.

"You couldn't allow market forces to win the war, could you? It was won by planning, intervention, people pulling together.

"Imagine Churchill saying to Montgomery: `I've heard you're going to start the El Alamein offensive. Don't do it. I've just heard that the price of oil is going to fall next month, so hang on old boy, and we can win the war cheaper'."

But society has moved on, and Skinner is perceived by many within New Labour as a dinosaur, whose policies would finish the Labour Party if they were ever put before the electorate. He disagrees. "I address 200 meetings a year. When I say that over the past 17 years the richest 10 per cent in Britain have accumulated an extra pounds 50 billion, and that we should take it back and give it to the health service, education, housing and pensions, I don't get people challenging me."

I can see why. His tongue is lethal. His witticisms in the House are legendary.

HOW he once claimed the last words of John Major's trapeze artist father were: "Oops."

How he christened Colin Moynihan the "Miniature For Sport". How he was thrown out for calling John Gummer "a wart on Thatcher's nose" and for calling David Owen "a pompous sod".

"The Speaker said I'd have to withdraw that, and I said `I'll be as conciliatory as I can. I'll withdraw pompous'. I got an early bath."

At a State Opening as Black Rod thumped on the door The Beast could be heard yelling: "I bet he drinks Carling Black Label." After the Redwood/Major Tory leadership battle he said to the PM: "Do you recall saying you've got three bastards in your Cabinet. Well, you can't count. You've just found out you've got 89."

And last month, when the Government announced we were all buying a new Royal yacht, he yelled: "Why don't you call it Camilla?"

He enjoys these tales. Sees satire as the most effective of political tools:

"To capture an audience you have to make them laugh, cry and think," he argues.

Dennis Skinner's idea of relaxation is walking around London parks admiring the flowers.

He swears he knows every blade of grass in London. It calms his mind, focuses his thoughts, and gives him an appetite to fight.

The next big fight is the General Election.

As a man about as Old Labour as they come, what does he make of Tony Blair?

"He listens. There is a big difference between Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock. When I put things forward Blair doesn't throw a blue fit.

"He may or may not take on board what I say, but we have a discussion. I am at least listened to."

In less than three months the most ferocious Opposition backbencher could be sitting on the Government benches.

Will his role of agitator change, or will he turn his vicious tongue on his own party if he whiffs a sell-out?

He thinks hard, and chooses his words:

"If they get unemployment down, reduce health service waiting lists, build houses, reduce class sizes, redistribute wealth and power to give us a more egalitarian system.

"If they're doing all that, well, no, I can't see a problem.

"Can you?"

Yes. I'm looking at him. And he's my kind of problem. No matter what age he is.
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Author:Reade, Brian
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 15, 1997
Words:1477
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