Lord Michael Dobbs, creator of House of Cards, is no stranger to politics. Margaret Thatcher’s former Chief of Staff has worked as Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party, advised former British PM John Major and currently serves on the House of Lords. Here, sipping tea from a mug emblazoned with ‘His Lordship’, he talks with Alex Downie.
HS: You’ve had a remarkable career. How did the son of a nurseryman rise to become Thatcher’s chief of staff, and a peer in the House of Lords?
MD: Alcohol. Every time I made a career choice, it was never planned, it was always over alcohol. In a pub, in a bar, chatting with somebody over a glass of wine. In fact, the whole concept for House of Cards came when I was drinking a bottle of wine. What I can say is that as I’ve gone on in my career, the quality of the alcohol has improved.
HS: The third season of House of Cards has just been released. As an executive producer of the show, how do you think it compares against previous seasons?
MD: I love it. In some ways, it’s even better than the previous two seasons—which were sensational—because so much of it focuses on Francis and Claire Underwood. This new type of television, with thirteen hours in each series, enables you to build some wonderful characters in great depth. As you keep on watching, the characters just grow and grow. And in season 3 they are sensational.
HS: Many American adaptations of British TV shows have failed. Were you apprehensive when approached about giving House of Cards a Washington makeover?
MD: I could have been, but when they [Netflix] called me and said they had Kevin Spacey and David Fincher on board, I didn’t need to think about it. Those guys have shows laden with Oscars, Emmys and everything else, and with them involved there was no way that it was going to be anything other than spectacular. And so it has been.
HS: What inspired House of Cards?
MD: I started writing House of Cards shortly after I had a furious row with Margaret Thatcher. I’d worked for her for 10 years or more at that time, and I still think that she was one of the most extraordinary leaders that Britain had ever had. But politics is a rough, tough business. We had a huge falling out, she was in some ways horribly unfair to me. A little bit after that I sat down to see if I could write a book, and House of Cards came about.
I was her chief of staff, she thought I was doing a rotten job, and she thought that I was plotting against her, which was absolute nonsense. But it was a sign really that she’d been in office too long. It happened very shortly before she was pulled down by her cabinet ministers, and frankly, what I got in private was very similar to what we all got to see just a while later in public.
HS: Who was the inspiration for F.U.*?
MD: FU isn’t Margaret Thatcher, but a lot of F.U., and a lot of what I put into the book, were things, people, and events that I had witnessed or been part of. Not all of it, of course—I’ve not known any PM who’s actually murdered a journalist, although I’ve known plenty of PMs who’ve wished they could murder a journalist.
Look, it’s not documentary, it’s drama. You make some of this up, you adapt things. The Italian Prime Minister, Mr Renzi, was recently photographed going into a bookshop in Rome, where he bought a copy of House of Cards. So I dropped him a note that said, “Sir, I do hope you realise that this is a work of entertainment, not a work of instruction”.
HS: Let’s return to happier times. You were the first person to tell Margaret Thatcher that she won the Prime Ministership. What was that conversation like?
MD: In 1979, when she actually won the election, I was with her at her own count, in her constituency. There were just a few of us—five of us—here, waiting in a side room for her votes to be counted. I was monitoring the votes coming in, and it quickly became apparent that we were certain to win.
I turned around to her and said, “Congratulations Margaret, you’ve won, you’re Prime Minister”. She turned around to me, and said, “we shall see, we shall see”. And my goodness we did—what a Prime Minister!
HS: How was she treated by other politicians in the Conservative party, both before and during her time in office?
MD: Thatcher was actually a mistake in that the Conservative party never intended to elect her as their leader. They had intended to slap the wrists of the former leader, Ted Heath, but they woke up one morning and said “my goodness me! She’s the leader!”. In many cases, they were very patronising about the fact that she was a woman, about the fact that nobody knew her very well, about the fact that many who did know her didn’t like her, and there were many at that time who said “look, we’ll fight the next election with her as leader, we’ll lose it, and then we’ll get back to business and find someone else”.
But they misunderstood the nature of the beast. Margaret Thatcher was formidable. There were very few people who really knew her. There weren’t that many people who really liked or loved her, but so many people respected her because she had extraordinary energy, real drive, and was so successful. She did things that so many other people really couldn’t have done.
HS: You survived the Brighton bombing. What was it like working for the Conservative Party at the height of IRA violence?
MD: That’s a very interesting question. I have many friends—several close friends —who were killed, murdered. And sometimes I was very close to the scene, as in the Brighton bombing. It was a very dangerous time to be in public life. What did you do about it? You took precautions, you tried to make sure that you checked under your car, that sort of thing.
I remember waking up one night at the height of the bombings, particularly in London, woken up at about 2 o’clock in the morning. My wife turned around to me and said, “What was the noise?”. I said, “Oh, it’s another bomb”. It was in the distance a couple of miles away, but you could tell it was another bomb. What did we do? We rolled over and went back to sleep. It was part and parcel of the 1980s.
HS: The Guardian once described you as Westminster’s baby-faced hitman. What was your role in the Conservative Party?
MD: For a while, I was what was called the party’s chief ‘bonk buster’. If I heard that a minister was being silly in his private life—normally affairs, men cheating on their wives—but it hadn’t reached the newspapers, my job was to have a word with the minister and say “look, this is going to get into the newspapers if it goes on, and we have to develop a strategy, or a plan, to make sure that it doesn’t”. Sometimes it meant them resigning, but resigning quietly and privately, rather than under the full glare of a scandal.
HS: How did you find out about ministerial indiscretions?
MD: In the old days I would go down to Fleet Street where all the newspaper journalists used to hang out, and have a few drinks with them. After a few drinks, they’d normally tell me what was going on.
Sometimes the rumours were absolute nonsense, but other times they were true. You’d know as soon as you saw their face. Sometimes they would burst into laughter, and other time their faces would just go grey. When they went grey, you knew that you’d hit the right button.
HS: In 2010, you were made a life peer of the House of Lords. What has that experience been like?
MD: We have some wonderful arguments in the House of Lords, because we still have hereditary peers. We have great rows about who’s the proper peer or lord. They say, “I am, by birth, and you’re here just because you got appointed”. And I say, “you’re just an accident of sex, but I’m here because of my merits”.
* Francis Underwood (Frank Urquhert in the British version) is House of Cards’ Machiavellian lead character. In conversation, Lord Dobbs refers to him as ‘F.U.’ .
Photo Credit: www.michaeldobbs.com