Laura Kuenssberg: 'I can't say Brexit has been bad for my career, quite the opposite'
In a rare interview, the BBC's political editor opens up about the "rivalry and gossip" of Westminster
"I didn’t really want to do politics at all,” says Laura Kuenssberg, putting her mobile on the table, where it will bleep, flash and tremble for the next hour. “I started off on health and crime.” It’s too late to change now – another extraordinary Brexit day is under way and the BBC’s political editor will be at the heart of events. It’s not even lunchtime and once again the Prime Minister is being publicly contradicted by her own cabinet, the Opposition is mired in confusion and the pound is falling. “ What we are absolutely seeing,” says Kuenssberg, “is a loss of control from the top.”
The 42-year-old was appointed in 2015. Shortly afterwards, David Cameron made his decision to call the EU referendum, and everything changed for ever. Brexit has twisted the fabric of our political life; it has also made Kuenssberg one of the best-known journalists in Britain and beyond, referred to as “the BBC’s star political reporter” by The New York Times. “I can’t say it’s been bad for me,” she admits. “Quite the opposite.”
The confusion caused by Brexit has been quite bad for the rest of us and we’ve come to depend on Kuenssberg’s calm, sceptical Scottish voice telling us exactly what’s going on – although, she admits, no one is really sure. “It’s not funny,” she says when I laugh. “It’s an extraordinary period in politics. It’s sort of like a soap opera, but it’s not a soap opera.” Now she has made a documentary that attempts to explain just what has been happening. “It’s the story of characters, plots, subplots and the different factions in all the different political parties,” she says. “A story of the cabinet, of Parliament, of the country.”
I meet the normally interview-shy journalist in a café below the BBC’s Millbank Studios, a two-minute dash from Parliament. She is swathed from neck to knees in a wraparound cardigan that bears the evidence – strands of cotton wool, a crumb or two – of a domestic life she has little time to live. As well as reporting for BBC radio, television and news websites, she records Brexitcast – she calls the podcast’s jaunty approach to political crisis “gallows humour”– and is a prolific tweeter. “I work long hours,” she says. “I work very, very hard. I haven’t had time for a haircut in four months. That’s where we are at the moment, I’m like Rapunzel.” Her efforts earn her an annual salary somewhere between £220,000 and £229,000. “I’m well rewarded for a job I massively enjoy doing,” she says. “I think I’m paid very fairly
On screen she favours brightly coloured jackets buttoned to the neck, a look she wears like armour against the vitriolic criticism that comes her way. “It’s an era of very strong feelings about politics,” she says. “It’s not surprising that from time to time, there’s an effort to shoot the messenger.” The BBC gave her protection during the 2017 Labour and Conservative conferences, though the level of that threat was never made public. “No,” she says. “I never talk about that.” Oh, come on, what was it like to have a bodyguard? “It’s certainly not like the TV series.”
In 2016 an online petition accusing her of bias against Jeremy Corbyn and calling for her to be sacked attracted 35,000 signatures. “It’s not what I would choose,” she says. “But it’s not that surprising.” Her troubled relationship with the Labour Party goes back to 2015 and an edited BBC interview with Jeremy Corbyn, following terrorist attacks in Paris, from which it could be inferred he wouldn’t back lethal force being used against gunmen. The BBC Trust found against BBC News for breaching rules on “accuracy and impartiality”, and Kuenssberg is still peeved. “I would still reject that very strongly,” she says. “I’ve been doing this job for three-and-a-half years – have I got every single line 100 per cent right, every single day? Of course not. But I stand by what I said on that, absolutely.”
She likes to take charge and on several occasions tells me how to interview her, saying, “Actually, it’s not something you’d want to write about”, and “This is not to be used”. And we are not, she says, to talk about her. The film is all about her, I complain. “The film is not all about me, thank goodness!” But, as we see, she has been present at most of the key Brexit moments.
Some are remarkably intimate. In one scene she comforts a despondent Boris Johnson as if she were his mum. “He’s quite shy and wants to be loved,” she says in the film. “You have conversations with people at moments, for them, of great stress and pressure. People really care about Brexit, but if you’re Boris Johnson everybody thinks that’s because you’ve got your eye on the top job.”
I wonder if she likes Johnson? “I’m not friends with politicians, I’m not people’s mate,” she says. “But those in Westminster are feeling this moment very profoundly. We think all they’re about is their own dastardly machinations. There is a bit of that; this place runs on ambition and loyalty and power and rivalry and gossip and speculation and all those things. But the referendum is very, very difficult to deal with. It’s like trying to take an egg out of an omelette, you can’t do it very easily.”
Does she ever worry about becoming part of the story herself? “Nice try,” she says, as if I’m trying to play a lawyer’s trick on her.
Kuenssberg has the courtroom in her blood: her maternal grandfather was a High Court judge, and the rest of the family can hold their own in public. Her sister Joanna was, until last year, British High Commissioner to Mozambique; her brother David is director of finance and resources at Brighton and Hove City Council. Her mother, active in the juvenile justice system, has a CBE, and her father is a business executive whose work took him around the world, which is why she was born in Italy.
She went to one of the top independent schools in Glasgow and, when pushed, she admits to some unease about the predominance of privately educated journalists at the BBC. “The BBC should mirror the country,” she says. “But we’re taking this stuff seriously now. A few years ago, we weren’t.”
She studied history at Edinburgh University and completed a postgraduate journalism course in Washington before coming back to the UK and a first television job as home affairs reporter for BBC North East, where, in 2001, she won the Royal Television Society’s most promising newcomer award.
Now she’s the BBC’s most senior political journalist and still, she admits, surprised by it: “If, when I started out, someone had told me the political editor would be a) Scottish, b) a woman, and c) got the job when they were my age, I’m not sure I’d have thought that very likely.”
Kuenssberg made the journey from current affairs to politics by what she calls serendipity. “It was not my burning ambition to work in Westminster, to spend all my time hanging out with people who work in politics. They wanted to bring people in who weren’t politics obsessives, who didn’t already have a whole network of friends and contacts in politics, which I didn’t.”
Is she really claiming to be an outsider? “Totally!” I must look dumbfounded. “OK, I get that it’s ludicrous for me to suggest that I’m an outsider, but I’m not hanging out at the weekends with members of the shadow cabinet or having dinner with the chair of some select committee.”
What is she doing then? “I read a lot of brilliantly awful fiction, 99p on iBooks fiction. I’m a fan of the kind of fiction that turns your head to candyfloss at the end of the day. If it’s 1am and you’ve had a 15-hour day, you could think, ‘I’ll just catch up on The Economist’ or I could read Jilly Cooper.” Anything else? “I love watching telly for telly’s sake.” Favourite channel? “Obviously BBC1, or BBC2 on a really crazy day. Or BBC News.” Impressively loyal, but doesn’t she watch the odd DVD? “The Philadelphia Story, it’s a classic.” I expected something more political – is she romantic behind that sombre surface? “You’ll have to ask my husband that,” she says. “And he isn’t going to be mentioned.”
Actually, I hadn’t mentioned him, but since she brought it up, she’s married to the City consultant James Kelly, whom she never discusses in interviews. She says it would be “hideous” to have the press reporting on her private life, but I suspect she doesn’t like to talk about her family in case it distracts from her hard-edged professional demeanour
When I ask if she ever feels sorry for Theresa May, she looks horrified. “I’m not going to go, ‘Yeah, I feel sorry for Theresa.’ I think there are lots and lots of different kinds of politicians and some enjoy the company of journalists and some don’t. It’s not exactly a state secret to say Theresa May is not someone who enjoys the company of journalists much. It’s a bruising old world for politicians, but they put themselves forward for it. They choose it.”
Unlike May, Kuenssberg seems unaffected by the unforgiving demands of Brexit. How does she do it? “I don’t have any crazy routine of being on vitamin drinks. I have a lot of energy and stamina, that’s just how I am, but there’s nothing special about that, I don’t have any secret. I don’t run marathons. I occasionally go to the gym and I try to go running in the park quite a lot. People come up and ask what’s going on, which is a perfectly fair question.”
Does she cut loose when she’s not on screen, do something unlikely, like going to thrash-metal gigs? “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a thrash-metal gig,” she says. “I was occasionally made to go to the opera, but that was a long time ago.” Booze, then? “I don’t drink a bottle of wine every night. It’s a very busy job, but you take holidays. You have to try to pace yourself, but if a massive story breaks, you have to go and do it.” Which is why you’re careful with the drink? “Stop! I should never even have said that."
She first reported from the Commons in 2003, long before #MeToo caused self-entitled men with wandering hands to pause for thought. “Everybody makes their own decisions,” she says when I ask her what it was like then for a young woman. “Everyone has their own line. Wherever you work, there is a different culture. For a long time, Westminster has had a culture where lines can get blurred. It is much more between politicians and their staff and other politicians than it is between politicians and journalists. There have been moments where I’ve not been comfortable, but have I ever found myself in a position where I’m not able to handle what’s going on?” She shakes her head.
With just days to go until the original 29 March exit date, we are, at the time of going to press, no nearer to securing an orderly exit from Europe.
I ask if Brexit can still surprise her. She laughs. “The first rule of journalism is never assume anything. I was surprised by the scale of the first defeat. It was unprecedented, and it seems kind of beyond anybody’s reasonable expectation that a government would have found itself in this position, going ahead with a vote that they were going to lose by such a huge margin. But that’s what this whole saga has taught us. Never assume anything again.