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Prime Minister Loses His Noggin But Keeps Talking In 'Head Of State'


"Rule, Britannia" was written by Thomas Arne. Maestro, if you please.


SIMON: It's 2017, Great Britain's about to vote on whether to stay in the European Union. It looks close, but the prime minister may find it hard to exert his personal appeal to stay in the Union because his head has been cut off. His hands, too. But thanks to the magic of broadcasting, a gifted mimic, digital technology and maybe a press that obsesses about all the wrong things, most of Britain and the world believe that Prime Minister Bill Stephenson is still head of state, which is the title of a new novel, a political satire by Andrew Marr. Mr. Marr is one of the best-known talking heads himself in Britain, former editor of The Independent, political editor of the BBC, host of the Sunday morning "Andrew Marr Show." He joins us from London.

Andrew, thanks so much for being with us.

ANDREW MARR: You're very welcome. Delighted to be here.

SIMON: Just because a man's been beheaded doesn't mean he can't stay active in civic affairs, does it?

MARR: Absolutely not. And that's part of the point of the book. It started with a real incident where a friend of mine who worked with John Major when he was prime minister was in Downing Street one day, and Major came downstairs looking white as a sheet. And my friend thought, my goodness me, he's going to die, he's going to die in office. And they were in the middle of a crisis. So my friend thought, well, if he does die, for how long can we cover this up and keep things going? And he concluded then the answer was - quite a long time. And that, in a sense, is the proposition that this book teases out.

SIMON: And is there a metaphor in there to suggest that politicians sometimes merely intone whatever lines their staff gives them?

MARR: There's a lot of that going on. Like all politicians, my guys are surrounded by the wheelers and dealers and the word spinners and the PR people - above all, the PR people. I don't know about America, but certainly in Britain the big PR companies now have a vast influence on our political system because they're the ones who mediate between where the real power is, big money and the politicians.

SIMON: No, Andrew, it's totally different in the United States, where money has very little influence and politicians always write their own speeches.

MARR: (Laughter). So I gather. It couldn't happen with you, yes.

SIMON: Not getting too much away as to how this is effectively pulled off, you - there is a gifted mimic, who was an actual person - Rory Bremner - who was a great...

MARR: That's right, and he does a very, very good David Cameron at the moment. And you know, frankly, if he phoned you up as David Cameron, you'd assume it was the British prime minister you were talking to.

SIMON: In your book, Rory Bremner the impressionist talks to the Pope, I believe, the president of the United States, and, most effectively, his ex-wife.

MARR: And his ex-wife. And the great thing of course is, if you are the mimic chosen to be the voice of the prime minister, once you're in front of the microphone, you can do anything you like. So this gives Rory Bremner huge, if very brief, power.

SIMON: I have to tell you - I formed a bit of a crush on Olivia Kite, the opposition leader.

MARR: That says a lot about you, I'm afraid because she has elements of kind of Thatcher, dominatrix.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MARR: You know, she's...

SIMON: I was thinking of her flame hair.

MARR: Well, yeah she's got flame hair, but she's always got the riding crop thwacking gently against a boot, as well.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MARR: (Laughter). Sorry about that.

SIMON: I certainly hope my family is not tuned to this. She wants Great Britain of course to...

MARR: She's the leader of the out campaign, yes.

SIMON: ...Yeah, to withdraw from the European Union. And I guess her slogan is, give your children the gift of freedom. Sounds like a very effective slogan.

MARR: Well, I hope it - I think it is. I mean, we're going to see this referendum, I think, within a couple of years in Britain for real. So this is my attempt to try and play out some of how it will be, what would happen.

SIMON: Let me ask you a couple of real-life questions that are suggested by this novel. Do you foresee Boris Johnson replacing David Cameron as Conservative leader and then becoming prime minister?

MARR: In a word, yes. David Cameron's chances of staying on as Conservative leader - if he doesn't win an overall majority, and that's looking unlikely - are pretty slim. And from outside the House of Commons, there is Boris Johnson, who may be - appear to be a buffoon, constantly acts the buffoon, but he's one of the cleverest and certainly the most ambitious people in British public life. And I think he's - well, we know that he's leaving the job of mayor of London and taking a seat in the House of Commons next time around. Once he's there, my prediction is that he will go straight to the top.

SIMON: You had a stroke a couple of years ago.

MARR: I did, yes.

SIMON: How are you doing?

MARR: Well, I'm doing all right. I have a more or less paralyzed left arm and hand, which is very frustrating and I walk like a drunken sailor. But I've thrown away most of the aids and the sticks and so on I had, and I'm doing lots and lots of physiotherapy.

SIMON: Do you find yourself - if you don't mind saying - a changed man in any way?

MARR: Probably not as changed as my family would like. I got the stroke after two years of grossly over-working, flying around the world doing a history of the world, plus my Sunday program, plus writing books, and then overdid it on an exercise machine. I'm a driven guy and I thought after the stroke I would be gentle, herbivorous, relaxed, mildly Buddhist, look at my tummy and my toes and just let the world sweep by. And I'm back to my bad old ways, I'm afraid. There we go.

SIMON: Andrew Marr. He's going to be on the air on Sunday on BBC1. His new novel, "Head Of State."

Thanks so much for being with us.

MARR: Thank you very much indeed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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