With Classic FM on in the background and photographs of his nearest and dearest prominently displayed, he has made the mahogany-panelled Victorian grandeur of the leader’s office in Glasgow City Chambers his own. “This is my term and my mandate,” he says, loosening his tie.
It wasn’t always thus. Just six months ago, many political allies would not have given odds on his return as leader of Scotland’s largest local authority.
The SNP’s “Tartan Tanks” were being positioned on Glasgow’s boundaries ready for the historic dethroning of Labour from one of its remaining UK heartlands; erstwhile supporters who had helped put Matheson in his position had jumped ship and formed a rival party; and the factionalism which had characterised his administration for two years was showing no signs of abating. At a dramatic budget meeting in February, Labour clung to power. Just.
Matheson, it was said, was riddled with anxieties and paranoia. Not only the SNP but his own team was out to get him. Labour would lose power in Glasgow for the first time and he would cop the blame. That is, if he even managed to get re-elected in his own ward.
Fast forward a few months and there’s a case for arguing this former trainee priest is the most successful Labour politician in Scotland of the past decade. With the eyes of the UK’s political classes trained on Glasgow at May’s local election, not only did Matheson-led Labour defeat the SNP, it thumped the Nationalists, taking 17 more seats than its rival.
Even Jack McConnell, Labour’s pre-eminent post-devolution politician, needed coalition partners to become First Minister. Today, Matheson is one of Scottish politics’ few untouchables, the safest man in local government, now taking steps to Holyrood.
He is also at ease talking about his role in that success, something that these days even his sworn enemies allow him.
“Well, the Tartan Tanks didn’t materialise and the manifesto I wrote and the campaign I led was overwhelmingly successful,” he says. “And it does leave me in a more politically secure position than was the case. As leader of Glasgow you are a national figure and I’d accept my political stock has risen significantly.
“There have been times when the job has been stressful and emotionally challenging. And there’s certainly been times when you wonder what you’ve done to get into this position. But you need to be tough in this job and it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve been tough when I needed to be. People who know me know I’m resilient. You don’t become leader of this council by accident.”
Matheson landed the top political job in Scottish local government in unique circumstances. His predecessor, Steven Purcell, was, right up to his untimely self-combustion, tipped as Scottish Labour’s great hope and a future First Minister. But behind the scenes he had developed a dependency on alcohol and had used cocaine.
Labour politics in Glasgow has traditionally had a touch of the fratricide about it, but the aftermath of the leadership contest which saw Matheson come to power, right up until May’s election, was particularly brutal. Matheson admits he had his eyes on the leader’s job since about 2007 but never envisaged the vacancy would arise.
The race to become leader was among the 45-year-old’s most challenging times in politics, as was the unprecedented move last autumn to tell as many as 20 sitting Labour councillors their political careers were over. That brutal move led to the formation of a new party of Labour rebels, Glasgow First, which returned one councillor in May.
“I was involved in that de-selection process and the majority of those who were de-selected had voted for me as leader,” Matheson says. “But I believe those de-selections were right and required. At a human level I felt sorry for some of those involved, but others, those who voted with the Tories in the budget, I have no sympathy for.”
As well as photographs in his office of Matheson meeting the Queen, Pope Benedict, Sir Alex Ferguson, Paolo Nutini and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, there’s another with him and long-term partner Stevie Wallace, 45, who works in social work.
When spotted burning the candle at both ends, Purcell, who had come out as gay two years before he quit, cited the loneliness of the leadership role. It’s to home life that Matheson retreats “to keep it together”.
He says: “Stevie always takes my side.” Italian holidays with limited telephone access, life-long friends and the solitude of his faith, something he returns to several times, keep the demons from the door.
Born in Glasgow, his father Gordon was an electrician in the shipyards, and mother Marjory was an auxiliary nurse. He describes his family background as both Labour-supporting and Catholic.
He moved to Port Glasgow while still young, getting involved as a teenager with various vocation groups, calling his youth “serious but not sheltered...I’d stay in on Friday nights watching current affairs shows,” he says.
Weekends away during school holidays with the Redemptorist Order progressed to the point that, in 1984, aged 17, he decided to join the priesthood.
Travelling with him on the same coach from Glasgow was another young man joining the Redemptorists at a monastery near Plymouth, the late Labour MP David Cairns. Unlike his friend, who was ordained, Matheson left Holy Orders after six months.
He says: “I had some growing to do and I thought it was better to do that away from the seminary. I was coming to terms with my sexuality at that stage as well, so it was a tough period for me. I don’t regret it. I don’t feel like a failed priest. I had to find my way in the world. I do still take my faith seriously and do still go to mass.
“There was a period when I was at university when I stopped going. That coincided with my coming out. There’s obvious tensions there. What has it given me? I believe I bring a set of values to my politics.”
The comments by the new Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, that Cairns’s death was due to his sexuality were “hurtful”, Matheson says. He is keen not to heap further criticism onto the Archbishop, pointing out his “embarrassment and sincere apology”.
He’s more forthright on the church’s stance on gay marriage. “I don’t see that two adults entering into a loving and stable commitment is a threat to anybody.”
The death of John Smith in 1994 was the catalyst for Matheson to turn his support for Labour to membership, rising through the ranks of his local branch to stand for election in 1999. The decision of dozens of Labour members to retire in 2007 saw his elevation from junior player to the top table at the council, first heading education and then holding the purse strings as Treasurer, ideal training for any aspiring leader.
Since becoming leader of the council he has survived any number of “knives through the heart”, from the SNP Government, to form a decent working relationship with Finance Secretary John Swinney.
“John was very gracious when we met shortly after we won in May,” he says. “He warmly congratulated me and accepted we have a clear mandate.”
The next few years will be interesting. The city will be the focus of global attention hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the biggest event ever likely to come to Glasgow.
Yet unprecedented public spending cuts are on the horizon. The level being shaved from budgets now is barely half what it will be in a few years. And Matheson has 100 manifesto pledges to fulfil.
He says: “The period after 2014 and up to 2017 is going to be the toughest. The worst is yet to come. In the past three years we’ve had to cut over £100 million from our budgets. That’s how much we spend annually on roads, lighting, cleansing, museums, art galleries, sports facilities and libraries. Having said that, I will deliver every single one of my pledges, starting with an announcement on the schools refurbishment in the autumn.”
How does he square this? “Big reform decisions. The biggest adjustment we’ve had so far is reducing the headcount [among council employees] and moving ourselves to the position where we can protect what’s really important. As for further voluntary redundancies, nothing can be ruled in or out just now. But there will be no compulsories.
"There are big announcements but nothing I can go public with just now. It would only undermine what is at a very early stage of discussion, but we will be bringing forward proposals which are surprising.”
After a spell in London during the Olympics he is convinced of the transformative potential of the 2014 Games but also acknowledges he has a big sporting event on his hands. “Only a very stupid politician would seek to politicise the Games,” he adds.
Of the independence referendum shortly afterwards, Matheson says he has already been approached by a number of business leaders and investors expressing concerns over the uncertainty thrown up by it. “As city leader I see my role as giving a voice to what the implications of separation from the rest of the UK will mean for Glasgow.”
On parades, an issue Glasgow has dared to try to get to grips with, he believes the city is moving in the right direction, citing a significant cut in marches in the past year. He is irked though, he says, “by certain national politicians trying to misrepresent our position and then dodging their responsibility”.
Ninety minutes after entering his office, a queue is building outside. His head of social work needs a chat. There’s an executive committee meeting the following day. There are plates to spin. I leave him to calmly get on with running his city.
Gordon Matheson CV
Career high Winning overall control of Glasgow City Council for Labour in May 2012. Career low Delivering sandwiches on a bike to city centre offices. I lasted a week.
Favourite meal Spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino.
Best holiday Tuscany.
Worst holiday Brussels – it poured the whole time. Favourite film Tea with Mussolini.
Favourite music Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.
Last book read Alexander McCall Smith’s Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.
Best personality trait Passion. Worst trait Timekeeping.
Best advice received Spend as much time as possible doing what only you can do.
Perfect dinner guests Peter Ustinov, Oliver Reed, Bill Clinton, Dame Maggie Smith and Pope Benedict XVI.