In It Together by Matthew D'Ancona: The virus has proved treatable with doses of compromise and negotiation

This does not claim to be a book about class - but the theme sneaks up on the story and, by the end, threatens to usurp politics as the main subject.

In It Together: the Inside Story of the Coalition Government
Matthew d’Ancona
Viking, 432pp, £25

David Cameron is the first British prime minister in history to have enshrined in law the date when he is to seek re-election – 7 May 2015 is the day stipulated in the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011. It’s a constitutional tweak of great political consequence. Cameron understood that his coalition with the Liberal Democrats would be spoiled by mistrust from the start if parliament could be dissolved by Downing Street whim, so he surrendered that old privilege.

Instead, mistrust crept in only gradually. Even then, the virus has proved treatable with doses of compromise and negotiation. Fever has been a symptom of media speculation about relations between the governing parties much more than is justified by the underlying health of their partnership.

In It Together, Matthew d’Ancona’s fluent narration of the first three years of coalition government, explains why the project has consistently failed to fail when most onlookers predicted it would. Prompt agreement on a fixed, five-year term was not a minor detail. It was George Osborne who, in d’Ancona’s account, grasped the need for legislative nuptials to reassure the Lib Dems of Tory constancy. From the junior partners’ point of view, a fixed-term contract helped support Nick Clegg’s assertion, made at a rose-fringed Downing Street press conference shortly after the election, that Britain was witnessing the formation not just of a new government, but of a “new politics”.

Clegg was half right. There was novelty in the sight of erstwhile enemies governing as if they were friends but the whole show was also powered by an ancient energy source – the competitive affinity between two men marshalling the complaisance that is bred at top public schools.

In It Together does not claim to be a book about class but the theme sneaks up on the story and, by the end, threatens to usurp politics as the main subject. The title refers to promises made by Cameron and Osborne that the pain of Budget austerity would be inflicted equitably across society. But the sincerity of the slogan has been imperilled constantly by public perception of a government staffed by Old Etonians and other toffs. The vanity-drenched portrait of Oxford University’s tailcoated Bullingdon Club haunts the Prime Minister and his Chancellor “like criminal mugshots follow Hollywood stars”, d’Ancona writes. “As austerity bit and the economic recovery stalled, the photographs did their brutal semiotic work.”

Cameron in particular comes across as acutely conscious of the political hazard posed by his background and yet oblivious to the way that this background informs his style of government. One of the most revealing chapters in the book describes the disillusionment of Steve Hilton, the Tory leader’s friend and adviser who co-authored his strategy for the “modernisation” of the party in opposition and who moved into Downing Street fizzing with ambition to refashion the entire apparatus of the state. Hilton was thwarted partly by his unfocused and immoderate temperament and partly by a civil service that treated imagination as a threat. Above all, he was dismayed to see his old friend Dave preferring the comforts of office to the confrontations of perpetual policy revolution. Hilton is the son of Hungarian immigrants and a devotee of the US west coast cult of innovation by creative disruption. He had thought he was part of a gang of radicals storming the establishment. He somehow failed to spot that they were, in reality, the establishment. When he realised, he quit No 10 for a job in California.

D’Ancona describes a tight social circle running the Tory side of the coalition – old friends, their wives, ex-girlfriends, all joining each other for holidays and dinner parties and sharing childcare, now all ministers or Downing Street staffers. He draws the contrast with the New Labour elite who took charge of the country in 1997. Tony Blair’s clan started life as a political project and only later evolved into a governing family before splitting into mafiosi tribes. Cameron’s was a clique before it thought of running the country. That makes it more affable than the Blairites but also lacking in purpose. The Cameroons had an easy ride to power before they had thought enough about what power should be for.

Many of the chapters in the story are structured around a skirmish between coalition parties or within them – constitutional reform; Europe; the NHS; benefit cuts. The political calculations of the central players are meticulously analysed, colourfully reported and often, thanks to d’Ancona’s lavish contacts book, brought to life with direct speech. Yet it is rare for points of principle to be the focus. There is much bartering and the occasional stab to the back but not much interrogation of motive. Everything hinges on the need to keep the coalition together and, on the Tory side, the imperative of manoeuvring into a position from which a majority might be winnable in 2015.

That isn’t a failure of d’Ancona’s prose, which manages the trick of seeming effortless with discreet ornament. The problem lies more with Cameron, Clegg and Osborne, whose reasons for wanting public office, beyond the thrill of it, are opaque. In that context, In It Together is frequently generous to the government. Some readers, especially those of a leftish disposition, will be irked by the way d’Ancona lavishes the benefit of the doubt on his subjects – above all, the Chancellor. However, given that politicians are usually despised in Britain, there is a corrective merit in heeding the view of a supportive insider striving to be dispassionate.

The problem is more acute as the story approaches the present day. Sources who were candid about the early years of coalition were clearly more reticent about coalition arguments (over acceptable levels of anti-immigration rhetoric, for instance) that remain unresolved. The vital sense of intimacy with power dims towards the end of the book.

There are still 20 months to go of this fixed-term parliament, which feels somehow longer than most. It is hard, reading In It Together, not to be struck by the number of things that have happened that seemed big at the time and already feel oddly distant: students storming the Conservative Party headquarters; the riots of summer 2011; the war in Libya. It was journalism one minute, history the next. D’Ancona’s book is a valiant attempt to straddle both genres but the story isn’t over yet. As a result, the product of his labour feels provisional; the unwritten postscript – to be continued.

Rafael Behr is the political editor of the New Statesman

David Cameron and Nick Clegg: an unholy alliance? Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism