Life on the inside

<strong>House Music: the Oona King Diaries</strong>

Oona King <em>Bloomsbury, 373pp, £12.99 </em>

It is not hard to think the worst of Oona King, the erstwhile east London MP whose defeat at the hands of George Galloway provided one of the 2005 election's more gripping subplots. She has a fondness for the kind of homespun wisdom that can easily irritate: "I am eternally grateful that my cup is half full because pessimism is so exhausting"; "I always help a stranger if I can - otherwise, what's the point of human existence?" Her vocabulary is littered with pseudo-street phrases - "check you later" springs to mind - that betray a very forced kind of grooviness. As evidenced by passages repeated so often that they become irksome, she also feels duty-bound to tell us that her Italian husband, Tiberio, is "beautiful": no less than "a vision of taut rippling muscles under dusky brown satin skin . . . he's gorgeous".

At her worst, her trademark is a mixture of faux-yoof and piety, as when she rather smugly writes about nuptials that ended at the London superclub Ministry of Sound, and a wedding list via which her and her husband's guests were obliged to make a donation to Amnesty International. The problem is, if a handful of factual slip-ups are anything to go by, that she is probably not quite as pop-culturally literate or tuned in to the global struggle as she would like to think. Blur's Alex James, at whose West End pad she spent the latter part of a very messy Millennium Eve, is their bassist not their drummer; Nelson Mandela did not spend all those years locked up in "Robbin Island". Not for nothing, you suspect, did one acquaintance recently sum her up as "a complete bullshitter".

A good deal of King's more unsympathetic side pours forth in this memoir's introduction, 50-odd breathlessly recounted pages that tumble through all kinds of themes, but never quite flesh out her choice of career; from the age of five, she "wanted to be prime minister", but you begin to wonder what exactly, aside from a fuzzily expressed interest in "social justice", pushed her into Labour politics. Just when her self- regarding prose is starting to grate, however, the book assumes its shape - that of a diary, albeit an apparently nipped, tucked and rewritten one - and, it rather pains me to say, becomes a surprisingly compelling read.

House Music is partly a book about the collision of the real world with the arcane and very male-centred ways of parliament - "a posh boarding school with crap food", as King elegantly puts it - and the almost impossible workload that comes with being an MP, particularly one who represents such a blighted constituency as Bethnal Green and Bow. For eight years, King's life revolved around 90-hour weeks, serial meetings and heartbreaking casework that could easily look futile. "The thing about being an MP in Tower Hamlets," she writes, "is that if you are successful in a case, it only leads to more cases, because people who are very, very poor are only ever out of the shit for a certain amount of time."

Better still - and given King's one-time reputation for being new Labour incarnate, some may find this surprising - she drills into the doublethink and brutality that sat at the heart of the Blair government. The single best scene in the book is the occasion in 1999 when King was summarily called in for a very twitchy audience with Blair, his political secretary Sally Morgan and Alastair Campbell, and asked to write a damning newspaper piece about Ken Livingstone, then deemed a potential "disaster for London". Picked, with truly mind-boggling logic, because she was seen as being "independent-minded", she turned them down and thereby sealed her fate: as if to prove his malign grip on Labour machinations, Campbell told her she had thereby screwed up her chances of promotion for at least five years.

So, it is somewhat tragic that King's undoing was bound up with the episode that also damned Blair. When it comes to Iraq, her arguments in favour of her pro-war vote in the Commons still seem as contorted as they were circa 2003 - she claims to have supported the invasion on an "anti-genocide" basis, but also sketches out a "best-case" scenario in which Saddam Hussein would have given unconditional access to UN inspectors, been "disarmed" and left in power. However, all this began to reach its denouement while she was in the midst of the IVF treatment that provides her story's biggest human-interest angle (and, it has to be said, the likely reason for her book deal). It rendered her skint - and, as she and Tiberio were plunged into a demi-monde of sperm samples, embryo implantations and dashed hopes, emotionally derelict. Cue the arrival of a weird alliance of Islamic hardliners and Trotskyites, set on evicting her from her seat. Even if you cleave to the opinion that she deserved to lose, it all lends her tale a pretty heartbreaking aspect.

Along the way, there is a lot of profanity. In keeping with her all-pervading gaucheness, King does not tend to swear well, but just occasionally, she hits the spot, as on page 306, when one outburst nails House Music's essential point: that a parliamentary career leaves no room for life, and politics is therefore all the poorer. "Today, MPs voted to partially revoke the modernisation changes to working hours," she writes. "Stupid wankers."

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?