A woman spurned. Margaret Cook on "how not to be a female MP"

Diaries 1987-1992

Edwina Currie <em>Little, Brown, 334pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0316860247

Edwina Currie confided to her diary in December 1988: "I do get so fed up with all the media attention." Oh, really? This astonishing admission was made in the context of the salmonella-egg upheaval, in which the media attention was aggressive and unflattering. Why, you may wonder, has she sought the same bilious spotlight again?

There has been such a degree of wanton misogyny in the response to her revelations that I am almost pushed into defending her. Almost. She always relished being the centre of attention and thrilled to the fame it bought, a penchant which became an addiction, to the extent of needing it at any price. Her diaries chart the downward spiral of this obsession, from vibrant reputation through depression when neglected, to lowering of personal goals and mores, leading to notoriety.

Currie's defining moment was her frank and public blurting out of the degree of contamination of British egg production. It was tactless, damaging to a powerful pressure group, anti-spin, politically naive - but it was true. If at that moment the outspoken rebel had been equally true to her colours she would have said: "Well dammit, dishonesty is too high a price to pay for government office. I will not be ashamed of speaking the unadorned truth; I will be a lodestar for those who value probity with candour." As a colourful figure with popularity ratings second only to Margaret Thatcher's, Edwina would have gained a following in party and country that could have propelled her on to great things, including the fulfilment of her expressed ambition to be party leader.

Alas for reality. Instead, she opted first for the Tory formula of getting rich quick, through writing and broadcasting. Most readers will find the alternately gleeful and anxious totting up of five- or six-figure sums a thorough turn-off. It is a relief to find she had more time for her family in this era, and her daughter observes that she is much nicer than when she had "that horrible job". But Edwina seems directionless, comes to loathe the questions of health and food - which she could have made her platform - hankers after her lost love John Major, lies awake questioning the bearings of her life, gets bored with constituency matters, and altogether becomes an exasperating moaning minnie by the end of the book (1992). Ever quick to hone her sharp tongue, she lards her accounts of daily contacts with abusive labels: prat, fool, turd, fart, sod, bitch, slob, shit, bugger, twat, swine, toad, twerp, fat oaf and slimy bastard.

It is difficult to imagine what constituency of reader will buy this book. It could have been called How Not to Be a Female MP, but most women know that without having to read about it. It does not give any useful advice about coping with a career and family. Her daughters were simply packed off to boarding school; on one occasion, abandoned by both parents on a railway station; during holidays, they just seemed to get in the way. There is a chilling passage where she advises Virginia Bottomley about sending away a seven-year-old to school. When her younger daughter steals and tells lies, Currie turns on the church school and the church with reproach and blame.

As a political memoir, the book is of limited value: too much mumbo-jumbo, jockeying for position, navel-gazing and self-glory, not enough detail to inform the novice, and too superficial for the serious student. There is a vivid character sketch of ineffective John Moore (remember him?), the one-time secretary of state for social security, as he follows the path to oblivion. There is a salutary lesson in deference in the references to Margaret Thatcher in power, and how rapidly the remarks become derogatory after her fall. One feels sympathy for Edwina after her resignation, having to learn anew how to cope with public transport, and stumbling while running for a bus. One feels none for Jeffrey Archer, looking sheepish as he tells a whopping lie. But these details are personal rather than political, if there is a difference.

If anyone is hoping for salacious details of the Currie-Major affair, there are none that have not been already scavenged and sucked dry by the press. However, the gender-specific behaviour of the lovers is interesting. Reading between the lines, it appears that Currie made all the running, picking up the phone and murmuring the front-bench invitations. If she did not make a move, he wouldn't. After the affair lapsed as Major moved up in the world, he had enough savvy to keep her onside by asking her in to his office from time to time to listen to her opinions and give her a decorous kiss. Currie was thoroughly imprinted, and writes yearningly and warmly of him long after the affair had died. She was delighted when he won the ballot for leader and PM; but the seeds of bitterness sprout when she is offered no job, and are flourishing by 1992, when he ignores all her views and proposals. By then his "terrific cabinet" has become the "dullest bunch of ministers in recent history", and he "too small-minded in character, small in intellect". She might with more wisdom have observed that his emotions ran in more shallow and opportunistic runnels than hers, and as she came to suspect, he was able to turn off his feelings for her as he would a television set.

One may wonder what happens to the diaries after 1992. Perhaps volume II will be launched with yet more revelations of secret scandals. But probably not, because volume I is all about failure, and worldly interest in that depressing topic can be sustained for only so long. Cry, and you cry alone, Edwina.

Margaret Cook is the author of A Slight and Delicate Creature (Orion)