A year in politics
As Blair's revolution limps into its final stage, writers are asking where it all went wrong
As hemlines follow fashion, so books follow the political cycle. When new Labour came to power, readers, publishers and newspaper-serial hunters all wanted to know more about these unknown people who now ran the country. What makes Tony tick? Is Peter Mandelson the full, 100-kopek Rasputin? And just who, precisely, is Gordon Brown? The last question has yet to be answered satisfactorily, despite a small avalanche of biographies and whodunnits.
But as the Blair revolution limps into its final phase, the books are about what went wrong. Or what is going to go even more wrong before he goes. Some scribblers are so keen to be in at the death first, their books read like premature obituaries.
Philip Cowley, academic doyen of the division lobbies, is already charting the prospective rebellions of a Brown government. In The Rebels: how Blair mislaid his majority (Politico's), he argues that the split in the Parliamentary Labour Party between Blairites and Brownites is a myth, convenient to both the Prime Minister and his dauphin. Blair's problems with his MPs are due not to machinations of the Brownites (perhaps that should read "Brown-nosers") but because the leader has managed to alienate the non-aligned mainstream on his back benches. "When Brown runs into trouble with the PLP," he predicts, "it'll be for exactly the same reason."
The Brownie pack leader Robert Pes-ton theorises in Brown's Britain (Short Books) that his hero is now the official opposition to Blairite Labour. From the house next door to the Prime Minister's, the Chancellor is "beginning to stake his claim to lead the country in a very different way from Blair". His premiership will bring an "alternative" [author's italics] kind of government "both in style and substance", rather than more of the same. Unfortunately, Brown himself has warned, post-publication, that he will be no soft touch for old Labour, and will do nothing to upset the precarious Middle England coalition that brought Labour three election victories.
It is a relief to get into the gutter with the Times and the former treasurer of the Conservative Party. Dirty Politics, Dirty Times (Politico's) is a rattling good yarn in which Michael (now Lord) Ashcroft turns over the investigative and political hacks who had turned him over with allegations of sleaze, money-laundering and undue influence over a once-great political party. Ashcroft spent five years piecing together a saga of intrigue involving coke-snorting journalists on new Labour's house journal, malicious leaks from the Foreign Office, moles in the US Drug Enforcement Agency (one went to jail) and the role of Jeff Randall as a go-between with Rupert Murdoch. The end product would make a box-office thriller.
Alas, the same claim cannot be made of Lance Price's novel, Time and Fate (Polperro Heritage Press). In a disclaimer to real events, the former Downing Street spin-doctor writes: "The truth, in the experience of the author, is often a lot harder to believe than fiction." Well, some fiction, but certainly not his. This political thriller about a Blair-style prime minister awash in a sea of troubles wholly reminiscent of the 1990s (but set, improbably, in a future where we spend euros) is as credible as a No 10 lobby briefing. By contrast, Price's non-fictional Spin-Doctor's Diary (Hodder & Stoughton) is all too believable - and a much better read. A contemporary account, scarcely polished for publication, it exposes Blair as weak, contemptuous of parliament and not averse to fibbing. But neither is the writer, who observes that it was "not worth telling the truth" about government activity.
Paul Foot's magisterial The Vote (Viking) came out after his death. A work of genuine and impassioned scholarship, unlike some of his earlier squibs, the book champions the cause of democracy and those who have suffered for it. The Vote is also partly autobiographical, charting Foot's disillusion with Labour, "a party proud not to be socialist", and his espousal of the Socialist Workers Party. It is certainly his best book, marred only by a total somersault when his principles are put to the test by the 1984 miners' strike, called without a secret ballot as required under NUM rules. Having spent 400 pages celebrating the sanctity of the vote, Foot abandons scruple in favour of expediency, arguing: "Actions spoke louder than ballots." Louder, but not wiser.
The market for biographies of Labour stars is waning. The big names have been done to death, but Politico's thought it worthwhile to reissue Colin Brown's book on John Prescott. First published in 1997 as Fighting Talk, it has reappeared with the less pugilistic title of Prescott: the biography (Politico's). Brown finally solves the great kipper mystery of 2004 (I won't spoil it for you), and discloses: "Prescott has the nuclear button, but he's never pressed it," which comes as a great relief all round. Francis Beckett and David Hencke have reissued their book The Blairs and Their Court as The Survivor: Tony Blair in peace and war (Aurum Press) but its conclusions are no less tentative. "Events could still change everything," they conclude sonor-ously. Quite so, lads, quite so.
It has been a good year for political anoraks. Mark D'Arcy's Order! Order! (Politico's) chronicles 60 years of Today in Parliament on the BBC. Greg Rosen records the dramas that have electrified British politics over the past century in Old Labour to New (Politico's), in the actual words of the politicians. History by speeches might catch on, but don't hold your breath. Roger Ellis and Geoffrey Treasure are editors of the Who's Who in British History series, and their offering Britain's Prime Ministers (Shepheard-Walwyn), a balanced account from Walpole to Major, rather shows why.
The book I haven't read, but want for Christmas, is Peter Oborne's The Rise of Political Lying (Free Press). Honest.