What, no Alastair Campbell?

Half in Love

Justin Cartwright <em>Sceptre, 309pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0340766298

Richard McAllister, the minister for transport, is having an affair with Joanna Jermyn, Britain's hottest actress. By some unexplained means, the press gets hold of the story. Richard is summoned back from South Africa, where he has been recuperating from a stab wound incurred at a football match, to brief his old friend the Prime Minister.

Richard is single. Joanna dumps her husband Jeremy, a hack writer of "almost brilliant" and "slightly tedious" stage and TV plays, but she is so popular that the media are sympathetic. No great scandal threatens, and the PM gives his blessing.

But the couple cannot get together. Joanna has to go to America to prepare for her next film; every time she plans to fly home, something comes up. The thug who stabbed Richard is due for committal, then for trial. The PM doesn't want Joanna in the country when that happens: it has to play as hard news, not celebrity gossip. Then there are rumours that she has slept with her coke-sniffing American co-star. Best if she keeps away while the spin-doctors try to kill the story.

The novel has many things to say about love, politics and fame, and says them with plonking banality. To some extent, this may be deliberate: Justin Cartwright tells us that politicians deal in "clapped-out language". But the narrative voice is just as flat and cliched as the dialogue, and there seems to be no clever, ironic joke involved, such as the whole thing turning out to be told by Jeremy. Cartwright simply seems to have suffered a lapse in form and produced a rather poor book.

So far as one can tell, we are meant to take at face value such pointless aphorisms as "Love is death speeded up" or "Power, he came to see, is not a ritual thing at all, but a desire for divinity" (later contradicted, apparently unwittingly, by the claim that "all is blind ritual", that Westminster is "a cult, with its own rituals and fetish objects"). Even if the writing is bad on purpose, it is still bad: "She and Richard made love with a desperation, as though they were going to fall off the edge of the earth."

A few of the subsidiary characters - such as Joanna's agent, Stan, and Richard's therapist friend, Igor - show signs of life, but the couple themselves are deadly dull, continually telling each other, "I love you so much it's unbearable" or "If I loved you any more I would be dead", with no indication, at any time, of what makes them or their relationship tick.

Richard's closeness to the Prime Minister is likewise stated rather than shown. No background is given, and their encounters are fairly stagey. We are told, apropos of nothing, that the nameless PM is married to a barrister called Valerie. This is done purely so that the PM can later say, when Richard fails to toe the party line: "You let me down, and you let the country down. And Valerie feels even more let down than I do."

Which is quite funny, except that, if Richard is an old friend, then the PM is doing that supposedly Blairish thing of name-checking the wife in a spurious context, but reacting like any husband whose feckless chum has given him marital gyp. The satiric barb loses its point.

The substitution of "Valerie" for Cherie, although under- standable on libel grounds, contributes to the double vision that besets the reader throughout. Whenever the PM's press secretary - a small, nervous Welshman called Talfryn Williams - puts in an appearance, which is often, we know that it ought to be the very different figure of Alastair Campbell. The novel's inventions are not strong enough to displace their real-world counterparts.

We hear a good deal about Joanna's father, an army colonel who was killed at Goose Green by "some Argentinian waving a white flag" and was given a posthumous VC. By invoking the memory of the real Lt Col H Jones, this makes Joanna, in contrast, even less believable (not that she was remotely convincing to start with). Besides, Jones died in the heat of battle. Cartwright has awkwardly conflated him with Lt Jim Barry, who was later killed while attempting to parley. And Barry's death resulted from a misunderstanding, not Argentinian treachery.

Richard, meanwhile, spends a lot of time researching the life of his great-uncle Dick, an army vet who was with Baden-Powell in the siege of Mafeking. Baden-Powell's alleged vices are discussed, as is the suffering of horses in the Boer war, the relevance of which is never apparent. Cartwright is good at African scenes, and Richard's travels are handled well, which tends only to show up the British and Americans as so much cardboard.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up