Orange-tinted specs

The Prime Minister's Wife

Susan Crosland <em>Robson Books, 233pp, £16.95</em>

ISBN 186105386X

Journalists, politicians, novels: a familiar triangle of cheap shots, stale caricatures and easy points. But, as with every genre, there are political novels, even ones by journalists, that rise above the ordinary. Of this latest pair, one does and one does not. Susan Crosland, the wife of the late Anthony Crosland, the Labour foreign secretary from 1976-77, has produced a very thin veil to drape across her latest novel, The Prime Minister's Wife. The central character, Luke Dalton, stabs his best friend in the back to become leader of the Democratic Labour Party. The friend, Robert Oakes, becomes a thoughtful, successful chancellor, but continues to brood on how the crown was snatched away from him. Dalton, as prime minister, spreads a big tent, dreams of becoming "a big colossus bestriding the word stage" as he gets involved in a Balkans conflict, and is heavily dependent on spin. Remind you of anyone?

In most of Crosland's characters, a role model springs to mind: the slightly lascivious elder statesman, the ruthless spin-doctor, the heroic, truth-seeking lefty journalist. Only the PM's wife has no basis in today's political reality. Blanche Winslow is a high-flying American journalist who interviews the rich and famous and composes weekly columns - very much like Crosland herself.

Crosland has three "airport" bestsellers to her credit. The Prime Minister's Wife may well prove to be her fourth - though more because it's a light, zippy holiday read than for any startling insights into new Labour. Some of the dialogue is distinctly hackneyed, such as when Thaddeus Spearman, the elder statesman, asks Dalton: "Does it ever give you an odd feeling to know your next-door neighbour would love to see you stub your toe so badly that a leadership election would be called?" The few longeurs in the book occur when one or other of Crosland's characters start to philosophise about the corrupting nature of power or the limits of international law.

However, Crosland does hit the spot when focusing on the obsessive nature of politics - which turns the attractive and decent Luke Dalton of his youth into a power-crazed autocrat and a turn-off for his wife. This theme is similarly explored by the former BBC political editor John Cole in A Clouded Peace. Cole's hero, Alan Houston, leaves journalism to take on the role of special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office, and becomes a bigger player in the Ulster troubles than he had bargained for.

Houston, like Crosland's Luke Dalton, single-mindedly pursues his career at the expense of his family. Cole has set his novel in his native Ulster, at a time when the British government is trying to kick-start the peace talks. Through his well-drawn characters Cole reveals, if not contempt for politicians and civil servants, at least despair of their degree of competence and their motives.

In the past, Cole has been accused of viewing the troubles in Northern Ireland through orange-tinted spectacles, and this book has provoked a furious reaction from some quarters for being a unionist tract. It is true that the IRA volunteers, who target Houston's young son, are portrayed by Cole as ruthless in the extreme, but one of them is a far more appealing character than any of the arrogant, remote civil servants or the bigoted unionist leaders.

Cole delights in having a pop at his colleagues in the broadcast media and the press. He writes of the London press that "the truth came in 57 varieties, and the sneaky word 'may' appeared in most headlines". In general, his experience in the world of politics and broadcasting shines through - both the characters and the dialogue are authentic. A Clouded Peace has a page-turning plot, and shows that even at the age of 70, which Cole has now reached, it is not too late to write a successful first novel. A good buy? Hondootedly.

Jackie Ashley is political editor of the NS

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, We Tories must change, or face eternal oblivion