Pilgrim's progress

Innocent in the House

Andy McSmith <em>Verso, 311pp, £13</em>

ISBN 1859846432

It is the year 1997. A keen, fresh administration has been returned to power. Young Mr Pilgrim, recently elected, has expressed dissent. He is about to be carpeted. As they trail upstairs to the ministers' corridor, his escort begins to sing to himself. The tune is "John Brown's Body". The first words have just been spoken by the Speaker: "Oh, the Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the day./Yes, the Clerk proceeds to read the fucking Orders of the day./All the fucking Orders that the Clerk proceeds today/Can all get fucking stuffed."

We are in the hands of a Westminster insider. Andy McSmith has come a long way as a lobby correspondent since the morning in November 1990 when he approached a Tory whip, Tristan Garel-Jones, and asked him what was happening in the leadership crisis. Garel-Jones, by his own account the most Machiavellian of characters, shrugged. "Haven't the foggiest," he answered. That very evening, a group of anti-Thatcher conspirators met over dinner at his home, where they plotted her demise; within days she was out. McSmith had learnt his lesson.

This is his first novel; he should have started long ago. His background as a Labour press officer, then working for the Mirror, the Observer and now the Daily Telegraph, makes him uniquely qualified to write about the shenanigans, cruelties and hypocrisies of the political world. The story is a modern Pilgrim's Progress, with Joseph Pilgrim, like many of his contemporaries, unexpectedly successful at the hustings and thereby flung into the sophisticated maelstrom of a new Labour parliament. His troubles begin when he comes up on the Order Paper for Prime Minister's Questions, then forgets the planted item he was supposed to ask and instead burbles on about history, the past and the future. This is taken as a sign of originality and rebelliousness. A warning from a friendly Tory prevents him admitting that it was a mere mistake. Never apologise, never explain: the worst fate is to be thought a fool.

Pilgrim is thus a celebrity, and a target for the press. His past begins to haunt him. He admits to infidelity on late-night radio, his wife throws him out, he is pursued by lunatic constituents and a mentally ill criminal who is intent on GBH (at the least). The tale is somewhat clunky - three women suffering broken jaws and two being killed by lorries puts quite a strain on coincidence. And if it all comes out well in the end, that doesn't matter. The plot is not the main element that should detain us.

The themes of manipulation by spin-doctors (who is the unpleasant cocaine-sniffing Gerald - one person, or dozens?) and resistance to the bullying whips are familiar and timely. The innocent abroad - bumbling through, trying to retain his integrity - is not unrealistic. I enjoyed the description of Pilgrim's earlier life in a Marxist-feminist commune. The petty jealousies, the rages, the pointless arguments fuelled by alcohol or a joint followed by unsatisfactory sex, all while Margaret Thatcher ruled the roost unchallenged, will evoke sighs of recognition from others. Tempus fugit.

At the Cheltenham Literary Festival last month, we discussed the dangers of portraying real individuals in political novels. In my experience, those who think they're in our pages are thrilled (they're often wrong, but that's vanity for you). There are many neat pen-portraits here to entertain the aficionado. Peter Mandelson won't object to his "walking with long feline strides, head tilted to one side . . . " and having a memory like Encarta.

One celebrated cabinet minister "could hardly have looked less like the occupant of high office. She was dressed in a cheap- looking overcoat, fur boots and a pompom hat . . . " Mo Mowlam phoned McSmith as the book came out and expressed her disgust. As the author wondered what to offer in his defence, there was a moment's silence. Then a peal of laughter came down the line. Mowlam, like many of our targets, was delighted.

Edwina Currie's latest novel is This Honourable House (Little, Brown, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The Empire strikes back