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9 October 2014

Witty and wicked: Andrew Marr’s revealing political thriller

What makes Head of State worth reading is that it is Marr unbuttoned. The cloak of fiction allows him to express his view of his world in the way he used to when chatting to his fellow hacks, waiting to go live from Downing Street.

By Adam Boulton

Head of State

Andrew Marr

Fourth Estate, 369pp, £18.99

Andrew Marr is a marvel. In January 2013 he suffered a debilitating stroke while overdoing it on a rowing machine. But he quickly resumed his career as the BBC successor to David Frost on Sunday mornings. He has continued to produce TV documentaries, especially those linked to the independence campaign in his native Scotland. He wrote a book about his hobby of drawing, and is back on the radio with Start the Week.

Now, with Head of State, he adds novelist to his accomplishments. He does not consider his fiction to be far from his “trade”. “I had long wanted to write a political satire that would help to lift the lid on how aspects of government and the media really worked in a way that’s not possible in conventional journalism,” he states teasingly in a preface.

The plot can take care of itself – there is no need for spoiler alerts. Marr himself seems to have taken it rather for granted because it was given to him off-the-peg by someone else: the charming PR guru and Conservative working peer Peter Chadlington. The story is one that you might expect to fascinate someone from Chadlington’s profession: is it possible to cover up a deadly secret at the heart of government, especially at a time of great national tension? The answer is no, which is just as well, otherwise there would not have been much of a story.

What makes Head of State worth reading is that it is Marr unbuttoned. The cloak of fiction allows him to express his view of his world, from Fleet Street to Westminster, in the witty and wicked way that he used to when chatting to his fellow hacks, waiting to go live from Downing Street.

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Marr researched the floor plan of No 10 with help from David Cameron. He is an author who can state with personal authority of a particular room: “Gordon Brown had held some surprisingly convivial suppers there, but during the Cameron years it had been largely forgotten.” The book gives walk-on roles to Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, and Jo Johnson MP, while always safely skirting libel territory. The half-Scottish David McAllister has become chancellor of Germany. The US president is a woman. The king says “thingy” and sends letters to ministers in spidery handwriting but is never named as Charles III.

Fraser Nelson, the Spectator editor, has become the Downing Street media chief Nelson Fraser; “going on Marr” is one of the strategies he considers. Evidently scores are being settled – why else would the editor of the New Statesman be metamorphosed into a model of car: “a Jason Cowley . . . slick, tinny and noisy”? Marr’s Sunday Sky News rival Dermot Murnaghan gets the key interview, but only once it has been downgraded to a phone-in.

The main characters are parodies of types you might find in the green room at the Hay Festival. Theresa May, Molly Parkin, General Sir Mike Jackson and Matthew Freud might all read the book with interest. Amanda Andrews, the prime minister’s gatekeeper, shares long legs, “a gravelly, mischievous smoker’s voice” and colonial parentage with Anji Hunter, who did the job for Tony Blair (and to whom I am now married).

The novel is set in 2017 in the week of an in-out referendum on the EU, overseen by an unspecified, but indisputably Conservative government that followed the Cameron and “short-lived” Boris governments. Prime Minister William Stevenson shares two names with A W S Marr, his begetter, and a Weltanschauung. Stevenson wants “to steer the poor old British people deftly between the two disasters . . . the economically illiterate socialist Scylla and the saloon bar nationalist Charybdis”. Later, in his authorial voice, Marr shows sympathetic understanding of the Eurosceptic cause: “There would be less money about, it was true. But all that money sloshing around in the old days hadn’t made Britain happier or more useful, had it? Now they had the chance of a new start.”

Marr writes about the decline of newspapers in a similarly elegiac tone. Here his alter ego is Ken Cooper, an editor who still drinks at lunchtime and uses the “F” word. His journalists are feeling the pressure from “Witter”. Tweely, they prefer to communicate by notes left in little-read tomes on the shelves of the London Library. If all this sounds cosy, it is, although Marr’s characters can suddenly develop homicidal tendencies to drive the plot. His satire is soft, bordering on a wistful celebration of privileged worlds that he knows well.

On the last two pages some surviving characters propose writing a book about what they know. One of them has discussed it with Marr’s literary agent, Ed Victor. The news is good: “He says it will make our fortune, darling.” “Make it a novel. Much more fun,” a knowing literary type replies.

Adam Boulton is the political editor of Sky News