I felt a scintilla of pity for David Cameron plugging the paperback of his memoirs in recent weeks. In his eager, smoothie-chops interviews, he cradled the hope that enough time had passed and the current government was so dreadful that he might surf a ripple of coalition nostalgia. Oh, remember Nick and Dave in the rose garden; lovely Sam; all so courteous and collegiate in those halcyon pre-culture wars days…
Yet not only does Cameron remain solidly unforgiven, but up popped a book to make his No 10 tenure look worse than we ever thought. I recommend Sasha Swire’s diaries to my jaded fellow centrists. Like a chili pepper inserted into a racehorse’s anus, this book is guaranteed to get your class war dander up.
At a dinner party in 2011, I met a woman related to a key player in Swire’s book who said she fancied being an MP and Dave was going to get her on the candidate list. I asked if she’d always been interested in politics. “Not really,” she shrugged. Was she driven by a particular cause? “No,” she said, “I just think it would be a fun thing to do next.” Flabbergasted by her insouciance and entitlement, I spent the rest of the evening in silent rage. But that’s the thing about being on the left: we tend to forget not everyone’s politics are powered by injustice or even a basic altruistic desire. Some people just want a nice job.
Sasha Swire’s book begins after the 2010 election when her Tory MP husband Hugo gets a pretty nice job. He’s made Northern Ireland minister, so the Swires get to live in Hillsborough Castle with a butler and a gazillion rooms. Although they have to share it with Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State, whose wife pinches the Swires’s curtains and replaces them with ghastly chintz. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg and George Osborne, who have even nicer jobs, fight over who gets Dorneywood House, the latter driving down to plant his toothbrush so Cleggers has to share Chevening with William Hague. No doubt New Labour thrilled over grace and favour furbelows too. Indeed, Swire notes the Dorneywood guest book brims with John Prescott’s family jokes about Jags. But the Cameroons treated government like a luxury holiday villa, with couples vying for the best room.
Swire is not unaware of the failings of her clique. “The closeness of this circle is unprecedented,” she writes. “They are all here… intimately interlocked, some from university days, some from the research unit… We text each other bypassing the civil servants… This is a very particular, narrow tribe of Britain and their hangers-on. It’s enough to repulse the ordinary man.”
Not that the “ordinary man” enters the Swire sphere. Rather, it is peopled with the extraordinarily rich, like the Rothermeres: Claudia in her Jilly Cooper heroine white jodhpurs striding around their flawless country house, surrounded on all sides by land bought to protect their privacy, except for one unobtainable hill. Or the eccentric oligarch Evgeny Lebedev who, having bought himself into the inner-most establishment, seems not to know what he wants from it. He chats about the Bolshoi and obsesses about honey produced in the Swire hives, getting flunkies to email for more jars.
The first half of the book is the more entertaining since Sasha is inside the power tent, squirrelling away anecdotes so ten years later she can piss in on her friends. The post-referendum second half revolves around “Old Ma May” (as Swire calls the new PM), so material is gleaned from gossip rather than witnessed, and mainly concerns the Brexit machinations which, like the plot of Game of Thrones, I once followed avidly but now can’t bear to think about at all.
Brexit is the only political issue ever mentioned, since it affects the allocation of the nice jobs. A cameo from Rachel Johnson, furious about plans to privatise the Forestry Commission, is an exception. (Sasha mocks her conviction.) Having just read Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s book Left Out, I kept thinking: well, Project Corbyn harboured anti-Semites, was creepily pro-Putin, authoritarian, crank-ridden and tragically incompetent, but it saw politics as a mechanism to improve the world. It believed in things.
At the height of austerity, as libraries closed and benefits froze, you might think Tories on Polzeath beach or hiking in the hills near Chequers might fleetingly discuss the impact of their policies. Once, Swire remarks to Cameron that “women are at the coalface of the cuts” and he mutters a bit. But mainly Dave is enjoying nursery food and fixating on Keira Knightley’s nipples in Atonement. After Gaddafi falls in Libya, DC is childishly ebullient: “What more do I want? A great day on the beach, I’m with my old friends the Swires and I’ve just won a war.”
Yet besides her sharp eye for backstage detail, Swire has a shrewd political mind – she is, after all, a Tory thoroughbred, the daughter of Thatcher’s defence minister John Nott. (“Sir John”, as she always calls him, bemoaning he was never ennobled.) She finds the Cameroons obsessed with branding over substance, moving MPs around the government chessboard according to shallow criteria such as “good back story”, “woman”, “ethnic” or “good on TV”, rather than how well they’ll fulfil a ministerial brief. This, she believes, is why Hugo – although “brilliant”, as Osborne puts it, at “swanking around the embassies” – never gets a position in the cabinet. Too male, white and posh to offset the PM.
Swire is best at portraying the trials and dilemmas of a modern political wife. She stands outside her kitchen window alone in the dark, looking in at Hugo bent over his red box: “Our marriage is in a difficult place. I barely see him any more.” After some unexplained crisis, she rings the Camerons, who give her sanctuary at Chequers, while Dave bollocks Hugo on the phone.
Her generation of professional women thought they’d escaped being unpaid constituency dinner plus-ones. But such are the demands of political life that they must choose between tagging along or never seeing their husbands at all. What, asks Swire, should these women do, being “deeply involved but [having] no official status. Do we play submissive? Do we play supportive? Do we get lippy?”
Frances Osborne has to be cajoled into living in Downing Street, ignores Dorneywood visitors, and when George declares he’s going to hold a birthday party, says: “What on earth for? It will be just like you having a wedding to yourself.” Sam Cam and Sarah Vine, Michael Gove’s wife, bond over babies and share school runs, but their husbands’ hierarchy always defines their relationship: Sarah toils over fish pie for a Downing Street do, while Sam titivates upstairs. When Gove backs Brexit, not only he but Sarah and their children are banished forever from the Cameron house. These political break-ups are infused with real human hurt.
Sasha, who worked as Hugo’s assistant (before family members were forbidden to do so), is both supportive and lippy. She insists on being driven home after an official function while Hugo goes off to vote, although this breaks ministerial rules. “Do they really expect me to find my own way, in a long dress and painful heels, to… sit next to some Godawful bore,” she rants, “pay for the taxi to get there, and then get left stranded on some dark corner trying to find a non-existent taxi home.” Her predicament evokes both sympathy and disdain.
Much has been said about how gleefully Swire has dobbed on her mates, how no one will speak to her ever again. But she is careful about her proper friends – like Amber Rudd and Cameron’s adviser Kate Fall – and you suspect she never really liked the rest. Especially Dave, who, as with her husband, can’t overcome his upbringing and education to see women as equal minds. She sneers at his downward tumble out of power into podgy, golf-playing, stay-at-home dad, now just second banana to fashion designer Sam.
Crucially, she notes he is so bored writing his memoir that he simply speaks it into a Dictaphone, with no care for its literary merit. Was this the catalyst for Swire – a former journalist who writes very well, not just on politics, but about marriage, social mores and the English countryside – to publish her diaries? A political era is too often defined by cautious male dullards. About time sharp, funny, indiscreet women had a go.
Janice Turner writes for the Times
Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power
Little, Brown, 544pp, £20
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union