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22 November 2022

The instant political histories that nobody needs

Hasty biographies of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson by Westminster journalists show the perils of rushing to judge the recent past.

By Philip Collins

Imagine another world in which neither of these two books could have been written. Jeremy Hunt becomes prime minister in 2019. He takes a moderated version of Brexit through the House of Commons without the need to seek another mandate. There is no general election in 2019 and therefore no acceleration of the Labour recovery. In May 2022 Hunt beats Jeremy Corbyn comfortably in a general election and, six months later, he looks on as his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, delivers the Autumn Statement. Across the dispatch box the fledgling leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, contemplates the years ahead.

It may just be that the biggest strategic error the Conservative Party made was to choose Boris Johnson as its leader. Out of the Blue and The Fall of Boris Johnson are the chronicles of all that goes wrong.

Yet they are not, as the usual self-compliment has it, the first draft of history. They are the extended final draft of journalism. The two books together take us, in all the detail we would wish and quite a lot that we wouldn’t, from November 2021 to September 2022. They dispense between them with two Conservative prime ministers. Yet the overwhelming feeling is that they are both over-stuffed. Their authors unfailingly obey the clichés of the genre. “Over pheasant and Grand Marnier soufflé, the hacks plotted…” There are so many menus available that it’s tempting to put these books on the shelf alongside Delia and Nigella.

There is a substantive question here, which is one for the publishers. Is the genre of the instant history one that anybody needs? Commercially, they cannot make sense. In fact, they don’t sell many copies, although they do sell serialisation rights. So, they end up being sold back to the very newspapers that are the main source of the material found within them. They exist in a bubble.

Despite the grand claims made by well-meaning friends on the back covers they will not be pored over by historians. They will be soon dismissed because the standards for entry are so low. The methods of lobby journalism – anonymous briefing, dubious juxtaposition, an assumption that everything that happens must matter – are not those of historical writing. Even if the authors could avoid the clichés of their trade – which, sadly, they don’t – time has allowed no perspective on events. Without the natural process of forgetting on which history as a discipline depends, it’s just one damn thing after another. This is not intended as a dig at Sebastian Payne, Harry Cole or James Heale. It is not so much that either of these is a bad book in particular. It is more that these are bad books in general.

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Payne’s problem is that he cannot decide whether the fall of Boris Johnson is a tragedy or a thriller. He opens by asking whether Johnson’s demise was inevitable and then says that the answer lies in these pages. But if the demise of Boris Johnson was inevitable, because it was rooted in his character flaws that precede and will outlast the events in this book, then the answer does not lie in these pages. It lies in a psychological study that is not the book we have before us. If the demise was inevitable then the details are just the way it happened to play out. They are the occasion of his fall but they do not have the causal power that Payne repeatedly attributes to them.

[See also: Catherine Lacey’s biography that isn’t]

Though my own view is that this was a low-rent tragedy, the book would have been better written as a thriller because the chapter on Ukraine is the best by a country mile. In a book which contains an introduction called “Drinks at the Garrick Club” and a chapter called “Drinks at the Carlton Club” the pages on “Putin’s Move” stand out. They show Johnson at his considerable best. They also bring out the talent in Payne, who is no longer writing about what a Tory MP might have said to an anonymous aide who was a bit miffed. The Ukraine chapter is clear, well written and it all matters. It reads like it has landed from a better world.

It is clear that Payne doesn’t quite believe in his own project. By the epilogue he is still oscillating between tragedy and thriller. He concludes that “few anticipated just how chaotic it would be”. I’m afraid that simply isn’t true. That was, indeed, the principal objection to Johnson. Payne then fizzles out in a series of lengthy anonymous quotes and concludes lamely that Johnson’s fall was not inevitable although it was always quite likely.

Whether tragedy or thriller, the fall of Johnson heralded the single-act farce of Liz Truss and her comic sidekick Kwasi Kwarteng. Cole and Heale, Out of the Blue‘s co-authors, were the subjects of one of the better parliamentary gags of recent times when Starmer noted that the book was to be “out by Christmas” and asked whether that was the release date or the title. In fact Truss has the singular achievement of having ruined her own biography. With longer to write the book and less need for a hasty ending, this might have been a thoughtful study of what makes her tick. It’s hardly the fault of the authors that it isn’t.

The upshot of the collapse of the Truss premiership is that the book loses all balance. From 1975 to 2010 takes 85 pages and then we get almost three times as much from 2010 to the present. Truss and Kwarteng are pulling a fast one but are doing so very slowly. That is a shame because the early years are the most interesting. Truss is an intriguing young person, by turns awkward and emphatic, who rebelled against her Labour parents by joining the Liberal Democrats and didn’t do much work at Oxford, where she sounds like she was quite a good laugh. We see her going into work at Shell and Cable and Wireless, neither of which especially interested her, and then on to a free-market think tank and failed attempts to win seats in Hemsworth and the Calder Valley.

I suppose, at a pinch, it is possible to read the last two thirds of this book as a parable of the collapse of free-market thinking when applied to the real world. Yet that is a big question that will need more detailed study and thought than is possible at the moment. Truss’s story is one of arrogance and certainty mocked by the world. It is the tragic narrative of hubris and a fall. By the end of it, Cole and Heale had an unexpected effect on me. I began to feel sorry for this person whom I had rather liked in their first 80 pages. That is to their credit because their character had come alive. It is just a shame she couldn’t survive the writing of her own tale.

In the end, neither of these books is able to escape the limitations of the genre. Political reporting has become a discourse in which civil servants are always “shadowy” and reporters are always “tenacious”. Good politicians are always “the best of their generation” and bad politicians are always “defenestrated”. Everyone in these books departs office by the window. The question they leave is not about Johnson or Truss but about the broken relationship between politics and journalism.

Out of the Blue: The Inside Story of the Unexpected Rise and Rapid Fall of Liz Truss
by Harry Cole and James Heale
HarperCollins, 336pp, £20

The Fall of Boris Johnson: The Full Story
by Sebastian Payne
Macmillan, 288pp, £16.99

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[See also: Brexit is back. Will it help or hinder Rishi Sunak?]

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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince