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24 May 2023

An insider’s tale of Tory chaos

Whips, a parliamentary romp by the former No 10 adviser Cleo Watson, is fact barely disguised as fiction.

By Sasha Swire

Although Whips is not strictly speaking an artificial intelligence novel, it is the product of a kind of intelligence that relies on harvesting data from various sources – in this case the uncredited and flawed members of an entire generation of Conservative politicians. The wholesale appropriation of a party’s culture in all its weirdness.

Cleo Watson served as Boris Johnson’s co-deputy chief of staff in No 10. In her author’s note she issues a disclaimer that her characters are not based on real people, but she is being slightly disingenuous. Rather like a sausage stuffer she has taken a reservoir, a filling tube, and a pressure plate. She has filled that same reservoir with a varied selection of different meats, and spice – and I mean lots of spice – before slowly forcing the meats into separate casings to create her characters.

Let me tell you, I know these people and many of them are very much here and present, if a bit jumbled up. This book is the literary equivalent of reading stolen property. We have the politically ambitious wife with a direct line into the top hacks. A “babbling like a f**kwit” education secretary. A female prime minister pulling swords out of her back. An oversexed female cabinet minister (bet you want to know who she is). An ex-serviceman who wants to be prime minister. Politicians’ relations who want gongs. The clever, thrusting Spads, forever obsessing about power: who has it, who wants it, who should have it taken away. And mostly, will they keep theirs? Aimless ex-prime ministers loiter around menacingly, trying to stay relevant. Or is that something borrowed from the other mob? There is only one glaring and somewhat surprising omission by our author tricoteuse, and that is a Machiavellian chancellor of the Exchequer.

[See also: Westminster is broken]

Watson has made that neat dodge, opting to dress up her work as fiction instead of publishing fact, not only because she’s a decent egg, but also presumably because she wanted to avoid the Cabinet Office and its big, bold, black redactive pens. But make no mistake, everything in here is real. It has happened, is about to happen, shouldn’t have happened, and will happen again when the sausages are replaced by lentils – by lentils I mean Labour’s earnest, self-professed, do-gooders. Because all of Westminster is but a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they all have their calamitous exits and their exciting entrances, and what happens between is just a vortex of chaos.

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The book is basically a Jilly Cooper-style canter around that Westminster arena, with lots of lashes and quivering naked buttocks pressed against windows for others to view. (Watson, I’m told, is quite horsey, hence the interest in whips and jumping hurdles.) And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just not a book for me. I’m no longer a Merry Wife of Westminster; I’m so over staring into its dark heart: all the cock-ups, the coyote-like ambitions, tip-toeing around the rat traps laid by the hacks, the kink. But for political obsessives, I’m sure this Westminster romp will more than satisfy.

I don’t even need to relay the plot, as everyone pretty much knows it already, except that this political storm whirls around three fictional female university friends: local campaigner Bobby Cliveden; Jess, a new lobby journalist; and Eva, a junior Downing Street adviser. Eva is too well drawn for us not to think she is based on Watson herself, who, when working in No 10, was labelled “the Gazelle” because of her rangy limbs and good looks. The author even “nannied” Johnson during lockdown. In a Tatler article last year she described barricading him into his office with a “puppy gate” when he was isolating and checking his temperature. Not one to lose a good slapstick opportunity, Johnson “dutifully feigned bending over”.

Gazelles feed in open grassland. This makes them prone to attack from a number of predators, such as cheaters (I mean cheetahs), liars (I mean lions) and wild dogs. It is why they remain highly alert and sensitive to what is going on around them. If they are smart and adaptive it is because there is much more to them than being on a big cat’s menu. Gazelles play a different game. A long one. As do all women in and around politics, across all parties. As do Watson’s lead female characters. As Watson is now doing herself.

If only she was brave enough to come out from behind the bushes and write it in diary form.

“Diary of an MP’s Wife” by Sasha Swire is published by Abacus

Cleo Watson
Corsair, 400pp, £20

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[See also: Europe’s false dawn]

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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up