The road to Westminster

Number Ten

Sue Townsend <em>Michael Joseph, 336pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 071814368X

The Tories, Gawd bless'em, have always made better fiction than they have governments. Springing off the top of the wardrobe . . . er, sorry, springing to mind, come Eggwina's literary fantasies about whipped cream, chief whips and strawberries, plus the gloriously gripping House of Cards TV series featuring the fabulously Machiavellian Francis Uruqhart. Labour never lent itself to drama in quite the same way - not evil enough, too many scruples, not sexy enough - until, perhaps, now.

Yet even now, despite Britain being in the grip of principle-free maniacs prepared to do anything to maintain their position (and that's just the royals), the creative stasis persists. New Labour remains apparently impervious to satire, as five minutes of BBC1's The Project beautifully illustrated. One reason for this is that Labour's greatest demonstrable sin always has to be lack of political ideals rather than lack of marital fidelity/financial probity/ability to refuse class-A narcotics, all of which routinely spice up Tory villains.

Number Ten, Sue Townsend's attempt to redress the fictional balance and tilt at the Labour windmill, is the story of two men; new Labour Prime Minister Edward Clare (Tony Blair, geddit?) and Jack Sprat, the No 10 policeman. After a particularly toe-curling performance at PMQs, Clare, on whom the burdens of office are weighing heavily, decides to go on holiday. His jaunt of choice is a tour of the nation with man-of-the-people Sprat as guide and guardian. Together with Pakistani cab driver Ali, Clare and Sprat tour the housing estates, church halls and small businesses of Britain, ending up at that other No 10 in Jack Sprat's life, the Leicester terrace home of his mother, Norma.

On the road, they meet an array of characters representing contemporary Britain, from Toyota, a slatternly housing estate mother to the appalling Bostocks, entrepreneurial theme-hotel owners who exploit asylum-seeking labour. As the story progresses, the central conceit emerges: Sprat, although merely the policeman at No 10 , is a far more committed socialist than the supposedly Labour prime minister, whose own teenage son, scouring his speeches for a homework project, is unable to find a single example of a genuine political conviction.

But if all this sounds dull and worthy, it isn't. There is, admittedly, a great deal of new Labour parody - the foul-mouthed prime ministerial spokesman, the Peter Mandelson figure who wants to change the party's name to the Party Party; the dour chancellor, Malcolm Black (Gordon Brown, geddit?) - but what really gives the story life is the supporting cast who have nothing to do with the rather two-dimensional Downing Streeters. Jack's blowsy mother is by turns poignant, feckless and hilarious; while her cleaner, James, initially polite and obliging, becomes horribly sinister and threatening as his crack habit takes over and he turns her house into a drug den. The ever-obliging Ali, meanwhile, is an Asian Sancho Panza to Edward Clare's cross-dressing (his on-the-road disguise) Don Quixote.

Critics of this book have said Townsend is no George Orwell. I must disagree. Most heart-rending of all the characters is Norma's little budgie, Peter, who one fears from the beginning is going to meet a sticky end. Having survived Norma's neglect and life in a Leicester crack den, Peter is adopted by the prime minister who promises to look after him. At No 10, Clare's over-educated, bleeding-heart-liberal family vote to give the bird the option of his freedom by opening his cage door for an hour a day. Peter's subsequent inevitable escape, and inevitable death at the hands of the Trafalgar Square pigeons, transcends any of the novel's more obvious satirical points. As allegorical left-hooks go, it's devastating and complete; this prime minister, it implies, reneges on promises and has no sense of responsibility for the humble and vulnerable in his care. Remind you of anyone?

Wendy Holden's latest novel is Fame Fatale (Headline)

This article first appeared in the 25 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, World at war