Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water: 'Diary of an MP's Wife, Inside and Outside Power'
David Cameron, 2016: 'Off-duty Dave' is the perfect portrait of a clever man who in private reverts to type as a country toff, writes Ed Vaizey | PA Images
Engaging, waspish and with a keen eye for detail, Sasha Swire makes for a perfect diarist, writes Lord Vaizey
Just when those of us who had left front-line politics thought it was safe to go back in the water, along come Sasha Swire’s diaries to bite you on the bottom. A fellow ex-MP told me about the tell-all memoirs over the summer. Literally an hour later a text from Sasha arrived. “My lawyers would like to send over the extracts from my diary in which you appear, for you to check their veracity.”
As it turns out, I get off rather lightly. In fact the diaries, of course billed as “explosive”, are relatively mild in terms of character assassination and the exposure of dark secrets. That does not make them any less compelling and entertaining. Lady Swire has a keen eye for detail and a waspish turn of phrase, which makes this door-stopper of a book (500 pages covering a decade) a real page-turner.
Much of the story is told via the anecdotes of Lady Swire’s hapless husband, Sir Hugo. Theirs is clearly a happy marriage and a meeting of minds, but this does not prevent Lady Swire turning Sir Hugo into a somewhat comical creation, as she gleefully recounts his various mishaps with sauces and faux-pas.
The nicknames given to others are priceless – Raab C. Brexit, Old Ma May, Rumpole
Sir Hugo and I have a lot in common. Middle-aged, public-school educated white men, who were close to the Camerons and the team that surrounded them. This did not help us reach the Cabinet. Instead, we bumped along somewhere in the middle, with access to the top but no real power or influence over events. Lady Swire captures well the joy of being in government, mixed with the frustration that inevitably comes when you realise that you have got as far as you will ever go.
If this was a play, the lucky producer would not need to cast too many actors. Lady Swire’s diaries illustrate just how tightly held power is at any one time. Apart from the Camerons, Osbornes and Goves, as well as Cameron’s advisers Ed Llewellyn and Kate Fall, most only get a walk-on part, which is how government tends to operate. As the inner circle fragments over Brexit, this helps you understand how a political disagreement became so toxic and has left such bitterness.
Lady Swire manages to secure a second act for her play. After the principal characters have shuffled off after Brexit, the Swires are able to engage with a new cast. Amber Rudd is an old family friend and, slightly bizarrely, Sir Hugo attaches himself to the leadership campaign of Dominic Raab. So we can continue somewhat at the centre of events until Sir Hugo finally leaves the Commons in 2019.
Lady Swire is the perfect diarist. One forgets that the best memoirs are not written by those at the apex of power – they are too concerned with their place in history, and justifying their decisions, right or wrong. Diaries written by the middle-rankers, close to power and acute observers, are much more engaging. Lady Swire deservedly takes her place alongside Alan Clark, Chips Channon and Julian Critchley.
Lady Swire captures people’s characters perfectly. Off-duty Dave is a perfect portrait of a clever man who in private reverts to type as a country toff. George Osborne has a permanent sneer. Michael Gove is constantly on manoeuvres. Kate Fall is endlessly exasperated. The nicknames given to others are priceless – Raab C. Brexit, Old Ma May, Rumpole.
Much criticism of the diaries has already been aired. I have one in particular – the bizarrely haphazard use of footnotes. Britain’s Got Talent gets one. Greg Barker does not. This is a missed opportunity for some potentially caustic or amusing pen portraits by the author. I hope it will get corrected for the (inevitable) paperback.
This was a shrewd commission by the publishers. Now we need a shrewd Fleet Street editor to hire Lady Swire as a columnist. If they don’t, they are missing the political hire of the year.
Lord Vaizey of Didcot is a Conservative Peer
Diary of an MP's Wife: Inside and Outside Power by Sasha Swire is published by Little, Brown