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A humdinger of a first novel: Lord Vaizey reviews 'Whips'

Cleo Watson | Alamy

4 min read

Cleo Watson simultaneously skewers Westminster and also lets it off the hook

Cleo Watson certainly got the memo. Sex definitely sells. Her novel about the goings-on in contemporary Westminster opens with the secretary of state for the industrial economy, Natasha Weaver, in flagrante on her desk with an anonymous man, while simultaneously texting. It ends with a large sex aid being left on the desk of the political editor of a major newspaper. Luckily the author assures us that none of her characters have “been drawn from flesh or blood MPs or journalists”. Phew, that’s OK then. This is certainly one book where you don’t want to be checking the index for your name.

In between the opening and closing, as it were, there are plenty of other imaginative scenes. I am not sure I will ever again be able to watch a cabinet minister giving evidence to a select committee having been treated, if that is the right word, to the sight of the same Natasha Weaver answering questions while attached to a device controlled by her permanent secretary, sitting next to her. So much for civil service impartiality.

Cleo Watson – in case you have been living under a rock these last few weeks – is a former political aide. She began her political career working for Dominic Cummings on Vote Leave, moving on to join Theresa May in Downing Street, and ending it nannying Boris Johnson, who discarded her, as she puts it, like an old lamp after he had fallen out with his Rasputin. Given that career trajectory, it is hardly surprising her tome has a very – very – low opinion of MPs and their manoeuvrings.

The sound of scores being settled makes a wonderful backdrop to a rollicking read

The plot centres around three young women in their mid-twenties whose careers, in one way or another, depend on a conveyor belt of pretty uniformly middle-aged, toxic, profoundly unpleasant politicians and journalists of both sexes. Bobby works for Simon Daly MP, an unashamed and unprincipled careerist; Eva works for a saintly female prime minister being undermined by her colleagues and is the daughter of a shambolic ex-PM with a penchant for writing historical biographies; and Jess has her first rung on the ladder of an important political newspaper. 

The plot is obviously the least important part of the novel. It’s far more enjoyable to link the characters to well-known politicians – they are either carbon copies or an amalgam. It also seems to be a fairly accurate take on the absurd career manoeuvrings of far too many – mainly Conservative – politicians that we have seen play out endlessly since the political chaos following the Brexit vote. To emphasise their tawdry self-obsession, the author begins each chapter by highlighting imagined but serious events playing out at home and abroad.

The novel also highlights the toxic sexual culture that exists in Westminster, but from a somewhat unexpected angle. The three protagonists are, broadly speaking, in control. Although they are at times unwitting pawns in a greater political game, by and large the women control, exploit or outwit their political bosses as the plot unwinds. But I wonder whether Watson is right to substitute bawdiness and high jinks for a real examination of how the balance of power plays out in the exploitation of young staffers. While she skewers Westminster, she also lets it off the hook.

WhipsMy colleagues in the Lords will be pleased to know that the Upper House only makes a fleeting appearance, passing much needed and morally upstanding legislation. Those in ermine are quite rightly beyond reproach.

Cleo Watson has produced a humdinger of a first novel, and the sound of scores being settled makes a wonderful backdrop to a rollicking read. Our Prime Minister who it turns out is a Jilly Cooper fan-boy will be only too delighted to have this on his bedside table. 

Lord Vaizey is a Conservative peer

Whips
By: Cleo Watson
Publisher: Corsair

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