Maybe all you need is a diversion when the headlines are still haunted by the spectre of a prime minister felled by Covid beer parties. When everything else is so depressing—a summer with the possibilities of food queues, boats of immigrants swarming British shores, and Labour further climbing up popularity charts—the so-called shambolic blond, defying the best efforts of political exorcism, alone can provide the necessary media frisson. What the investigators, still counting the empty bottles of Downing Street Garden, want are the WhatsApp messages of Boris Johnson when he was prime minister. Political theatre, even if it’s not of Shakespearean proportions, is incomplete without a ghost at the banquet, which is hardly cheerful. The best thing that Johnson’s successor said in recent times was not about the political wars, from which his former boss won’t disappear, but the culture wars. It was indeed daring of Rishi Sunak to come to the defence of the gender-critical philosopher Kathleen Stock, who had lost her university job in the woke swirl, when her Oxford Union speech was threatened by trans activists. Sunak defended free speech: “We mustn’t allow a small but vocal few to shut down discussion,” he told The Daily Telegraph. Straying from the convention of neutrality that high offices of politics follow in culture wars, Sunak showed thought controllers on the progressive left that nothing is beyond an argument. It is interventions such as these, and not the proposed socialist price caps on essential food items, that make him an appealing Conservative now.
If you still need a diversion, Cleo Watson, who was Boris Johnson’s deputy chief of staff, has written a novel worthy of the people it intends to mock. In close to 400 pages of prose as pacy as a Dan Brown, if only you can picture him as the author of a bonkbuster set in medieval cathedrals, Watson, nicknamed Johnson’s Downing Street nanny, has built a lurid allegory of Conservative power struggle in which, to use a pun befitting her imagination, bodice politics is laid bare. Take these from Whips (Corsair):
It’s 11 PM, and in the House of Commons, in an MP’s office “dimly lit by a single lozenge-shaped green lamp,” on a large leather-bound desk, amidst documents, Natasha Weaver, secretary of state for the industrial economy, and a “perfect example of the modern politician’s failure to fall within the Venn diagram of self-belief and self-awareness,” is lying on her back, gossiping with journalists or sending instructions to her advisers on WhatsApp, and her companion sitting at her feet is irritated by her texting, to which she replies, still busy on her phone, “Look, I’m pretty short on time so you can just shove it in dry if you want.”
At Chequers, the British prime minister’s grace and favour home in the countryside, the beleaguered incumbent with an intended resemblance to Theresa May is hosting a life-saving party for her MPs. She wants to turn the vote on her China trade deal bill into a vote of confidence. While champagne and bitchy camaraderie flow in the garden, one young MP with a guaranteed position in the next Cabinet takes his friend’s wife, a mother of four, upstairs—it’s as if the edifices of political Britain, whether it is Downing Street or Parliament House or the prime minister’s country retreat, are tailor-made for intrigues not just political. “In the grounds down below, the party in full swing, one of the PM’s protection officers nudges his colleague in the ribs and inclines his head at an upstairs stained glass window, where the imprint of a pair of pale bum cheeks is undulating against the glass for anyone to see—if the guests cared to look up from their involved conversations.”
Whips is set in the dying days of a prime minister, and it’s populated with types drawn from yesterday’s headlines. Among them a minister exchanging coded messages with a businessman awarded with a lucrative rail contract and whose hospitality he has taken during a Caribbean visit; smooth toffs, aided by media-savvy wives with glowing skin and aides tutored in the dark arts of politics; and political hacks kept on sexual tenterhooks by upstarts. Three young women—a Downing Street adviser the author herself can easily identify with, a reporter working under a veteran hack (a bike ride she gives him becomes a sexual comedy of errors), and an aide to a priapic MP. They keep the moral flame, while everyone else, maybe except for the outgoing prime minister and her dog, is at play. Insiders may look in Watson’s pages for matching figures in real life, and some are easily identifiable. Like this one: “A former prime minister, rollicking around the after-dinner speaking circuit leaving women, towering debts and empty bottles behind him, is only too happy to mix the private with the public. He makes his living off poorly researched hagiographies of his favourite historical figures and GQ, Playboy and Telegraph columns that depend on his back catalogue of risqué anecdotes to capture the growing mass of readers who so enjoy his witty takes on navigating Pornhub categories as a silver surfer.”
In the insider’s bonkbuster, power struggle in a Conservative Party controlled by testosterone-driven toffs with minimum scruples is a sleaze opera. Still, Whips is not a peep-hole view of realpolitik as played out in a democracy with an overwhelming sense of transparency and silliness. It tries hard to make the cool Conservative look uncool. In Watson’s craft, they chase power only to be caught with their pants down. The sexual content of English political scandals is a familiar territory, but Watson doesn’t make a hoary tradition the prime mover of her novel. With a mischievous brio that outmatches her narrative flair, she may have updated Yes Minister as Sex Minister. And it may have the life of an English summer.