Since extracts from Sasha Swire’s political diary of the last ten years were published last week, various politicians dead and alive – well, usually just metaphorically dead – have been dragged out of their crypts and corners to endure varying degrees of ritual humiliation. We have heard about David Cameron’s smugness and lechery; about Michael Gove’s treachery; George Osborne’s incompetence; Theresa May’s impersonation of a zombie; Boris Johnson’s mendacity; and Amber Rudd’s apparently terminal lack of grip.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss these diaries as just another exercise in score-settling in the freak show called Westminster, enabling the British public to engage in one of its favourite pastimes, namely loathing and belittling the political class. Lady Swire, wife of Sir Hugo Swire, former MP for East Devon and from 2010 to 2016 a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office and Foreign Office, is a cut above that. She actually has literary ability, a quality that manifests itself in the colour with which she describes the show and the freaks within it.
"It’s the politics of PR, not the politics of serious government," she says, of Cameron and Osborne. "From one conversation to the next I hear them move their players around the chess board, thinking they are oh so clever by placing him here or her there, often without any knowledge of how they will perform, when half the time they are dismissing a whole generation of MPs, mostly men, who do not tick their cosy boxes and who are often more capable and experienced."
Lady Swire was schooled in politics before she married into it. He father is Sir John Nott, the former defence secretary. To say she had no illusions about the business even before she became an MP’s wife would be something of an understatement. Full disclosure: I have known her for about 25 years, and her husband for even longer. In the diaries, she reports her husband’s perception that I arrived for a trip to the Falkland Islands "all tweeded up, looking like a prosperous bookie on his way to a stalking holiday in Scotland in the 1850s", which I entirely forgive, not least because it was true. Others may find her observations of them harder to swallow. To an extent all published diaries are a betrayal, and these are unlikely to be regarded as an exception.
They start in May 2010 and the formation of the coalition government. Swire and Cameron were old friends, and Swire had been one of his cheerleaders during his leadership campaign in 2005. The diaries start after "Dave" had fired him from the shadow cabinet, where he was culture spokesman, apparently for the offence of being one Old Etonian too many. Lady Swire has forgiven but not forgotten, and indeed makes it quite clear throughout that she is very fond of "Dave" – even to the extent at the end of proclaiming that she wishes she had had an affair with him. However, over the six years he is in Downing Street she does not mince her words, and there are understandable sour grapes that her husband loiters in the middle ranks while people she views as less able find their way into the cabinet.