Review

Diary of an MP's Wife by Sasha Swire review: the most stylish political diaries since Alan Clark

5/5

This waspish insider account of the past decade in politics is also profoundly depressing – for what it says about the people who govern us

Sasha Swire, wife of the MP Hugo Swire
Sasha Swire, wife of the MP Hugo Swire Credit: Rockrose

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.

Sasha Swire Credit: Rockrose

It is too late now to damage Cameron with any of her observations of him. An already oft-quoted remark about how he asked her to walk behind him on a coastal path because the smell of her scent was inspiring carnal impulses in him is in keeping with the comic tone of much of the book; and the accounts of the shallowness, arrogance and smugness of the Cameron regime are hardly surprising. Although she appears to have attempted not to do so, she makes George Osborne seem utterly revolting. She suggests Matt Hancock’s principal role in government is to warm the prime minister’s lavatory seat. And talking of Boris Johnson, one of a number of good jokes is how he bottled out of a televised leadership debate in 2019 because it was Father’s Day "and he must have had a lot of house calls to make".

But the real casualty of her pen is Michael Gove. An arrival from Mars who read this book would conclude that Gove was highly intelligent and assiduous but also shifty, unscrupulous, disloyal, devious, a toady and driven by a wife who is a cross between Lady Macbeth and Mrs Bridges from Upstairs, Downstairs. Almost the only nice thing Lady Swire says about him (and one intuits that she lacks first-hand knowledge) concerns the alleged size of what the tabloid press calls "his manhood". And although Amber Rudd, unlike Gove, is in the political cemetery, one wonders what Rudd – who Lady Swire says has been a friend since they were 18 – makes of the dissection of her own personal ideological acrobatics over Brexit.

One senses the Swires were never entirely at home in the Cameron gang – she mocks a businessman who laments being unable to break into the Chipping Norton set for not seeing how "uncool" Dave and that crowd were – and something of a breach comes with her eventual acceptance of Brexit: she is glad to get it done and derides friends such as Rudd who just won’t accept that they have lost.

For much of the diaries one recalls that the recent political past really is a nightmare from which one is trying to escape, as people one wishes one never had to hear of again trot in and out of the pages, parading their egos, acting like bad children and throwing sulk after sulk. The notion of public service – what Cameron and his chums liked to create the impression they were in the game for – rarely gets a look in.

So although these diaries are highly readable and entertaining they are also profoundly depressing, for what they say, with remarkable candour, about the sort of people who now govern us. The millions of British people convinced that believing in nothing and having an ability to lie through one’s teeth are the prerequisites for a political career today would not have their minds changed by reading this book. If we have the politicians we deserve we must be an appalling people. However, there have been no political diaries to match the insightfulness and style of these since Alan Clark’s and, like his, they will become an essential point of reference for those who wish to understand the politics of the age they describe.    

Diary of an MP's Wife by Sasha Swire is published by Little, Brown at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books