Tory wife’s diary reveals all about the party
“….the more one reads of the world of Mrs Swire, the more inevitable the subsequent collapse of British politics starts to seem. How were they supposed to end, those years of government by about eight smug, aloof, and slightly aimless people who were only bothering because they didn’t have anything better to do? …..”
[Owl finds the extracts themselves rather boring and repetitive unless you like descriptions of endless dinner parties but the reviews are interesting]
Hugo Rifkind www.thetimes.co.uk
It’s obviously simplistic to conflate political projects with cliques, but it can be helpful, too. Particularly when you’re trying to figure out why people hate each other so much.
In many respects, for example, the Blair government was best understood as a club of Islington lawyers who had had enough of left-wing politics being dominated by whiffy old men with bundles of pamphlets in plastic bags. And then, later on, the Corbyn movement was dominated by those same whiffy old men, often also from Islington, and often also with the same pamphlets, who were still very cross about it.
Similarly, over on the other side, the Cameron government was a bunch of chummy, middlebrow chaps from glamorous public schools, and the Brexiters who usurped them were a bunch of resentful middlebrow chaps from slightly less glamorous public schools, who the first lot had never once had over for a weekend in the Cotswolds. Caricature? Of course. But not, I think, untrue.
The memoirs of Sasha Swire, serialised in The Times this week, offer the sort of perspective into the Cameron tribe we could only otherwise have got with a periscope punching up through an unspeakably expensive kitchen island. She is the wife of the former Tory Foreign Office minister Sir Hugo Swire, and the daughter of a former Tory defence secretary, and she is tall and blonde and rich and glamorous, and seems to convey the very essence of being a very particular sort of Tory. As in, you know the sort of Tory that Ruth Davidson is? That Theresa May is, and John Major is? Well, not that sort. No.
Like all the best memoirists, Swire seems to understand her own life with the perfect mix of insight and a complete lack of it. For the latter, I offer you the bit in Decca Aitkenhead’s interview in The Sunday Times, where Swire mused that her husband should have been foreign secretary, or at least international development secretary, because he had Etonian charm and “knows all the countries”. What, all of them? Get you, Mr Google.
For the former, though, ponder her epiphany, in yesterday’s extract, at the Cameron’s Notting Hill Christmas party. “Poor old Sarah Gove” is there, apparently doing the catering, and our author has a flash of being “in the court of King David”. It is, she writes, “a very particular, narrow tribe of Britain and their hangers-on” and “enough to repulse the ordinary man”. I’m not sure which ordinary man. Maybe her gardener.
Fifteen years after it began and four years after it so abruptly ended, there remains something enigmatic about the Cameron project. One looks back, still, and one is not quite sure what it was for. Asked why he wanted to be PM, Cameron famously replied “because I think I’d be good at it”. It always reminded me of that Billy Connolly routine, where he meets a well-spoken Englishman who tells him he’s a tobogganist. “A tobacconist?” says Connolly, confused. From the right sort of background, you can have a decent crack at doing almost anything. So why not, thought Dave, do that?
Perhaps that’s why it all never really seemed to matter. Facetiousness can be a pose for the upper classes because earnestness is gauche but the characters we see through Swire don’t even seem to notice that they’re doing it. “What more do I want?” chuckles Cameron, after the fall of Tripoli in 2011. “A great day on the beach . . . and I’ve just won a war.” Contrast this with Blair on Iraq, with the handwringing, and the angst, and the talking to God. Despite all that “heir to Blair” stuff, the two PMs don’t seem to have much in common, either in earnestness or in charisma. This is seen most abruptly when the PM tells Mrs Swire, I suppose in what he imagines to be a charming way, that her perfume makes him want to “push you into the bushes and give you one”.
The clique has codes. A few months after hosting the Camerons in Cornwall, the Swires mention to the Osbornes that they still haven’t been invited to Chequers. Twenty-four hours later an invitation materialises, because while joking about forcibly humping your friend’s wife in the bushes is basically fine, forgetting to return an invitation definitely isn’t. Also, there is the strange, awkward, status of the Goves. Alone among the clique, they are precarious, with lives that would be very different if they weren’t in it. Thus, eventually, they aren’t. In a world where everybody is blithe, their crime seems to be not being. Almost explicitly, in fact, Boris Johnson is forgiven for backing Brexit because he didn’t really believe in it, whereas Michael Gove isn’t, because he did. As Sarah Vine, otherwise known as Mrs Gove, wrote yesterday: “Hugo toyed with the idea of coming out for Brexit, but in the end decided to support Dave instead.” Brexit or Dave: the real referendum choice.
As I said, a clique theory of politics will always be simplistic. Speaking as somebody who was also at a public school, and who is also from a Conservative family and who is, indeed, even also called Hugo, I might also seem to be dancing on a pinhead in separating one bunch of Tories from another.
Still, the more one reads of the world of Mrs Swire, the more inevitable the subsequent collapse of British politics starts to seem. How were they supposed to end, those years of government by about eight smug, aloof, and slightly aimless people who were only bothering because they didn’t have anything better to do? What else could possibly have happened, if not the storming of their expensively tasteful barricades, by all of those colleagues that they relied upon, and looked down upon, and never invited in?