Sasha Swire review — this frisky account of the Cameron and May years is a hoot
“The voters rarely get a look-in. Tory activists are as dotty as the church stalwarts in The Vicar of Dibley. Parliament is seldom mentioned until the needle days of Brexit. This is government as a social reel among friends who are rivals, the tempo ever quickening, the dance becoming more and more frenzied until eventually the world goes bump, power is spilt and it is someone else’s turn.”
Quentin Letts www.thetimes.co.uk
Sasha Swire’s diaries are causing mayhem. David Cameron is aghast, Michael Gove’s wife is hopping, hopping mad, and Prince Andrew’s lantern jaw must be on Windsor Castle’s floor at the lèse-majesté of that damn Swire woman.
For those of us on the touchline? Bliss. Swire may have dropped social Hiroshima but with her description of how politics works she has done us a tremendous favour. Her frisky account of the Cameron and May years is both scandalous, a scalding hoot and a treasure chest for tomorrow’s historians.
The plotting, the texting, the endless Tory leadership jockeying and the near-constant conviction, even when in public they seemed so cocksure, that it would all end in electoral defeat to Labour: these, we now learn, were the realities of the inner-Cameroons as they governed our country.
Booze and sex banter abound and have inevitably been seized on by the outrage brigade but the diaries are a great deal more valuable than that. They catch the coyote-like ambition, the bitching, chaos, laughter, hypocrisy, fragility and occasional shaft of principled endeavour you find in high politics. The scandal, perhaps, is that we so rarely get to see it. George Osborne, in May 2010, grabbed the ministerial grace-and-favour house Dorneywood by driving down to Buckinghamshire and placing his toothbrush in the bathroom there before Nick Clegg could beat him to it.
There is method to this apparent childishness: Osborne uses Dorneywood as a base for political entertaining for the next six years. Whitehall and the Commons may be where they discuss policies but social get-togethers are where politicians gel, where they forge the alliances needed to win power.
William Hague makes a speech at Dorneywood for Osborne’s 40th birthday party. He informs the guests of “Osborne’s Law One” of politics: “Work out, ahead of anyone else, who will be the next leader, stick to them like glue and become indispensable.”
Cynical? Yes. But it is true, of all parties and in all countries. For all his cleverness and cartoon villainy, Osborne is not bullet-proof. Lady Swire’s husband, Sir Hugo, a Tory MP and minister, bumps into Osborne in October 2010. Boy George is on his phone. “Just reading my congratulatory texts,” says the new chancellor smugly. “Can’t be your phone, then,” says Swire. That little jest leaves Osborne strangely deflated.
For satirists, Swire’s diaries are chastening. No Spitting Image skit could ever match what was going on behind the Westminster arras between 2010 and 2019. Take the Chinese state visit in 2015. The Chinese ambassador to London is a diplomat of such elasticity that the Swires give him the nickname “Swivel Hips”. To prevent unseemly protests by Tibetans, the Chinese bus in obedient expats to wave flags on the Mall during President Xi’s carriage ride with the Queen. The Chinese want their security people to be allowed to run alongside the royal carriage but the Metropolitan Police say if they try to do anything of the sort they will be treated as terrorists and shot on sight. At the Buckingham Palace dinner for Xi, numerous Chinese communist officials with counterfeit invitations are caught trying to gatecrash the royal event. Given what Swire says about the filthiness of the palace cooking, they possibly had a fortunate escape.
The dinner ends with a screeching performance by the Army School of Bagpipe Music, to which the Australian high commissioner responds with the single word “ouch”. Sir Les Patterson lives.
Here is politics at its most personal, a steeplechase of splashy shindigs alleviated by the occasional, farcical public event. At the Foreign Office Hugo Swire summons the Ecuadorean ambassador to give him a dressing-down for letting Julian Assange take sanctuary in the embassy.
The ambassador tries to change the subject by inviting Swire to Ecuador. “I can arrange it for you, minister.” No thanks, says Swire. But “I will come one day, because I need a new panama hat.”
Cameron begs Hugo to stop making a fuss about Tony Blair staying at British embassies around the world, pointing out that he himself will be an ex-PM one day and will want similar freebies. In 2010, when Cameron speculates about his successor, he idly supposes it will be “someone like Jeremy Hunt”. Sasha groans and tells her friend Dave: “No! Please, far too wet. It’s only because he sucks up to you and tells you what you want to hear.” None of Cameron’s advisers would tell him that but the wife of a fellow Etonian minster has the social confidence to do so. And in 2019 when Michael Gove is caught in the briars of a press hoohah about youthful drug-taking, Hugo is asked how he would respond if asked if he had ever taken drugs. “Five-one-zero-three-nine-four,” barks Hugo. Why? “That’s my army number, the only thing I’m trained to give under hostile interrogation.”
The voters rarely get a look-in. Tory activists are as dotty as the church stalwarts in The Vicar of Dibley. Parliament is seldom mentioned until the needle days of Brexit. This is government as a social reel among friends who are rivals, the tempo ever quickening, the dance becoming more and more frenzied until eventually the world goes bump, power is spilt and it is someone else’s turn.
Repeat cameo appearances are made by camp, extravagant Greg Barker, an environmentally friendly Tory MP who organised the young Cameron’s polar huskies stunt and who became a peer. Barker has dubious business links in Russia. With US sanctions against Russia threatening to wreck his business career, we find Barker in a golf buggy at a five-star Sri Lankan hotel. “Better get used to this when we have to return the Porsche Cayenne,” says the eco-campaigner.
Could floppy-fringed Sir Hugo not have written a diary himself? Possibly not. Too decent an egg. Sasha, a journalist, has the necessary wildness. Her mother is Slovenian and her father is that Thatcherite thistle Sir John Nott. Sasha herself, though besties (although no longer, one imagines) with Samantha Cameron, the former home secretary Amber Rudd and Downing Street’s former gatekeeper Kate Fall, is a closet Brexiteer who sees the cliqueishness of the Cameroon “mateocracy”. She claims to have kept her journal without the intention, at any time, of publishing it. We believe you, dear heart! But out it has popped, as accidental as an Erica Roe, to enthral us with 500 pages of high-grade disclosures.
There are so many morsels: Osborne muttering that he will cut the Queen’s budget after the 2011 royal wedding because he was not offered a drink after the service; he and Cameron laughing about which women in politics were beddable and about which male ministers have the largest marital equipment; a “pompous” General Nick Carter, chief of the general staff, attending a dinner of sullen Remainers in June 2016; Archbishop Sentamu hosing back brandy after a day with Belfast Presbyterians; Dominic Raab going clothes shopping at the start of his 2019 campaign to become Tory leader; Lord Maginnis of Drumglass being so fat there is no flak jacket to fit him for a trip to Afghanistan; Cameron running up a £4,500 restaurant bill in Delhi, much of it on wine (he drinks like a camel, particularly bull shot and negronis); and Michael Heseltine’s habitual supper-party game of telling guests which jobs he intends to give them in his cabinet, the ancient lion never quite having got over his failure to become PM.
Soon after the 2010 election Prince Edward and his wife, the Countess of Wessex, arrive for a Hillsborough Castle garden party and Swire, being a minister’s wife, is pressed into chit-chat. The royal couple are “highly opinionated about political matters”, Edward being “overwhelmed with relief that the Conservatives have got in”. The countess, a sometime PR woman, is not the sparkiest of souls. Sasha goes over to her in the drawing room after dinner and tries to open the small-talk by saying: “So, bet he didn’t tell you he was a royal when he married you”. The countess is puzzled and says: “I knew he was a royal of course I did. What do you mean by that?” Sasha: “It was a joke!” Countess: “Oh.”
Still, the Wessexes come off lighter than the Duke of York, whose attempts to become a trade envoy are a verminous nuisance to the government. At an event with Northern Irish businessmen Andrew is “excruciatingly painful to watch, a mixture of blokeishness and royal arrogance”. At another palace banquet, Andrew wags a finger at the MPs on the table and loudly informs the foreign guests that whereas these politicians come and go, the royal family endures. No thanks to him.
Cameron may be upset that Lady Swire has spilled so many indiscretions but he comes across as a generally benign, hearty presence, one who patted both Swires on the bum and who, on a country walk, claims to have become so aroused by Sasha’s Eau d’Italie scent that he declares he might “push her into the bushes and give her one”. We need not take this literally. It is classic Cameron levity. Lady Swire praises Dave for his strong marriage and describes how he spends his downtime at Chequers watching Poirot murder mysteries. He emerges as a less tortured soul than the Machiavellian Osborne; mind you, I had no idea Cameron became so ardent about a second EU referendum. And there is something rotten about his remark in August 2011 while holidaying in Cornwall with the Swires. “What more do I want?” he says. “A great day on the beach, I’m with my old friends and I’ve just won a war.” He was talking of Libya.
Michael Gove develops into a plotter of Blackadderesque finesse.
Swire’s long friendship with Rudd is broken by the latter’s tricksiness as she tries to block Brexit. The rancour of those Brexit battles, particularly in the autumn of 2019, is evoked so well they set off my stomach acids. You gain a sense of an entire establishment aflame — and maybe it still is. The Swires, while protesting their exhaustion, toddle along to parties thrown by social alpinists such as Christopher Moran, owner of Crosby Hall. Why any sane person would willingly accept such invitations is baffling but Moran gives money to the Tory party. Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, the financier, will not like Lady Swire’s description of having to endure his haughty boasts at Lady Jane Rayne’s summer party in 2014.
I’m afraid there is little left of Sir Evelyn after two artfully destructive pages. She doesn’t even bother to get the old blower’s name right. Princess Michael of Kent mwaw-mwaws Sir Evelyn, fawning over him, flattering him. “Her head butts round him like a cat, her tail held high with a little hook on the end, and she is purring. You must really like men to do that and she clearly does — especially rich ones.”
With her domestic life in the West Country, Sasha Swire is not as self-absorbed as MPs. If the book has a polished hero it is her husband: dutiful, witty, accident prone. That is not an unfair summary of him, though there is a tantalising hint of a less amiable side when we learn that he stitched up Priti Patel’s departure from the cabinet in 2017. Again and again, the personal fuels the political. In 2016 Hugo is strongly inclined to back Brexit but he ends up supporting Remain owing to the tugs of his friendship with Cameron. Is that corrupt or is it honourable?
Looking back on two decades in the London political swirl, Swire writes “we had a great fairground ride”. Of the Cameroons she adds: “We all holiday together, our children play together, we text each other bypassing the civil servants. People just don’t trust outsiders any more and even more so in politics, where the media lurks in the bushes waiting to pounce. The governing class is simply holding up a mirror to a nation where friendships have replaced other mediums.”
According to William Hague, Osborne’s Rule Two of politics is “get inside your opponent’s minds”. Maybe that explains the sharp reaction against Sasha Swire. It may look as if she has dished dirt but in fact she has betrayed the way the Cameroons thought.
Westminster diaries are judged on three levels: the details they leak, the political era they re-create and the central character of the author. Swire scores highly on all three. She is funnier and ballsier than Chris Mullin and if she falls short of Alan Clark it is only because he was so devilish. Swire, holidaying with the Camerons, had better access than Mullin or Clark. But maybe that should be “holidayed”. After these indiscretions, her future vacations may be in Outer Siberia.
Swire on . . . Amber Rudd
“What’s it like, handling Old Ma May? It’s all very difficult, she says, like having a dragon breathing down her neck. Unlike with other cabinet ministers, she knows and understands Amber’s brief intimately, so she watches her with a much more critical eye. She says their meetings, which are few and far between, are agonising because of her long pauses as she digests material. She has learnt to grip the table so not to jump in and interrupt, which she apparently hates.”
On John Bercow
“Trumpets, red carpets, a carriage trip down The Mall with Chinese officials in blue tracksuits conducting obedient Chinese expats waving flags excitedly. The official address before parliament is a circus. The little weasel Bercow walked in with the Chinese premier and then, losing no opportunity to grandstand, pompously declaimed how many Asian leaders he had welcomed to Parliament and what excellent champions of democracy they were, the latest of whom being Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. Dave looked furious as Bercow lectured him that the world was watching him and China. In fairness to the little creep, he has been a supporter of the Dalai Lama.”
On the Prince of Wales
“The butler arrives with tea and Duchy Originals biscuits, and they all sit down.
HRH: ‘Do you like the biscuits?’
[Hugo Swire:] ‘Oh yes, very nice, Your Royal Highness.’
‘I make them, you know.’
‘You make them?’
‘Yes, we have rows of them in the supermarkets in this country. They are very popular over here, you know, very popular.’
‘Yes, they are very tasty.’
The PoW turns to his private secretary: ‘We must give him a packet to take home with him.’”
On Boris Johnson
“Boris is, in many ways, an island, a spinning, mad island. He gets by having very good people to do the work, and the detail. “Cummings, he’s an excellent chap, we have a really good team in here now.” The atmosphere is certainly different as you walk into No 10. Everyone is smiling, despite the fact they are on death row. And even though he is an island he seems, like Trump, to be much more in touch with the people and the provinces. I don’t know what will happen to him, because events make politicians, but I have changed my view of him. Yes, he is an alley cat, but he has a greatness of soul, a generosity of spirit, a desire to believe the best in people, a lack of pettiness and envy which is pretty uncommon in politics, and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition. He is not like any politician I have ever encountered before, and I have met many.”
On David Cameron’s cabinets
“I am increasingly irritated by how David, George [Osborne] and Kate [Fall, deputy chief of staff] have this monopoly on people’s careers in politics, using a completely erroneous set of criteria (good back story, woman, ethnic, good on TV, too posh, too mad, ghastly). It’s the politics of PR, not the politics of serious government.
From one conversation to the next I hear them move their players around the chess board, thinking they are oh so clever . . .”