There’s a boilerplate for writing a British political memoir: you approach intimacy and insults without quite providing either; you accept you will sell out neither the bookshops nor your friends.
Sasha Swire has dispensed with it. The wife of Hugo Swire, a little-known former Tory minister and confidant of David Cameron, she has published the type of political book that comes along perhaps less than once a decade.
She stitches up her friends, especially the Camerons, as well as her acquaintances, including royals and aristocrats. Diary of an MP’s Wife is, at least in parts, very entertaining. Swire comes as close as anyone has to replicating Alan Clark’s diaries for the Cameron era.
The tone is set early on when Hugo, an old Etonian, is given a junior role in the 2010 Cameron government and comes home insisting that his wife repeat to him the words, “yes, minister”.
Cameron himself is portrayed as lewd and shallow, content to watch “a particularly unchallenging episode of Poirot” and make jokes about dogging. “What more do I want? A great day on the beach, I’m with my old friends the Swires and I’ve just won a war,” he is quoted as saying in August 2011, while on holiday in Cornwall during the bombing of Libya.
There is a vivid sense of the Cameroon clique — the left-leaning wife Samantha Cameron and the amusing but vengeful George Osborne. Their poshness is as striking as it is unimaginative. “Brown in town?” Cameron reproaches Hugo, when he appears wearing the wrong colour shoes. We’re told that a post-resignation Cameron is happy living a quiet life between his three homes in London, Oxfordshire and Cornwall. “He is not grand in that sense,” Swire notes.
At the state dinner for China’s Xi Jinping in 2015, she tries to extract gossip from Cameron’s chief of staff Ed Llewellyn, who starts telling her about EU negotiations. “No, no, I mean who’s shagging who?” she interjects. Even so, the Swires’ account of clumsy, bullying Chinese diplomacy ages well.
Swire says that she never intended her diary to be public, she merely showed it to a literary agent “out of curiosity”. Many anecdotes, such as Boris Johnson being clipped dismissively round the head by his rival Brexiter David Davis, are second-hand and seemingly used without permission. Swire justifies this on the basis that otherwise history is written by men. A former journalist, who worked for her husband for 18 years, she is tired of not being taken seriously.
It’s hard to know what is accurate, what is contemporaneous and what is missing. “We need to take back control [of Hugo’s career],” Swire supposedly noted wryly in 2015, a year before that phrase become famous. For all her interest in gossip, she skirts round her own marital problems when her husband was part of Cameron’s government, since reported by the Daily Mail.
You get the impression Swire would be fun company in short bursts. Her book is over 500 pages. I could have done without knowing exactly how Hugo became a parliamentary fire warden. Swire was our door to the ruling inner sanctum but, after Cameron leaves office, she is in the wrong place and — one senses — slightly unhinged. She converts from loyal Cameroon to hard Brexiter, and cuts out her one-time close friend Amber Rudd for blocking a no-deal Brexit.
The book is oiled by Swire’s political obsession and her husband’s humour. He suggests Dominic Raab introduce himself to Tory donors as “Dom”, then point to them and say “Non-Dom”, in reference to their likely tax status.
This book will be taken as evidence that the Cameron project was out of touch and irresponsible. But the truth is that Hugo was a courtier not a general, and even he spends hours each evening working on his ministerial responsibilities. Diary of an MP’s Wife is refreshing because it focuses on the steam instead of the furnace, but it’s not an account of actual government. It does underline how much politicians long for personal advancement. In a faintly tragic scene, Michael Heseltine, still scarred by his failure to become prime minister, uses a dinner party to play the role and dish out pretend cabinet jobs to his friends.
Swire is bitter that her husband was not appointed to Cameron’s cabinet, nor her father, former defence secretary John Nott, to the House of Lords. The Swires gripe about their lack of riches, which reads oddly given the accounts of posh clubs and shooting weekends.
As Britain hits stalemate in 2019, Hugo prepares to leave politics and cash in. The rights to Sasha’s memoir sold for a rumoured £250,000. “You are my only friend left,” Cameron texted Hugo before the EU referendum. After reading this, I’m not quite sure what friendship means to the Swires. The irony of the book is that it seeks to lift the lid on acts of political duplicity, when it is among the worst of them.
Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power, by Sasha Swire, Little, Brown, RRP£20, 527 pages
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer
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