Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire
Little, Brown £20
Review by Sarah Sands
The plain, self-effacing title of this book contains its secret and its joke. The wife who was treated as a nobody turns out to be a deadly double agent.
In a moment of dramatic irony, David Cameron signs his own dull old work of statesmanship to Sasha with thanks for ‘love and support’. She accepts this warmly, while writing, ‘Of course, unless he is prepared to settle scores and wash his dirty linen in public, it won't exactly fly off the shelves and I doubt he will do that as he is too much of a gent.’
The secondary joke is that it is not really the diary of an MP's wife. It is a joint enterprise. Sasha Swire is mostly reliant on secondhand anecdotes from her husband, the former Tory Minister Hugo Swire, and his own rather self-satisfied quips and observations are polished like brass.
Sasha’s diaries have been treated by the Cameroons as the worst betrayal since Kim Philby. One acquaintance pointed out to me that Sasha’s mother was Slovenian – AS IS MELANIA TRUMP – and there is an East European deadliness borne from eyeing up Russia. Slav blood. It is a thrilling notion that Melania could also be keeping a diary…
Sasha and Hugo infiltrated the innermost sanctuary of the Cameron mateocracy – so what is the calibre of the secrets they have betrayed? There is nothing to worry the intelligence services, but there is plenty to interest Netflix.
There has been an understandable closing of ranks. The responses range from lofty dismissal of the Swires (‘We barely knew them’) to wounded gravitas ('They did not see or describe the seriousness of government'), to the revelation that Hugo Swire was allegedly unfaithful to his wife.
Funnily enough, in the book this exposé tactic is associated with the May regime, who tried to take down Boris by revealing his affair with Carrie Symonds. It did not stop Boris Johnson and, in a different way, I do not think it will stop Sasha Swire, who has many more unpublished diaries still to come.
Her first volume is socially contemptible – and it's also selling out. It is a twist that her agent, Caroline Dawnay, is related to the Johnsons. The Mateocracy turns out to be full of cracks. Treachery is everywhere. Michael Gove and Boris Johnson betray David Cameron, and Cameron responds by saying the Gove family is no longer welcome in his house. It is personal.
Cameron once said in print that a consequence of power was that he stuck to old friends, for safety’s sake.
This is how Sasha Swire describes in the book that circling of the social wagons.
‘The closeness of this circle is unprecedented. They are all here; the ones that eat, drink, party together, they are all intimately interlocked some from university days, some from the research unit, some later. We all holiday together, stay in each other's grace-and-favour homes; our children play together, we text each other by passing the civil servants... This is a very particular narrow tribe of Britain..’
Never mind Kim Philby, this is Iago. A trusted confidante who harbours a grudge.
This makes the Diary of an MP's Wife both compelling and shrewd. Of course, it is not how the protagonists would wish to see themselves portrayed. But there is, in its odd, crass way, a ring of truth about the book. There is no particular self-awareness about any of them but they reveal themselves by what they say. The character of the narrator is also undisguised. Sasha is seeking something – perhaps status – and does it by being consistently rude to everyone in a flirtatious, devil-may-care manner. Sometime she launches into policy tirades about Syria or Brexit, which must have been more tiresome.
David Cameron is the central character of the diaries since they cover his time in power and because Hugo Swire is a friend whom he unaccountably promotes and protects. Cameron is sensitive about the charge that his was a government of Etonians, because that was his Achilles heel. He was comfortable among Etonians.
He could be himself among them, not having to pretend to be interested in football, able to make off-colour jokes about fanciable women and the size of Michael Gove’s member, enjoying his grasp of the class and wealth distinctions of the Swires, and able to chillax in the middle of a crisis. This was his political weakness and Cameron has described the diaries as ‘mildly embarrassing’.
I reckon that mildly embarrassing is a good description. Cameron also comes across as a decent and loving husband and an extremely capable Prime Minister who rose to every challenge except the final one: the referendum.
George Osborne too is sketched in terms which may be selective but capture a political character: clever, calculating and a bit vulnerable.
Political autobiographies are about historical destiny. Political diaries reveal a different aspect of power. They are about houses and ministerial cars. George Osborne beats Nick Clegg to Dorneywood and plants his toothbrush there, as if it is a flag. This diary is about placements at state banquets, rivalries and perpetual plotting. It is modern-day Hilary Mantel.
This is why Sasha Swire is probably right in her damning assessment of David Cameron’s political biography. Nobody will remember his, and everyone will remember hers.
The pesky MP's wife may have a better sense of public taste than all the players strutting on the political stage.
Sometimes the tone is horrible: the witticisms in the report of the Westminster Bridge attack, for instance. A politician complains to Hugo Swire that the lockdown means he is missing dinner and Sasha lovingly records her husband’s response.
‘”I hope the first course isn’t soufflé,” H says, which greatly tickles Norman.’
She goes on to describe Tobias Ellwood coming to the aid of a fatally wounded police officer. ‘Pictures are immediately beamed round the world of Tobias, covered in blood, being the hero. This might give Sir Alan Duncan, who has issues with him, a nervous breakdown.’
She adds a po-faced sentence – ‘This is not to dismiss what a terrible human tragedy this was’ – but the damage is done. The prism of politics and society, rather than humanity, can become repulsive.
She may also regret her attacks on the dead, both Jeremy Heywood and the tart references to the wife of Owen Paterson, who recently committed suicide.
Yet, on the whole, her vignettes and observations are entertaining. She is terrific on Boris Johnson. To use a non-Swire expression, Sasha feels ‘seen’ by the Prime Minister. And she is hopeful in return. ‘Yes, he’s 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 wonderfully comic vision of the human condition.’
David Cameron was unfailingly attentive and kindly towards the Swires but Sasha’s Slav blood leads her to believe in Boris. I can’t wait for the next swathe of Swire diaries and the film rights for these ones.
Sasha Swire writes in her acknowledgements: ‘To all the Cameroons for not mentioning me or barely mentioning me in their memoirs… this is payback!’
Now that she is ostracised, she has nothing to lose.