Emma Gray is author of Power Play, a new novel about the Conservative Party in Opposition, and has worked at Westminster for twelve years.
You may have heard, but Andrew Marr has a new book out. A political satire, in fact, about the sudden death of a Prime Minister (no, not that Hilary Mantel one) and an EU referendum. I sighed when I heard the news, frustrated it would be launched just weeks before my own. But then it occurred to me not to be worried about any similarity (referendums are anathema in my book), but revel in the fact that political fiction continues to be on the up. Surely Fourth Estate wouldn’t have banked on sales if there wasn’t a continued demand for tales of dodgy Westminster shenanigans and the like?
In the wake of the huge success of House of Cards in the US and the satirical sophistication of Veep, there is now less of the Spitting Image-style lampooning and a far more intelligent approach to portraying politicians in fiction. In an age where politicians are increasingly distrusted, the West Wing ideal of politicians doing good because it’s the Right Thing To Do is outdated and is less fitting to the public mood.
Although of course it was superb and remains eminently watchable, I can’t help feel that the world has moved on. Flawed ambition, hanging on in there (just about), deal making and breaking, raw political realities and selfish back-room manoeuvrings are the order of the day. To be good is to be boring, right? From a writer’s point of view, it’s certainly more fun to develop the antagonist, especially when you’re competing for the Nastiest Politician in Writing award (yes, I made up this extremely niche gong, but you get my point).
Women are now taking lead roles in political dramas – ones where they no longer have to always play Margaret Thatcher. Borgen, Veep and The Honourable Woman are prime examples. Three very different series, but all important an reflection on modern politics. We have come a long way since the mainly male-dominated fictional Westminster skulduggery of the 1980s. Smoke-filled rooms are a thing of the past, figuratively and literally. Skilful manipulators and strong female leads are pushing the boundaries of the portrayal of politicians and those who circle around them, their equally ambitious advisors and even their spouses. House of Cards‘ Clare Underwood is certainly the finest portrayal of a modern-day politician’s wife I’ve seen (apart from, perhaps, Juliet Stevenson in 1995’s The Politician’s Wife), and is as tough – if not tougher – than Underwood himself.
But one of the most notorious political antagonists is no piece of fiction. Hilary Mantel is currently dabbling in more contemporary political fiction in the controversial short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, but her Thomas Cromwell is an absorbing, complex and tenacious character whose fall in The Mirror and the Light is set to be as incredible as his rise. Like the present-day special advisor loyal to their master, low-born street-fighter Cromwell plays his enemies’ weaknesses to his advantage at every turn. But, whether it be a 21st century Underwood or a 16th century Cromwell, with growing power comes growing danger. A political fiction writer’s wet dream.
My own novels focus on the upheaval in a Conservative Party on the wrong side of the green benches after years in government (something I of course hope to remain a fantasy for some time). Opposition is fascinating as it elicits navel-gazing, the powerless desperate for the spoils of a war lost at the ballot box, but although it provides rich pickings for an author it is often neglected. For obvious reasons most political fiction writers prefer the allure of government, but I wanted to explore a party facing political oblivion after electoral disaster. Could a mainstream party, weary and desperate for salvation, stumble into being led by a morally deficient, narcissistic maniac who promises to bring it back from the brink at any cost? Like Mantel, I am living out through fiction a rather debauched scenario which I have pondered over the years, although unlike herI have great affection for my subject.
When I wrote my last ConservativeHome article on fiction in politics two years ago, before the huge success of House of Cards, I predicted that the future for political dramas appeared bright. Thanks to the expenses scandal (The Duck House) and press misdemeanours (Great Britain), the stage (along with the successful This House and Handbagged) continues to attract biting political satire. The coalition has been perfect fodder for creative politicos, while the rise of UKIP, the huge turnout in Scotland and the approaching general election will no doubt keep up interest in politics and demand for fictional swipes at the political establishment. If I can continue to play even a small part in that, however affectionately, then I will be proud to have done my bit.