Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power by Sasha Swire
“When the wives get nasty, you know the men have a problem.” So says Sasha Swire after Sarah Vine, wife of Michael Gove, and Samantha Cameron, wife of David, “fur flying, have a set-to” at the 50th birthday party of Andrew Feldman, on 29th February 2016.
For “Dave feels he is being stabbed in the back by Gove”, who has come out for Leave. According to Swire’s friend, Kate Fall, who works at Number Ten, Dave “is taking it very personally”.
What is a trailing spouse to do? The Duke of Edinburgh and Denis Thatcher are among the men who had to work out an answer. In both cases they used humour carried well past the point of self-parody to ease the boredom and insignificance of the role.
But the trailing spouse is still more often a woman, and Swire knows what it is like. Her husband, Hugo Swire, was Conservative MP for East Devon from 2001 to 2019, an early supporter of Cameron and a Minister of State from 2010-16.
Sasha worked for Hugo as his researcher. Towards the end of the diary entry quoted in the first line of this review, she describes what she and H, as she calls him, have been doing down at their house in Devon:
“Meanwhile, down at Chaffcombe we are having difficult conversations about why we are backing remain when our instincts are to leave. I have to somehow justify it to myself as well as convincing H. I spend the whole weekend drafting an article for Hugo for the local press on why he is supporting in, and we finally decide to do it from a foreign affairs perspective.”
This is of some interest, for it reminds one that not everyone who supported Remain really believed in that cause. In Hugo’s case he only does so out of loyalty to Cameron.
It is true that some Remainers argued their case with fanatical zeal. But as Harry Williams remarks in one of his sermons, “All fanaticism is a strategy to prevent doubt from becoming conscious.”
Swire’s diary is not particularly well written. She often lapses into the bland editorialising to which one fears she resorted when drafting articles to appear under her husband’s name.
She is not a new Alan Clark. She is not even a new Chris Mullin, of whom I found myself writing, when reviewing a volume of his diaries:
“Mullin is a gentleman. He avoids inflicting gratuitous pain in his diary. He observes with a keen and even mocking eye the deficiencies of Blair and Gordon Brown, but is never ungenerous about their gifts. He does not betray confidences. The social connotations of the word ‘gentleman’ are foreign to Mullin, who is a plain-living socialist. The Tories who cause him most pain are those who behave in an ungentlemanly way, while the vulgarity of New Labour causes him distress.”
Sasha does not avoid inflicting gratuitous pain, does betray confidences and is often vulgar, though she clearly thinks it is rather grand, and even gentlemanly (a characteristic she attributes to her husband), to behave in this way.
And she has often not actually been at the events she describes. As far as one can tell (but rather irritatingly one can’t at first reading be sure) she was not at the Feldman birthday party. If she had been, she would surely have told us more about it.
On many occasions, she relates what Hugo told her when he got home from some event. There is a second-hand flavour to these reports.
Her diary reminds one of the disappointment which can be seen on the faces of so many MPs. Hugo had hoped to make the Cabinet.
As for Sasha, she is cross that her father, Sir John Nott, Defence Secretary during the Falklands War, has never been made a peer, and she finds that she herself is either ignored, or else reproached for not having a career of her own: “It’s always a weak point for me.”
In other words, like many loud people, she wants to conceal her own insecurities. Her inadequate command of tone springs from a fundamental indecision about how to behave:
“Political wives are deeply involved but have no official status. Do we play submissive? Do we play supportive? Do we get lippy?”
Sasha veers between these different approaches, but is temperamentally inclined to be lippy. She observes with a caustic eye the deficiencies of the men around her. In August 2011, when they stay for three days in Cornwall with the Camerons at Polzeath,
“D talks a lot about sex, as does H – they are typical of a certain type of Englishman who no longer knows how to flirt because they have become terrified of causing offence. What they do instead is become lewd and chauvinistic with each other, which is the safe zone, instead of with us. In fact if a woman actually came on to them I think their eyes would pop out of their heads.”
For all its glaring deficiencies, or in some cases because of them, this is an entertaining and informative book, and will be a valuable source for historians who want to see how opinion changed within the Conservative Party.
How did Boris Johnson become leader? Sasha is quite illuminating about this. In 2012, she is a loyal Cameroon, who writes:
“There seems to be something of a campaign going on at the moment to push Boris back into Parliament… worryingly, it seems to have captured the public imagination… Unfortunately the Olympics have given him a platform to parade his populist touch… The idea of His Blondness with a finger on the nuclear button scares the shit out of me; it also scares the shit out of me that people don’t see him as the calculating machine he really is. This is a man who has no obvious political identity or any proven ability to grasp difficult questions and decisions.”
In March 2016, as the EU Referendum campaign gets under way, Hugo reports back from a dinner in Mayfair that Cameron “is very fired up about Boris and determined to finish him off”.
In October 2017, she says Johnson’s star is sinking: “the past few weeks have highlighted how he is clearly not a leader-in-waiting”.
In November 2018, Hugo is recruited to the Dominic Raab leadership campaign.
In March 2019, she observes that the Johnson leadership campaign is “always shambolic”, an assumption which will prove unsound. She also quotes Rory Stewart going “completely insane” and telling some MPs, “It’s going to be Boris against me, and I’m going to take Boris down.”
In July 2019, by which time Johnson is on course for victory, she says “the odds that he will be the shortest-serving PM are pretty high”.
In August 2019, she goes to a “small and select” dinner at Number Ten and sits on the PM’s right:
“Boris is about the best placement you can get. Cheeky. Flippant. Enthusiastic. Bombastic. Ebullient. Energetic. We have a good laugh…
“I look at his rotund build, thick, creased neck, pale, sweaty face, and characteristic dishevelled appearance; he looks back, as if he is working out if I’m shaggable or past my sell-by date…
“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.”
The PM has seduced her, though she also thinks he “is desperately lonely and unhappy on the inside”. These diaries show how Johnson got where is today, and has so far managed to stay there. He knows how to mend fences.