The most readable diarists, the Chips Channons and Alan Clarks, are often bit-part players with a streak of self-harming vanity in print. Pepys, a historically significant figure, had it too. Sasha Swire can’t quite establish a sufficiently consistent or convincing tone of voice and doesn’t know enough. A lifelong diarist, she insists she never intended to publish her journals until she showed them to the leading literary agent Caroline Dawnay, as one does with secret diaries.
Crucially, she notes he is so bored writing his memoir that he simply speaks it into a Dictaphone, with no care for its literary merit. Was this the catalyst for Swire – a former journalist who writes very well, not just on politics, but about marriage, social mores and the English countryside – to publish her diaries? A political era is too often defined by cautious male dullards. About time sharp, funny, indiscreet women had a go.
If you needed proof that Britain has been misruled by the unserious, entitled, snobbish, incestuous and curiously childish then the acerbic Lady Swire, unwittingly or not, has provided it. In 500-odd pages of deftly edited diary entries covering her observations and conversations during the tumultuous years of 2010 to 2019, she lifts the veil on the doings of a political class that is difficult to like, admire or respect. The court of King David, to which Sasha and her Etonian MP husband, Sir Hugo, belonged during Cameron’s Downing Street years, was nothing if not homogeneous.
No holds are barred. Sasha is candid, irreverent, occasionally outrageous and sometimes hilarious. This a world that ordinary mortals, even most Tories, can only glimpse from afar. Hugo — Eton, Sandhurst, Sotheby’s; Sasha — daughter of Mrs Thatcher’s one-time defence secretary, Sir John Knott. Together they have an entrée to all the best salons: Rothchilds, Rothermeres, Rausings, they all feature. There are dinner parties at No. 10, weekends at Chequers, Chevening and Dorney Wood; holidays with the Camerons in Cornwall. Hugo, an upmarket auctioneer by profession, is much in demand at Tory fund-raisers, peppered as they are with obscenely rich oligarchs and (as Sasha calls them) ‘hedgies’. To celebrate his 60th birthday the billionaire Michael Spencer, one-time Tory treasurer, flies a planeload of his ‘besties’ to Marrakesh for ‘an orgy of opulence and bacchanalia’.
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.
Should I recommend you spend your time with 500 pages of brilliantly sourced, hastily written but vivid tittle-tattle about what some of the people who used to run the country did when they were not actually running the country (when the former was always the most interesting thing about them)?.. From the first page to the last, it is a riot of absurdity, as all human life is. That makes it a glorious, compelling, jaw-dropping read. Just don’t mistake it for a full picture of political life.
So although these diaries are highly readable and entertaining they are also profoundly depressing, for what they say, with remarkable candour, about the sort of people who now govern us. The millions of British people convinced that believing in nothing and having an ability to lie through one’s teeth are the prerequisites for a political career today would not have their minds changed by reading this book. If we have the politicians we deserve we must be an appalling people. However, there have been no political diaries to match the insightfulness and style of these since Alan Clark’s and, like his, they will become an essential point of reference for those who wish to understand the politics of the age they describe.
Most explanations of why Britain voted first for Brexit, and then for Johnson’s radicalised strain of Conservatism, focus rightly on the wider demographic and economic shifts that fuelled a revolt against the status quo. But in Swire’s vignettes of Cameron’s chillaxed post-Downing Street life – telling his daughter he has a meeting, only to sit watching back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones – and her perceptions of a very different, less privileged generation rising through the party lies another small piece of the jigsaw. Towards the end, she writes, Cameron came to support a second referendum to prevent a hard Brexit, yet he doesn’t seem to have been driven to re-engage fully with the public debate. Was this gilded circle defeated, at least in part, because their opponents were simply hungrier? Perhaps we’ll have to wait for Carrie Symonds’s memoirs to find out.