A Very British Coup was ahead of the times; The Friends of Harry Perkinsrisks, by attempting a topical intervention in the mess of current British politics, starting behind them. But if the Brexit blur ever does clarify, Mullin should update for the paperback this very knowledgeable and pleasurable political thriller.
Mullin, a veteran diarist, has a knack of pithy description, adding touches of colour and wit. One politician’s wife is “the daughter of a duke, related to half the statues in the Foreign Office”. Unsurprisingly, Scotland’s affairs are dismissed in a single phrase: “The Scots Nats are away on a trip of their own.”... Overall, though, The Friends of Harry Perkins is not so much a novel as a diversion. So slim it could be read while MPs cast their indicative votes, it is intended to be the first post-Brexit novel. The denouement of Jonathan Coe’s recent novel Middle England has already been ruined by our delayed departure, but one fears the scenario Mullin foresees could still become reality. It truly is a fearsome prospect, because an undertone of menace colours the book, as it does the country today.
The Friends of Harry Perkins is a far bleaker book than its predecessor. Long sections of the narrative are given over to describing the terrible illness that afflicts one of Thompson’s young daughters and the toll this takes not only on his marriage but on his sense of political optimism. A Very British Coupwas a comforting book because it concerned an actual conspiracy, and conspiracies only have to be exposed to be defeated. They give us a sense of political agency: stop the conspiracy and stop the rot. The dark powers at work in The Friends of Harry Perkinsare not the result of anyone’s scheming. Some are acts of God. Others are the result of forces no one seems able to control. Hovering in the background throughout is a brewing war between the US and China, which makes the goings-on inside British politics look redundant. In A Very British Coup bad things happen to good people because of public indifference and inattention. The solution is clear: wake up the people! In The Friends of Harry Perkins, bad things just happen. And the public is wide awake enough already.
Here, however, too often the writing is too compressed to register as much more than a treatment for a television version in which good actors might make the characters come alive. The plot is less important than the politics. Mullin gives his hero an easy ride to the place where he can dwell on the causes, impact and what-nows of all things Brexit... Mullin chews over the issues pointedly but cogently. It’s a fast read. Without allowing space for the characters to do anything surprising, though, his second piece of speculative fiction ends up more than an editorial, less than a novel.
The plot is less important than the politics. Mullin gives his hero an easy ride to the place where he can dwell on the causes, impact and what-nows of all things Brexit. The establishment has now swerved to conspire with, rather than against, our Labour leader-in-waiting: Sir Peregrine Craddock, Perkins’s civil-servant antagonist from the first book, becomes a kind of mentor. Mullin chews over the issues pointedly but cogently. It’s a fast read. Without allowing space for the characters to do anything surprising, though, his second piece of speculative fiction ends up more than an editorial, less than a novel.
Is it possible to satirise contemporary British politics? Mullin, a Labour MP from 1987 to 2010, certainly gives it his best shot, although the satire is gentle rather than savage as he charts Britain’s decline over the past half-century... Apart from the consequences of Brexit, Mullin touches on issues such as illegal immigration, the housing crisis and nuclear stockpiling. Ultimately, however, his targets are the careerist politicians from both sides of the house who enter Westminster with rather more ambitions than principles
The plot, such as it is, follows Thompson’s attempts to uncover corruption in the Tory party. It comes across as a fantasy novel, a daydream — if only this could happen, all would be well with the country! Because of this, there’s a fair bit of belief confirmation. A strange book. I wonder what its true purpose is, beyond its political intent. But it’s readable and very entertaining, and should appeal to both sides of the divide. A book that seeks your X in the ballot box.
Set around 2025, The Friends of Harry Perkins charts the subsequent career of Perkins’s aide Fred Thompson, who ascends quickly from backbencher to Labour Party leader and adopts a policy that could lead to reversing Brexit. Once Mullin has brought him to that point, however, only 50 pages ludicrously remain before his slender novel’s (overly signalled) denouement — nowhere near enough to develop its promising premise properly. Seriously disappointing.