This is exactly what it was like. The sounds and smell, the staff, the dented decency, the first names and frayed carpets, the foul canteen food, the long hours, the pushy men and families juggling childcare, the drink and the curries, the absurdity and energy of being part of a very small group of people trying to run a medium-sized fading world power from behind a black door in a rambling terrace in a famous cul-de-sac in central London.
Fall frustrates in what she does not tell us. She was present and involved in most big calls but rarely goes into detail. There are moments when her influence is apparent, but she rarely plays up her role, preferring to chronicle the posturing of the “alpha males”. The most interesting passages are when things go wrong, most obviously in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. The team know they are speeding towards a cliff but cannot figure out a way to stop.
Fall wants to remind us that politicians are humans — writing particularly movingly about the death of Cameron’s son Ivan and endearingly about his daughter Florence’s attempt to cling onto the railings rather than leave Downing Street in 2016. But the book also neglects the impact of policy on everyone else. “George delivers his first budget, and austerity is born,” she notes breezily. The disaster of universal credit, which charities argue has led to a spike in the number of families using food banks, is glossed over.
Fall writes well, with an eye for human detail and a journalistic sense of what is interesting. Her depiction of life at the height of an election campaign or inside Downing Street is pacy and glamorous, and could be the basis of a Netflix drama set in No 10. About herself, however, she is deeply private, and almost absent from the text at many points. A friend once told me that people write what they really mean in parentheses. After 100 pages depicting the drama of the 2010 election campaign, Fall makes a rare use of brackets: “Three marriages break down after the 2010 election (including my own).” This is a woman who is entirely loyal and utterly without ego: even in her own book, she does not become the story.
Fall’s narrative is fast-paced and anecdote-rich. Some of the characters she paints quite beautifully. Gove, for instance, “always speaks like he is presenting a bouquet of the sweetest-smelling flowers”, while Oliver Letwin, the befuddled policy wonk, “looks permanently confused by finding himself in politics at all, as if he has fallen unexpectedly out of a Tolstoy novel”.