There are several things you can do after leaving government: lobby for shady regimes, give speeches to greedy banks or, if you are Boris Johnson’s one-time chief adviser Dominic Cummings, vent your anger in interminable blog posts.
Next to those options, writing a novel seems almost to be encouraged. Cleo Watson, an adviser to Johnson and before that Theresa May, promised a bodice-ripper after leaving Downing Street in late 2020. Watson was not senior but she saw enough: she once claimed to have acted as “Boris’s nanny”, overseeing the prime minister’s Covid-19 tests. An ally of Cummings, she was ejected after his fall because Johnson, she said, compared her to “an ugly old lamp” that reminded him of a past marriage. Her leaving do, inevitably, was accused of breaching Covid rules.
Whips starts by trying to draw a line between fact and fiction. The characters “have not been drawn from flesh and blood MPs or journalists etc.”, Watson scolds the Westminster village. “Honestly, not everything’s about you.” This put-down would be more powerful had the characters not plainly been drawn from flesh and blood MPs. There is the unclubbable female prime minister failing to get an international agreement through parliament (May), the womanising former prime minister still beloved of Tory party members (Johnson), and various other parallels — the manipulative wife, the bullying journalist, the sex-obsessed cabinet minister — that the Financial Times’ libel lawyers would prefer I didn’t detail.
The book is predictable in its serving of scandal. You encounter sex on pages 4, 37, 69 . . . although you have to put up with dialogue like: “Look, I’m pretty short on time so you can just shove it in dry if you want.”
The narrative centres on three young university friends trying to make their way in parliament: political adviser Eva (the closest to Watson herself), unintimidated journalist Jess, and local campaigner turned MP’s assistant Bobby. Each in her own way learns about the inevitability of political betrayal and the need to get your retaliation in early.
The vision of Westminster is mostly Cummings-esque: Conservative MPs are venal, egotistical and oblivious to what really matters to the public, ie the NHS. They dream of making the weather but are continually blown around stormy teacups. To underline the smallness of SW1, Watson begins each chapter with a reference to the wider world: “UK unemployment hits 6% / North Korea launches test missiles”.
Whips joins the ageless genre of books about the dark heart of politics, recently including Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Scandal. No publisher has gone bankrupt underestimating readers’ respect for politicians. The main problem with Whips is its lack of guile. There are more Liberal Democrats in parliament than artful sentences in this book. Being in her early thirties, Watson should have been well-placed to capture a new generation’s experience of politics. But Eva, Jess and Bobby do not speak like Gen Z; they speak like parodies of Jilly Cooper characters, without the literary nods. Rishi Sunak, who apparently lists Cooper’s Riders among his favourite novels, is in for disappointment.
The other problem with Whips is that the raw material is so much better. Once you have read about the real-life case of the MP who started watching porn in parliament after searching the internet for tractors, or the chief whip who kept a pet tarantula on his desk in a pathetic attempt to intimidate, the bar is quite high. Today, as in the mid-1990s, the fag-end of Conservative government is stranger than fiction. Watson’s response is to wed her narrative too closely to events and then push a few details to extremes. At several points reading Whips, I thought I’d have more fun simply reading a newspaper.
Watson has a contract for a second novel, set around a general election. I wonder if it isn’t too late for her to choose a more palatable option — such as, say, lobbying for a middling autocracy.
Whips by Cleo Watson Corsair £20, 400 pages
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer
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This post was originally published on Financial Times
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