There are two ways of being a political journalist. One is to stay on the outside and try to avoid being compromised by too much contact with politicians. This approach comes at what many regard as an impossible cost. After all, the job of a journalist is to get stories and gain insight. Story-getting can only come through access, but this too creates a problem. The politicians who supply information, atmosphere, gossip and revelation tend to demand loyalty — and protection — in return.
There is no right answer. Matthew d’Ancona has always sought the status of an insider. His Sunday Telegraph column is valuable because it provides an accurate and informed account of the stresses at the heart of the government. At the start of In It Together he candidly tells the reader that he would still be attending ‘bridge evenings, group holidays and children’s play dates’ with the Prime Minister and his inner circle were the Conservatives not in power.
His book gives us by far the most authoritative and authentic account yet of the coalition, describing what is going on from the inside. It is informative about George Osborne’s contemptuous opinion of Iain Duncan Smith, the downfall of Andrew Mitchell, the internecine rivalries within Downing Street, negotiations between Nick Clegg and David Cameron, the Prime Minister’s alleged hostility to the Downing Street cat, the origins of the Libyan adventure and the agonies over Syria. He plausibly suggests that the decline of William Hague’s influence over foreign policy dates back to the Libyan intervention. From that moment, Cameron, egged on by Michael Gove, took over, with Hague mainly out of the picture.
In It Together invariably provides amusing colour and insight; but for all its striking observations, it does not often cause the reader to view the coalition in a new light. Books of this nature share the dubious convention that the immediate circle around any prime minister is fascinating and worthy of record. The world has previously been oblivious to someone called Liz Sugg. From d’Ancona we learn that she is the formidable ‘Miss Fixit’ of the gang and the ‘indispensible head of operations’.
There are no less than 11 index mentions of Kate Fall, Cameron’s unmemorable deputy chief of staff, against two for cabinet minister Maria Miller. At times the book has the air of Jennifer’s Diary, which faithfully though uncritically recounted the exploits of posh people at the back of the Tatler. Here is d’Ancona on those in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s circle:
His wife, the author Frances Osborne, was close to Simone Finn (née Kubes), Gove’s girlfriend at Oxford and for several years there after. Finn would soon be advising Francis Maude at the Cabinet Office. She was also good friends with Gove’s wife Sarah Vine, the Times journalist, who, in turn, was close to Samantha Cameron, helping to look after her children on election night.
Do we really want to know all this? Craig Oliver, Downing Street director of communications, is treated seriously, which takes some doing. Steve Hilton is another Downing Street adviser whose comings and goings are chronicled at appalling length. Even Hilton’s deputy, Rohan Silva, crops up more frequently than some cabinet ministers. In one passage d’Ancona quotes a ‘cabinet minister’ claiming that a senior civil servant has ‘awful BO. I mean, really smelly.’ He does not name the cabinet minister but does identify the official concerned. I have checked with those who know him. They say this is not true, and it is worth noting that the individual in question has recently been the subject of an ugly, cruel and disgraceful whispering campaign inspired by certain members of the Downing Street inner circle. D’Ancona is open to the accusation that he is being used to settle Whitehall scores.
Yet he is by no means slavish to the Prime Minister. He argues that Cameron (who was giving evidence under oath) misled the Leveson Inquiry over the strength of his connection with News International chief Rebekah Brooks. By contrast, he presents the conduct of Andy Coulson in the best possible light, while casting doubt on Cameron’s judgment. If this book has a hero it is certainly George Osborne, on the subject of whose private thoughts d’Ancona is extremely well-informed.
At roughly the same stage of the Blair government, Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer wrote a similar sort of book, Servants of the People. It was jaw-dropping. Rawnsley had been court chronicler for New Labour just as d’Ancona has been for the coalition. In a moment of personal redemption, he burnt all his contacts, told the dreadful truth and was the first to reveal to the outside world the horror of the Blair-Brown connection.
I was wondering whether d’Ancona would do the same about Cameron, Clegg and Osborne, but he hasn’t. Either the material isn’t there to be mined or he’s chosen not to divulge it. But perhaps this is rather a dull, well-meaning government, and the kind of epic scandal and betrayal that eventually destroyed New Labour is not to be found.
D’Ancona, a fellow of All Souls, has one of the finest minds in journalism. If he had concentrated on policies he could have produced a book of real importance. He could have spent time in the social security offices where the coalition’s radical plans for welfare reform will succeed or fail. He could have gone to the schools where Gove’s education reforms are being put into practice. He could have explained the intellectual basis of Osborne’s economic policies (nobody else has tried this yet, and it is high time someone did); and in doing all this, he could have placed the coalition in the political and moral history of our time.
Instead, he has focused on personalities — rather insipid ones at that — and as a result In It Together is a tremendous disappointment.
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This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 5 October 2013Tags: Book review, Coalition, Current Affairs, David Cameron, George Osborne, Leveson Inquiry, Nick Clegg, Politics