Alexander Larman

‘I couldn’t possibly comment’: Novels about political scandals

'I couldn't possibly comment': Novels about political scandals
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Thanks to the indelible characters found in the Houses of Parliament, and beyond, it sometimes seems as if there is nothing especially shocking that novelists could dream up for their fictitious political scandals. This means that stories about political naughtiness and shenanigans have to be that much more dramatic in order to ring true. Here are seven novels that mix fiction and reality in the most readable of ways. Rest assured, our current Prime Minister looms large in at least two of them, too.

Seventy-Two Virgins, Boris Johnson

To date, Boris Johnson has only written one novel, along with several works of non-fiction, but it’s surely one for biographers to seize upon. In its tale of Roger Barlow, a bicycling, classics-spouting Conservative MP, who accidentally finds himself caught up in an assassination plot by a group of Islamic extremists attempting to kill the visiting US President, Johnson manages to keep readers guessing as to what is absurdist invention and what is thinly disguised memoir. Although perhaps the passage in which he writes: ‘To a man like Roger Barlow, the whole world just seemed to be a complicated joke … everything was always up for grabs, capable of dispute; and religion, laws, principle, custom – these were nothing but sticks from the wayside to support our faltering steps’ might be seen as an autobiographical step too far, even for Boris.

House of Cards, Michael Dobbs

You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.’ If there is any catchphrase that sums up the Machiavellian attitude of the chief whip, usually seen as the power behind the throne, it is the signature utterance of Francis Urquhart, Conservative power-behind-the-scenes and eventual Prime Minister in this most famous of Parliamentarian fictions. Over the course of the trilogy of Michael Dobbs’ books, which also include To Play The King and The Final Cut, Urquhart sets about his task of climbing the ever-so-greasy pole with aplomb, even if he has to dispose of a few inconvenient bystanders along the way. It was adapted for television twice, once in Britain with the great Ian Richardson and, notoriously, with Kevin Spacey for Netflix, but the books remain a seductive meditation on the corruption of power, and a delight to read.

Joe Country, Mick Herron

Mick Herron’s peerless ‘Slough House’ novels may put a hilarious twist on the traditions of the John le Carré-esque spy story, but there is also a rich vein of political satire and intrigue in them, thanks in large part to their ongoing antagonist Peter Judd. He appears in several of the novels, but his most noteworthy appearance comes in the third book, Real Tigers, in which the bicycling, conscience-free and insanely ambitious Home Secretary – a character whose resemblance to anyone living or dead is surely as much a coincidence as Herron having been a contemporary of Boris Johnson’s at Balliol – is the mastermind behind a nefarious scheme that will not only further his own ambitions, but will also destroy Jackson Lamb and his gang of no-hoper slow horses. It would be spoiling the story (and subsequent tales) to reveal what happens, but Judd is a peerlessly engaging character who richly deserves a come-uppance, and yet, for the sake of continued intrigue, the reader hope he never quite gets it.

Damage, Josephine Hart

The fictional saga of a Conservative MP having an affair with a younger woman while his unsuspecting wife goes about her everyday business has been used for farce countless times, but Josephine Hart was astute enough to take the same material and turn it into a revealing and powerful tragedy. The tale of an unnamed former doctor who is being groomed for ministerial office, but who finds his successful career derailed by an all-consuming obsession with his son’s fiancée, was one of the biggest bestsellers of the Thatcher era. It came to denote a symbolic relationship between the end of the greed-is-good certainty of the Eighties and the more complex, confusing territory of the Nineties. It was memorably filmed by Louis Malle with Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche and Miranda Richardson, who was nominated for an Oscar and won a BAFTA for her powerful performance as the MP’s betrayed wife, and its dramatic qualities were made clear when it was turned into an opera in 2004.

The Knives, Richard T Kelly

It’s a brave author who attempts to write a novel about a Conservative politician with a degree of sympathy, especially if they themselves don’t intend the book to be either a comedy or a thriller. But Richard T Kelly’s excellent 2016 novel, which the political commentator Nick Cohen called ‘the best novel about modern politics I have read in years’ focuses on former soldier David Blaycock, a Home Secretary in a Conservative government. Blaycock genuinely wants to make a difference to the society he governs, even if the methods that he chooses to adopt are deeply unorthodox, and even as his inevitable downfall is caused by both hubris and circumstances beyond his control, Kelly paints his picture of a flawed but comprehensible man with enormous compassion. There may be fewer laughs or thrills than in some of the others novels, but it’s an enormously rewarding read.

A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin

The diarist and former Labour MP Chris Mullin has also distinguished himself as a novelist and his first book has a much emulated title. In its story of the principled Labour Prime Minister Harry Perkins, whose dreams of building a socialist Utopia in Britain are derailed by the vested interests of everyone from media barons and the intelligence services to the financial sector, Mullin manages to mix social satire with a genuinely fascinating political ‘what if’ saga. Although some of the means by which Perkins is destabilised are far from unfamiliar in this genre – scandal features, of course – it’s pulled off with the admirable attention to detail. The reader is let to wonder about the real life inspiration for Perkins: is he based on Tony Benn or Michael Foot? It's safe to say he is probably not inspired by Kinnock, who loathed Mullin. 

The Ghost, Robert Harris

One contemporary novelist who knows a vast amount about the Labour party is the excellent Robert Harris. His novel The Ghost was widely interpreted as an attack on his former friend Tony Blair, particularly his actions during and after the Iraq war. The Blair manqué character, Adam Lang, is a successful British prime minister who hires an anonymous ghostwriter to pen his memoirs, but his involvement with US extraordinary rendition and torture soon threaten to derail his attempts at a comeback. The book works beautifully well both as a gripping thriller full of twists and revelations of the kind that Harris has specialised in over his career, and as an angry, biting satire of near-Swiftian proportions on Lang’s, dishonest and mendacious treatment of his political career in order to further his own interests. And the final twist, too, is a cracker, as it speculates, wickedly, that the true power behind the throne lies altogether closer to home.