It’s September 2017, and our still apparently United Kingdom is in the throes of a referendum campaign. The wise, charming, beloved Prime Minister, successor to ‘the shortlived Johnson administration’, wants to keep us in the EU. Olivia Kite, a spike-heeled mixture of Elizabeth I (Horrible Histories version) and Rebekah Brooks, heads the ‘No to Europe’ brigade. The country, showing rather more passion on the issue than is quite credible, is divided down the middle. At the crucial moment the PM drops dead at his desk. Without him, the ‘Yes’ vote will be lost. Only his inner circle know he’s died. What to do?
Well, obviously, they conceal the death, decapitate the corpse, sneak it out of Downing Street through secret tunnels, and get Rory Bremner to impersonate the deceased on a radio phone-in. As you do. But slippery PR guru Alois Haydn (who, uniquely, has ‘hazel’ hair) is the Judas in their midst. Scenting vast personal profit, he sneaks the story to the Opposition camp, and... well, there’s lots of skulduggery, a certain amount of violence mainly carried out by leather-jacketed Poles, a little bit of gritty sex and a grand Tom Sharpeish finale.
Andrew Marr explains in the preface that the idea for the plot came from Lord Chad-lington, ‘a member of the distinguished political Gummer family’, and himself a successful PR man. Thus Marr’s ‘private jokes, feuds and idiosyncracies’ are grafted onto Chadlington’s fantasy, and the result is a bit of a jumble. It’s enjoyable when real people are glimpsed through the swirling clouds of impossible fiction — Ian Hislop, observed through the window of the Private Eye office, gesticulating with a cream bun, or ‘Reg Dwight from Pinner’ phoning in to ask the faux Prime Minister for an increase in arts funding. The King, never named as Charles III but known, moderately affectionately, as ‘Kingy’, sits in his palace querulously searching for someone to listen to his views on phosphates. Journalists leaving secret messages for one another go to the London Library and slip them inside the books least likely to be read — and the safest hiding place of all is an enormous tome by Dominic Sandbrook. (Sandbrook once wrote a dismissive and, in Marr’s view, unfair review of one of Marr’s books.)
Too fantastical to work as an insight into the inner workings of the establishment, too cumbersome to serve as a rip-roaring thriller, the novel, subtitled ‘A Political Entertainment’, isn’t quite entertaining enough. The pace is slowed by forgettable minor characters. There are odd, lazy little inaccuracies. If Charles was on the throne, then the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge wouldn’t be that any more — they’d be Prince and Princess of Wales. The villainous Haydn becomes excited when he discovers that he’s really the illegitimate son of a peer, and fantasises about inheriting the title and sitting in the Lords — but if he’s illegitimate he can’t get the title, and the hereditary right to sit in the Lords was abolished some years ago. One character is described as watching a ‘colour TV’; she’d have to go to great efforts to watch a black and white one. To set a scene, Marr lists flowers and plants, but usually gets them wrong (aquilegias in mid-September). Nobody expects the multi-talented Marr to be a plantsman — but why bother to put things in if you don’t bother to get them right?
He peppers his prose with literary references, sometimes to good effect — he turns out a mean Marvell pastiche — but sometimes distractingly, and pointlessly. As one of his characters might have said, ‘Striving to better, oft we Marr what’s well.’ There is inventiveness and humour, especially at the expense of the press. But Marr needs to rip out the padding to display his strengths to full advantage.
The marvellous, dead Prime Minister, of whom it was said that ‘if he was alone in a room there was more political understanding and intelligence there than anywhere else in Western Europe’, is called Bill Stevenson. Head of State is Andrew William Stevenson Marr’s first novel. At the risk of consigning any literary effort of my own to a cobwebbed corner of the London Library, I have to say I await his second without impatience.