’ve skim-read Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MP’s Wife this weekend.
The last thing I want to do is to kill sales, but I should warn you: it’s all about me. Dogs and jars of honey feature quite a lot too. I was all ready to feel betrayed by my friends. Instead I’m a little nonplussed. What’s the fuss about? I’ve been keeping a diary myself of the last few days (also only loosely based on real events).
Greg and George text me late. “Have I seen S’s diary?” No I haven’t. Extracts have appeared on a news website. “It’s going to be ugly. Dave won’t like it,” they say. “Too much about his lovely family.” Oh god, how embarrassing.
Need to find out what S says about my 40th birthday party at Dorneywood. Her account confirms my worst fears. Apparently all my friends had a good time, including H.
Dave texts. “WTF!!!” I call back. “She’s never forgiven you for not putting Hugo in the Cabinet. After all, he was an Etonian and hung out on Polzeath beach with you.” Huge error of judgment.
Flick through Lady Swire’s account and two things should strike you. The first is friendship. Yes there was banter and stupid jokes. Find me a workplace in Britain with none of those things. Of course, normally the people you work with aren’t sneaking off home to write it all down.
But there was something else much more important that shines through — we liked each other. It wasn’t some school or university dining club that brought us together; we met each other in our twenties through a shared belief that the Tory party had to change. From then on we had each other’s back. Most of us still do. It made for a more rational, collegiate and engaged government than anything we’ve seen since.
A second lesson from the book is this. Friendship didn’t tip into cronyism. The author believes that ministers are promoted over her husband because they are “Muslim” or a “Woman”. There is another explanation. Perhaps we just thought the likes of Sajid Javid and Justine Greening could do an even better job than Hugo could. Surely the best argument against the charge of chumocracy is that so many chums felt left out?
The diary also tells us that the Cameron government did lots of things that weren’t very popular. Yes, we knew that at the time when we made the decisions. We raised VAT and cut spending to fix the finances; we shook up education and reformed welfare.
The diary is full of grumblings among activists and teeth-sucking backbenchers. But we didn’t set out to be Tory crowd-pleasers. We set out to do what we thought was right for the country — and then persuade our party and voters with the results. It worked. The entry for 8 May, 2015 reports our re-election, apparently despite the fact “our campaign was appalling”.
You don’t have to remind me that it all fell apart after the referendum a year later. That’s because we had forgotten the lessons of friendship and not trying to appease the Tory base.
There are same lessons for the Johnson Government in all this. A spirit of friendship wouldn’t go amiss in the Cabinet. Instead of the routine briefing of ministerial meetings to put individuals in a bad light, or sniggering when the Speaker ticks a colleague off, how about being a team? A front-bench pecking order determined by whether or not you were in Vote Leave four years ago isn’t going to impress today.
Leaders don’t fear talent; they promote it. Prime Ministers earn respect when they choose between choices rather than try to pick all of them. That means making the compromises required to reach a deal with the EU, not sabre-rattling with the rule of law. It will mean backing the Chancellor’s tough decisions on the public finances rather than leaving it to successors to sort out the mess. It requires levelling with the public about the long hard road ahead on Covid rather than promising it will all be over by Christmas. Boris Johnson is capable of doing all these things.
There will be a diary too someday of this Government. It’s being written as we speak. There will be no shortage of prep school jokes and Benny Hill innuendo. That much we already know.
The question is whether we will also read of the friendship, meritocracy and tough decision-making recorded in this account of the Cameron years.