Take-no-prisoners memoirs, plus the inside track on Brexit, Sage and Unite
In politics, as in life, there are few more tortured questions than “What if … ?” Defeated parties rake obsessively over the past, bickering over any hint of an opportunity missed. Even ruling parties start looking around as the shine wears off, wondering if they would fare better under someone new. What is perhaps unusual about 2021 is that both seem to be happening at once.
Cue Steve Richards’s The Prime Ministers We Never Had (Hodder), a book stuffed full of roads less travelled. His list of politicians who were once widely tipped for Number 10, only to fall short in the end, ranges from Rab Butler to Neil Kinnock to Jeremy Corbyn (and if the latter seems a surprise inclusion, then half the point of a list is arguing about who should or shouldn’t have been on it). Each gets a potted biography, and thoughtful analysis of what ultimately stopped them reaching Downing Street. The author doesn’t try to predict how history might have unfolded had they made it, but a sense of loss hangs over several chapters.
As Richards himself acknowledges, it does jar that all of his subjects bar Barbara Castle are men. So read it alongside Mary Ann Sieghart’s The Authority Gap (Doubleday), a study of why women still struggle to be taken seriously in professional life which goes some way to explaining why the default template for leaders is an Oxbridge-educated white man. Crackling with controlled anger, it features some eye-popping stories and a stellar cast of interviewees, from presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt to the novelist Bernardine Evaristo. Buy it for any woman ever talked over in a meeting, or patronised by a man who knows less than them.
Theresa May would probably love a copy, judging by Gavin Barwell’s Chief of Staff (Atlantic), a loyal and sensitive account of her attempts to extract something resembling a workable Brexit from the fantasies of the Tory right. The long-suffering Barwell is notably forgiving of almost everyone in government but Boris Johnson; while more long-standing leavers in cabinet prove surprisingly flexible, he writes, the foreign secretary won’t even acknowledge the existence of any problem to which he doesn’t have answers. The book concludes with a poignant chapter examining whether a hard Brexit could have been avoided. It’s a measure of how toxic things became that, of all May’s negotiations over Brexit, Barwell’s favourite was with union leader Len McCluskey, “the one person who showed some understanding of where the prime minister was coming from and was honest about what he was looking for”.
It’s that eye for a deal that makes Always Red (OR), McCluskey’s own juicy, take-no-prisoners memoir, so riveting. The former Unite leader has a reasonable claim to be the architect of Corbynism, having supported the rule changes under Ed Miliband that later helped the left break through in a leadership election, and then supplied funding, staff and strategic nous to an inexperienced Corbyn operation. The book is slippery on the intertwined nature of his private and political lives (Jennie Formby, the mother of one of his four children, ended up as Labour’s general secretary, while his partner Karie Murphy became Corbyn’s chief of staff) and arguably on antisemitism within Labour. But the final chapter on how unions can best exert leverage should be required reading for anyone in politics (or business).
While McCluskey blames Corbyn’s thumping 2019 defeat on Brexit, Sebastian Payne’s Broken Heartlands (Macmillan) is a more nuanced take on Labour’s lost northern strongholds. Raised in Gateshead, Payne brings intimacy and depth to his subject, including thoughtful interviews with everyone from Labour’s “king of the north” Andy Burnham to Norman Tebbit reflecting on the miners’ strike.
Fiona Hill’s memoir There Is Nothing for You Here, describing how a British coalminer’s daughter from Bishop Auckland grew up to advise Donald Trump’s White House (and testify damningly at his impeachment hearing), ranges even further to explore populism’s relationship with rust belts across Europe, America and Russia.
After living with the Covid-19 pandemic for so long, I didn’t think I wanted to read another word about it, but the former Sage adviser Sir Jeremy Farrar’s Spike (Profile), co-written with journalist Anjana Ahuja, is as gripping as a thriller. Combining candour about what the scientists got wrong with horror stories about the chaos inside Downing Street, it concludes with a fascinating examination of why the argument for a lockdown last autumn was lost. Farrar’s is an important account of how judgment can get clouded in a crisis, whether by groupthink, bias or pure stubbornness.
Interestingly, Farrar found Dominic Cummings one of the few Downing Street staffers prepared both to ask the right questions of scientists and listen to the answers. So in the spirit of seasonal goodwill, the next recommendation comes via Cummings, who once tweeted that thousands of lives could have been saved if people in government had read it. Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset (Piatkus), a guide to recognising when you’re wrong and changing course accordingly, may not quite live up to that hype but is the stuff of which New Year’s resolutions are made. She argues convincingly for taking the drama out of changing your mind, seeing it as a process of constant small updates rather than huge mortifying U-turns; just keep regularly checking your beliefs against emerging evidence, and recalibrating. Her chapter on what happens when beliefs harden into identities, or things we daren’t abandon for fear of a broader unravelling, offers useful insights into what drives culture wars.
A similar theme reverberates through the Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland (Viking), a fascinating reckoning with a history of empire that he never learned at school. Born in Wolverhampton to parents of Punjabi heritage, Sanghera argues passionately that Britain will never work out “who we are or who we want to be” without confronting its colonial past, ending on a hopeful note with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Any bluff old-school Tories on your Christmas list, however, might prefer the former Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s Beyond a Fringe (Biteback). Mitchell followed his MP father into parliament via the traditional conveyor belt of boarding school, the army, Oxbridge and the City; the jauntiness with which he skips over the darker edges of all this is just starting to grate when the author, a One Nation Conservative whose great passion was boosting spending on overseas aid, swerves decidedly off piste. By turns funny and thoughtful, it’s an account of how the establishment works written by someone self-aware enough to recognise the preposterousness of it. For a full account of all the last year’s preposterousness, however, there is little to beat John Crace’s latest compendium of sketches A Farewell to Calm (Guardian Faber).
Every year should end by looking hopefully to the future, and that’s where James Plunkett’s End State (Trapeze) comes in. Amid a drought of new ideas on the left, the former Gordon Brown aide turned thinktank wonk has produced a cheerful but realistic book arguing that an era of technological and political upheaval could still be harnessed for the public good. Things, as they say, can only get better.
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