Diary of an MP’s Wife – Inside and Outside Power
By Sasha Swire
Little, Brown 2020
RRP: $49.99 (HB)
By Anne Henderson
There are various acidic assessments in Sasha Swire’s now published diaries – take your pick of some that give a flavour:
“Truth is those Patersons really piss me off” – reference to The Right Honourable Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and wife Rose whose suicide was under investigation at the time of the book’s release.
“Sam her usual leftie self” – reference to Samantha Cameron, wife of the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
At Number 10 – “Poor old Sarah Gove, who bends over backwards to please the Camerons, was lumbered with cooking all the food while Samantha was upstairs learning to cut patterns (she wants to set up a fashion business).” – reference to Sarah Gove, UK columnist and wife of Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education.
“Andrew does not go anywhere outside name-dropping territory. I’d barely sat down before he said, ‘My wife is CEO of Brunswick global.’” – reference to historian Andrew Roberts.
“Almost immediately, her new bezzies were squirming around her like snakes in a bucket. And Conservative MPs are good at shedding their skin when they sense power might be drawn away from them – and they are even more slimy if they think they are in with a chance of some of that power.” – reference to Theresa May and colleagues after she was declared the new Conservative parliamentary leader and prime minister in July 2016
At a late point in her Diary of an MP’s Wife – Inside and Outside Power, Sasha Swire records that her Conservative MP for East Devon husband, Sir Hugo Swire, had opined, after reading former prime minster David Cameron’s memoir in October 2019, that if she ever published her diaries:
I would have to resign from White’s, the Guards’ Club, my regimental association, the Old Etonian Association, Pratt’s and the Beefsteak, possibly the County Landowners’ Association, and almost certainly the Colaton Raleigh & District Ploughing Association.
This now begs the question, after healthy sales figures and endless reviews of the snide and indiscreet reveals in Sasha Swire’s Diary, whether Sir Hugo has any friends left or clubs and associations he is welcome at.
Sasha Swire’s Diary is largely a caustic take on a clique of Conservative Party (mostly) old Etonian MPs (the Cameroons), their wives, their advisers and their backers, financial and otherwise. On 10 December 2011, Swire writes:
But looking around at the Court of King David it feels as if this is actually the government, here and now. The closeness of this circle is unprecedented. They are all here, the ones that eat, drink, party together, they are all intimately interlocked, some from university days, some from the research unit, some later, such as with us through the selection procedure. We all holiday together, stay in each other’s grace-and-favour homes, our children play together, we text each other bypassing the civil service. There are old rows, forgiven betrayals and historic rivalries. This is a very particular, narrow tribe of Britain and their hangers-on.
Diary of an MP’s Wife – Inside and Outside Power covers the years from May 2010 to December 2019. Most of those targeted are either friends of the Swires or colleagues. After reading the book, one is left thinking, as the saying goes, why look out for enemies when you have friends like the Swires.
There is nothing new in published diaries of political operatives spilling the beans on colleagues and friends after years in the political hothouse. For those who do so, sales and royalties are guaranteed. And perhaps old friends and colleagues are easy to discard if money and being noticed (“having a voice” is the current phrase) are more your aim. Alan Clark in the 1990s did it for the Conservatives and the Thatcher government; Alastair Campbell for Labour and the Blair government.
It has been suggested in reviews that Sasha Swire has quite a few axes to grind. That said, from years spent as her husband Hugo’s political adviser (paid) and as the daughter of Sir John Nott, a Thatcher Government minister, Sasha Swire has developed quite a deal of political acumen. Her take on the political scene is sharp and witty and, in many ways, authentic if partial to the Swire side of things.
But, as in all diaries, there is an element of download that lets emotions out at moments of ire, hurt, resentment, doubt and so on. This closeness to the action and its reaction gives momentum and liveliness to the text. A good read and all that. But it also lessens objectivity. In Swire’s acknowledgements, she writes: “… to all the Cameroons for not mentioning me in their memoirs – this is payback!”
All diarists – certainly those published – are inclined to a superior view of those they comment on. It is an ego trip of sorts to write down day to day jottings that are assumed to be “comment to self”. Diaries are judgemental by their very nature – a personal assessment of daily observations and experience let loose in the privacy of a diary.
Being private, diary authors can range freely in the secrecy of their diaries. Public politeness is stripped away – an honest (according to the writer) assessment made of friends, enemies and colleagues, even family. In most cases, the really pertinent feature of any diary is what it reveals of the one who wrote it.
What then the shock for such jottings to come to light to be read by those critiqued within, much less to have others gain glimpses of personal embarrassments, colleagues’ treachery, what so-called friends say behind one’s back and so on. Added to this comes the shock to the author when reactions to the revelations are made. Sasha Swire was reported to have taken off to her East Devon farmhouse and switched off her phone in the days after her book’s release.
It would seem that Sasha Swire’s husband Hugo was privy to much of her diary’s contents. In Sasha Swire’s acknowledgement of “mostly to my husband, Hugo, a natural raconteur” suggests that without Hugo there would not be much of public interest in Sasha’s diaries to read. Many of the Whitehall and Cameron clique revelations in Diary of an MP’s Wife are gained from what Sasha’s husband has told her, anecdotes from occasions when she was not present at all. Which begs the question – apart from the prose – how much are these the “diaries of an MP’s wife” and how much are they “diaries of an MP”.
That being so, the result is both a timely, inside glimpse of a dysfunctional and inbred elite governing Britain, alongside a lack of self-awareness on the part of the author.
Hugo and Sasha Swire were as much a part of the dysfunction the Diary describes and analyses as any other of the Cameroons. A much quoted entry on David Cameron as prime minister (holidaying with the Swires), claiming Sasha’s perfume was such that it made him want to grab her and push her into the bushes and give her one, is almost a metaphor for the whole book. That Swire did not edit it out – DC says he has no recollection of it happening – suggests that she is both flattered to be thought so desirable and yet ready to expose Cameron’s alleged puerile sense of humour.
Reading the Diary, one gets the impression that Sasha Swire, the only daughter of a former MP – a Thatcher Defence Secretary, Sir John Nott – and with her axes to grind, is out to punish the hand that fed her. The subtitle Inside and Outside Power says it all. There are numerous references in Swire’s Diary that suggest she believes she has a superior take on what the political strategy should be but is not in a position to be listened to as “just a wife”. In fact, she was being paid most of the time as an adviser. And advisers are just that – meant to stay in the background.
The sense of being in the political shadows carries over to the personal – that her dear husband is being left out of more senior portfolios. While emphasising the Etonian clique that the Cameroons are and the advancement they have won, Swire is resentful that Hugo, an old Etonian, is overlooked precisely because of this:
Greening they loathe but must keep in place because she is a woman, Javid gets Culture because they like the fact that he’s Muslim and his father was a bus driver in Bristol. Hugo will never go further, because he is male, white, privileged.
All of which overlooks the fact that much of the Cameron Cabinet was also male, white and privileged and that Sajid Javid had had an 18-year pre-parliamentary career as a highly accomplished banker and took a 96 per cent cut in salary to go into politics. In December 2019, when Sasha Swire’s Diary ends, Javid was the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer.
However, it is this Swire chip on the shoulder mindset that gives the Diary its buzz. Living amidst the UK elite but conscious that so many have so much more in their investment accounts and others are higher up the pecking order, even while the prime minister is one’s best friend, leaves Sasha Swire ready to aim her arrow. And shoot she does. To the entertainment of readers.
The Prince of Wales is seen to be pushing not only a green agenda but also, avariciously, his own products sold from his estates; he has “thick Hanoverian hands”; he has his people arrange for hosts to serve only particular products from particular outlets; and he is revealed as finding the (green) rewilding agenda in Scotland causing “absolute devastation in the rivers”.
Prince Edward is “over-excitable like a puppy and, like his wife, highly opinionated about political matters”. And the PM himself, best friend and super wealthy, is put abruptly into his correct social space – sotto voce to her husband – as “so Home Counties” for suggesting a snooker table would go well in one of their East Devon barns.
MPs among the Cameroons seem to have all the wit of the occupants of a football locker room except their targets are more in the public eye. Numerous smutty jokes and misogynistic lewd observations are recorded in the Diary which Sasha Swire seems to enjoy or join in with to be part of the team. At a birthday party for Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne at 11 Downing Street, the PM and Hugo share jokes about various “male members”:
… notably Andrew Roberts’s. H says he knows someone who, having witnessed it unfurl, was still in recovery. He then goes on to Michael Gove’s – apparently his is pretty impressive too. ‘Rather like a slinky that comes down the stairs before the rest of the body,’ he adds.
One gets the impression the Etonian locker room has never quite left them.
After a day’s “shoot” the Swires spend time at the palatial home of Jonathan and Claudia Rothermere which is “rumoured” to have cost £40 million. Description of this exquisite site ends with SS mocking her husband for acting like “a faithful poodle sitting up on its hind legs” in reaction to the “tour” and poking at her hosts for leaving her “thinking that I have just been in the controlled scene of a Town & Country photoshoot” while assessing Claudia as a person where “you are only allowed to tread the path of perfection, yet somehow there is something absent”.
Campaign director for the Tories Lynton Crosby is compared to Thomas Cromwell and demeaned as of no influence when Cameron wins an outright majority but blamed when Theresa May (Old Ma May as SS nicknames her) delivers a hung parliament in June 2017. A story passed on from David Cameron reveals May being shown around Number 10 and producing her “Medusa stare” until she spied Samantha’s overly large dressing room:
…she sees her racks of shoes. Suddenly sunshine enters her soul. I think I’m going to like it here. Just one question … we won’t have to pay the bedroom tax, will we?
George Osborne (Boy George as he is nicknamed by SS) having returned to the backbenches after July 2016, tells Hugo that he cannot invite him to dinner as he has given up his club memberships. Hugo will have to organise it at one of his clubs. Has London no restaurants? Or perhaps it’s a way of avoiding the cost of paying?
Local fund raisers in the East Devon constituency are described in ways that leave the reader seeing them as yesterday’s people – gauche, reactionary, simple, boring and the last of the hangers on. You would imagine the Conservative Party is a long way short of government and not actually the government.
Baria Alamuddin is described as “the glamourous Lebanese journalist who doubles as Amal Clooney’s mother” and who goes on to speak of how “she had recently gone mad in Rome, buying a new wardrobe as she had been cooped up all summer with the ‘twins on Lake Como’”. Just who is name dropping here is hard to say.
Caustic comments aside, Sasha Swire’s diary entries of the last days of the Cameron and May governments and the rivalries for leadership are possibly the best things to come out of Diary of an MP’s Wife – Inside and Outside Power. The swings and double dealing, the favourites pushed who fail to win and the emergence of that enigma of leadership in Boris Johnson are energised in the telling from Swire’s front row seat.
Diary of an MP’s Wife – Inside and Outside Power is also a primary source of sorts on the dysfunction of not just one period in UK politics but of representative party politics across democracies in an age of 24/7 news, social media and kiss and tell publicity. The age of the “influencers”, the age of having a voice.
In an early entry in her diary, Sasha Swire noted (care of information suppled by Hugo) that her husband’s press secretary Craig Oliver had been taking notes of all manner of conversations. She writes: “Word is that Oliver is writing a memoir of his time at No 10. No one trusts him but there doesn’t seem to be anything that anyone can do about it.”
How ironic that the Cameroons and those who circled them were not aware that, in fact, it was a Cameroon wife who was not to be trusted.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.