We have come a long way, thankfully, since the days of political wives being expected to stand mutely by their man. But Sasha Swire is still perhaps unusual in standing behind hers with a notebook. A former journalist who gave up her career to look after her family, she had kept a diary since childhood, and carried on jotting down daily insights gleaned throughout her husband Hugo’s time as a minister under their good friend David Cameron (and subsequently as a backbencher under Theresa May). She insists she never originally intended to publish the resulting inside story of a turbulent Tory decade, for fear it would be seen as a betrayal. Yet somehow she ended up showing the diary to a literary agent – as one does, when absolutely determined not to betray anyone – and bang, here she is, author of one of the most thrillingly indiscreet political memoirs I have ever read. The dedication, to Hugo, consists of one single breezy word: “Sorry!” Well, the reader won’t be.
Imagine the Alan Clark diaries, but written by his wife Jane instead: all the high-octane political gossip, set against a backdrop of country house shooting weekends and boozy dinners at Chequers, but seen through the sceptical eyes of a woman one step removed from all the head-butting stags. From Samantha Cameron’s appalled reaction to the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, to what can only be described as too much information about David Cameron’s colonoscopy, she spills the guts of four governments in a book most of Westminster will doubtless be reading this autumn. One can only imagine Buckingham Palace’s reaction meanwhile to her observation, following a private dinner with Prince Edward in 2010, that he “seems overwhelmed with relief that the Conservatives have got in”.
But there’s far more to this book than reheated pillow talk. There is an acute political intelligence at work, of the sort that makes one wonder what might have been had Swire not settled for experiencing politics vicariously through her husband. She revels in being a “difficult” spouse, bunking off a ministerial garden party rather than make boring small talk, and heading straight for the conversational jugular with her husband’s colleagues. As the daughter of former defence secretary Sir John Nott, the author knows her own way round Whitehall, and her instincts are razor sharp; she is scathing from the off about “seven-year-old Gavin Williamson”, at the time just an eager young prime ministerial bag-carrier, and has Keir Starmer pegged as a potential Labour leader almost from the moment he enters parliament.
For those struggling to place Hugo Swire, an Old Etonian former army officer, he was never really a household name. Under Cameron, he held middle-ranking jobs at the Northern Ireland Office and the Foreign Office, before being unceremoniously fired by Theresa May. But the Swires were extremely plugged-in socially, and during the coalition years that’s what mattered. They were close enough to “Dave and Sam” to spend the day after the Brexit referendum getting sloshed with the defeated prime minister, while he raged about those he felt had wronged him. (Suffice to say that Michael Gove comes out of things badly; Swire portrays him as volatile, untrustworthy and faintly odd, while his longstanding consigliere Dominic Cummings “looks like one of those odd amoebas you find in jars in school science labs” and has an “over-inflated view of his own importance”). Swire’s other close confidantes include No 10 gatekeeper Kate Fall, a woman who knows where plenty of bodies are buried, and Amber Rudd, who as home secretary becomes her window into May’s cabinet once Hugo has fallen out of favour. (This book won’t make happy reading in the May household, with its detailed accounts of how the Cameroons sniped about “the Maybot” behind her back.)
But if the first half of the book is a giddy romp through life under the “chumocracy”, the second is more bittersweet, chronicling the fracturing of old friendships post-Brexit in what has become a court exiled from power. A leaver by temperament, in a circle of Tory remainers, by the end Sasha has come to feel something of an outsider herself. As her old friends argue fruitlessly over the best way to thwart a hard Brexit and plot unsuccessfully to manoeuvre Rudd into Downing Street, she backs the arch Brexiter Dominic Raab’s leadership bid before warming to the “slobbering golden retriever” Boris Johnson.
It’s very much a view of politics from inside “the gang” and to read it is to understand the grating rage of those outside, realising that power lies not around the cabinet table but in jolly kitchen suppers with an impenetrable clique of old friends. Swire is at least vaguely aware of how insufferable it can seem; glancing around the Camerons’ Downing Street Christmas party in 2011, she realises “we all holiday together, stay in each other’s grace and favour homes, our children play together, we text each other bypassing the civil servants … this is a very particular, narrow tribe of Britain and their hangers on.” By 2015 she is fretting that Ed Miliband is clearly “on to something” in pledging to abolish non-dom status and that the Tories have become too harsh towards the poor, “unforgiving of personal circumstances, relentless in telling people to stop whingeing and make a go of it”.
The culture in which they’re all steeped has not aged well, either. There is much sniggering public schoolboy sex chat – jokes about the size of fellow MPs’ honourable members, referring to the current health secretary as Matt Hands on Cock – and a startling moment on a Cornish coastal walk with the Camerons, where the then prime minister asks Sasha not to walk in front of him because her perfume makes him want to “push you into the bushes and give you one”. It seems unlikely there was any real lecherous intent; Cameron is, she writes, “typical of a certain type of Englishman who no longer knows how to flirt because they have become terrified of causing offence …” Still, it’s suddenly easier to see why sexual harassment in the Commons might not have been taken seriously enough. Yet, enraging as some will find it, this is the culture that governed Britain for most of the last decade, and there are few more gallopingly readable accounts of the strengths and weaknesses that led us to the present day.
Most explanations of why Britain voted first for Brexit, and then for Johnson’s radicalised strain of Conservatism, focus rightly on the wider demographic and economic shifts that fuelled a revolt against the status quo. But in Swire’s vignettes of Cameron’s chillaxed post-Downing Street life – telling his daughter he has a meeting, only to sit watching back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones – and her perceptions of a very different, less privileged generation rising through the party lies another small piece of the jigsaw. Towards the end, she writes, Cameron came to support a second referendum to prevent a hard Brexit, yet he doesn’t seem to have been driven to re-engage fully with the public debate. Was this gilded circle defeated, at least in part, because their opponents were simply hungrier? Perhaps we’ll have to wait for Carrie Symonds’s memoirs to find out.
• Diary of an MPs Wife: Inside and Outside Power is published by Little, Brown (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.