BOOK REVIEW / The trouble with the Dizzy heights of power: Disraeli: A Biography by Stanley Weintraub, Hamish Hamilton pounds 25

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'I THINK your being the leader of the Tory Party is the greatest triumph that Liberalism has ever achieved,' the French statesman Francois Guizot told Disraeli in 1849. There is indeed no stranger career in the annals of British history. The leader of the party of the landed aristocracy, Disraeli had no connection of any kind with the land, and spent nearly all his early years in debt. Indeed, when he became MP for Maidstone in 1837, it was said that 'the only way to keep him out of the House of Correction was to get him into the House of Commons'. His maiden speech was a disaster and he was howled down before being able to finish it.

Treated as a flaneur by the grave statesmen who led the Conservative Party, he was saved from political oblivion when Peel decided to revoke the Corn Laws. In destroying Peel, Disraeli split the Conservatives - and remains the only Tory in modern times to have split his party - who in consequence were unable to form a majority government again for 28 years. It is understandable if today's Conservatives regard unity as their most important political principle. They are perhaps dominated more by Disraeli's ghost than by the man.

In 1966, Robert Blake published an authoritative biography of this strange creature, half seer, half charlatan, showing that most of the obstacles to his political success were self-imposed. Far from having to surmount the prejudices of Victorian society against a baptised Jew of uncertain means, Disraeli had gone out of his way to flout both its financial and its sexual conventions. No other major British party leader has spent so long reaching the top of the greasy pole. It took him more than 20 years. But this was as much on account of the distrust he aroused as his origins. That he did eventually achieve the premiership shows not the bigotry of the Victorians but their tolerance, not their moralism but rather their refusal to be imprisoned within the straitjacket of tradition.

Blake sought to answer two questions - how Disraeli achieved power, and what he did with it once he had got it. He was more convincing in answering the first question than the second, judging the man a relative failure in office - as indeed he was, if evaluated by Gladstone's standards. For Disraeli was neither a capable legislator nor an effective administrator or head of Cabinet; yet he altered the spirit of his age in a way that Gladstone did not.

In the 1840s, Disraeli was the leader of a small coterie called 'Young England', which tried to develop, in contrast to Peel's narrow rationalism, a Toryism of the imagination based upon 'the use of ancient forms and the restoration of the past'. This was to be achieved by renewing the feudal principle of social responsibility, a principle which could so transform relationships between master and men that they would henceforth be based upon mutual respect rather than the cash nexus. Of this programme, Karl Marx declared that it was 'half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future' and that it showed a 'total incapacity to comprehend the march of history'.

Yet, in a curious way, Disraeli saw 'the march of history' rather more clearly than the founder of international communism. It was Disraeli who harnessed the new democratic electorate to the interests of the Conservatives and first applied to British politics, as Bismarck had done in Germany, the dictum that universal suffrage equalled counter-revolution. It was Disraeli who awakened the 'slumbering genius' of imperialism, Disraeli (far more than Bagehot) who emphasised the centrality of the monarchy in the symbolism of the democratic state. While Gladstone had become an embarrassment to the Liberals even before his retirement, Disraeli remains the founding father of the modern Conservative Party, perhaps the most successful electoral combination in any democracy. It is hardly possible to explain the success of the Conservatives without understanding Disraeli's legacy. So there is certainly room for a new biography that places Disraeli in the Conservative pantheon, and perhaps locating him within the tradition of Conservative political thought, where he remains a vital link between Burke and Coleridge in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and T S Eliot in the 20th. Unfortunately, these are not the aims that Stanley Weintraub has set himself.

Weintraub makes large claims for his book, which 'examines major documents and data hitherto unknown or unused and employs the perspectives of medicine, sexuality, and other biographical lenses which help to get to the roots of behaviour'. He has consulted a fresh hoard of private material, the Toronto edition of Disraeli's collected letters, but it cannot be said that this has yielded much that is new. Moreover, the 'psychological perspective' seems to be another name for guessing. Some years ago, Weintraub published a biography of Queen Victoria in which he speculated about the Queen's sexual appetite in the belief that this was of more importance than her policies. Now he proclaims a 'discovery' summarised in a Sunday Times headline: 'Scandal of secret children taints Disraeli's image'. However, conclusive evidence that Disraeli did in fact father two illegitimate children is lacking, and the verdict must remain, as Weintraub concedes, not proven.

In any case, who cares? Gladstone said that he had known 11 prime ministers, of whom only four had not been adulterers. Their identities would make an interesting parlour game. Peel? Russell? Derby? Still, those who want to read about sex can do so without wading through this 700-page biography, while for the historian there can be few things more dreary or insignificant than raking over the coals of dead love affairs.

Unfortunately, Weintraub has little to offer apart from the sex. For Disraeli tells us at great length a story that is already known. It includes nearly all the familiar anecdotes, some of which are true. On politics, it is seriously unbalanced, offering only 100 pages on Disraeli's 1874-1880 majority government. Moreover, the biography lacks the normal apparatus of footnotes and fails to give the page numbers of books from which it quotes. Nor do solecisms such as 'Sir' George Canning, 'William Cobden' and 'the 1839 Poor Law' give the reader any confidence that Weintraub has mastered the history of the period. However, the book is beautifully produced and undemanding to read: a useful Christmas present.