BOOK REVIEW / Monopoly on a grand scale: 'Disraeli' - Stanley Weintraub: Hamish Hamilton, 25 pounds

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IN CHOOSING its leaders, the Tory party has always been careful to select people who would best serve the collective interest, however tenuous their relation to mainstream party thought or regrettable their personal characteristics. Edward Heath and Lady Thatcher are examples from our own age - detached and rather marginal figures at the time of their accession, picked because it was thought that they could win elections rather than for ideological soundness. But by far the most incongruous, who went on to become one of the most successful Prime Ministers of the century was Benjamin Disraeli.

In the conext of mid-19th-century English politics, Disraeli resembles a hoopoe becalmed on a lawnful of starlings. Jewish, mercenary, 'literary', flamboyant, he stood for everything that a Tory party shaken by the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Bill was supposed to abominate. Hugely in debt, his parliamentary seat established on a dubious property qualification, he somehow found himself at the head of a country, partly at odds with its leader (Sir Robert Peel) over protectionism. In a world measured out in titles and acres, he seemed excluded by race, upbringing, and even personality; a remoteness from the social core that was thought to explain some of his more outrageous manoeuvrings after office. As Lord Stanley, later, as the Earl of Derby, his party chief suggested to Queen Victoria: 'Mr Disraeli has had to make his position, and men who make their positions will say and do things which are not necessarily to be said or done by those for whom positions are made'.

Disraeli made his position, but it was many years before he had it firmly within his grasp. For someone whom retrospect tends to place at the heart of English political life for nearly the whole of the Victorian age, he took a long time to arrive. Getting into parliament took several attempts (he was eventually elected for Maidstone in 1837 at the age of 33). Once there, he spent years as a figure of fun, satirised in the press for his fantastic appearance and his Jewishness and abused at the hustings with racial taunts (of 'Shylock' and 'Old clo's'). When he was forced out as Chancellor after a brief period in office in the early 1850s it was assumed that his career was over. The two prime ministerships and definitive literary success came late in life, and there was little in his early fumblings as a politician or a hack to foreshadow them.

It comes as no surprise to find out that an enduring theme of Stanley Weintraub's massive biography is the continual precariousness of Disraeli's position. In debt to the eyeballs from his youth, he still owed pounds 4,000 to long-suffering creditors as late as the 1870s (in middle life, contemplating a retreat to literature, he had to hang on to his seat simply to avoid being imprisoned). His political ascent was always liable to be frustrated by an apparent lack of principle. 'Could I only satisfy myself that Disraeli believed what he said, I should be more happy,' wrote one of his acolytes in the 'Young England' movement of the 1840s. It was an evergreen worry, even on the Tory front bench. He began his career as a novelist to help him into politics and took it up again in the 1840s as an ideological tool and pursued to lucrative effect in his retirement. As a novelist, he provoked scores that took decades to settle. Thackeray, who had cruelly sent up Coningsby (1847) in Punch, was a target as late as 1880, pilloried in the character of St Barbe, the paranoid critic of Endymion.

A less determined - and less lucky - man might not have emerged so spectacularly into the light as the chief royal confidant of the age. The Queen took against him from the outset, owing to his treatment of Peel; Albert thought he represented an ominous democratising spirit. In fact, despite some more or less genuine nods in the direction of the national interest, the only spirit Disraeli represented was his own. He married for money, having previously enjoyed the favours of a string of aristocratic harpies such as the notorious Lady Sykes, and gamely applied himself to high- born backers who invariably turned up trumps: Lord Lyndhurst fixing his first parliamentary seat, Lord George Bentinck underwriting the country house in Buckinghamshire which gave him a property qualification for the safe Beaconsfield consituency. The whole edifice lay balanced on the edge of a precipice. Among several revealing vignettes, Weintraub supplies an account of an evening in July 1841 which reads like a Thackeray novella: noble lordships being entertained in the great dining room, powdered footmen in the hall, and bailiffs virtually queueing on the doorstep.

Professor Weintraub has written a discursive and slightly garrulous book, which occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of incidentals: Gladstone's redemptive forays after streetwalkers, what his subject thought of a dinner menu in 1837. There are also one or two errors - Bellamy's, the MPs' dining room was surely famous for veal rather than pork pies - and some of the longer sentences, bristling with sub-clauses, begin to resemble expanding suitcases. The political background, too, is thinly sketched. But Weintraub's flair for narrative cancels out many of these imperfections. In the end one keeps reading simply to see what happens. Will his creditors catch up with him? Will he bring down Peel? What will the Queen say? If this makes Disraeli's career sound like a vast and labyrinthine game, a kind of parliamentary Monopoly on the grand scale - then it is fair to say that this was probably his own conception of public life. Like many a Tory leader he succeeded not through principle or policy but by ensuring that the decisive issue put before both colleagues and the electorate was merely himself.