Effing ferrets in high places

The Queen's ex-press secretary has written a novel. Robert Winder wonders why; Spin Doctor by Michael Shea HarperCollins, pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
Michael Shea isn't really famous enough to count as a celebrity novelist, but he did spend ten years as the Queen's Press Secretary, and his new thriller is about sharp practice in high places - there's a plot by stealthy establishment types to hijack the government of Britain. So it can hardly help inviting the same kind of response as the latest work by, say, a supermodel or a tennis player. After a few pages it is obvious that the book is written like a synopsis that no one has bothered to flesh out. "The bankers were key players," we learn. "The stakes were high. The meeting had gone well. Minds had met. Strategies were agreed upon. Fees were negotiated." It is embarrassingly perfunctory, but never mind: the author has lots to offer when it comes to genuine inside dope. "Michael Shea," we are told, "has created an alarmingly authentic political thriller, set in a world of which he has unrivalled inside knowledge."

It's disappointing, then, that Shea has declined to wash through the royal family's dirty linen, where we could have trusted his interpretation of the stains; instead he has written a routine saga about prime ministers and backroom boys - full of the kind of low-level heeing and hawing familiar to anyone who has watched political soaps on the telly. Everything is strictly hush-hush and a word in your ear and Lord no, wouldn't be seen dead in the place and, well, different ball game now, old boy.

The hero is a consultant called Mark Ivor - the spin doctor - who tells top people how to blackmail their opponents and still look sincere on the news. He's supposed to be a top-class mover and shaker, but for the most part he's just a mouthpiece for some glum platitudes about public life ("Politics is like acting. . . A private life was impossible in the goldfish bowl of politics"). The technical details in the book are unambitious: when our hero starts attracting the attentions of the Secret Service ("Ivor knew a bug when he saw one") it is hard to know whether he's been leafing through the Ladybird Book of Espionage or the Bumper Book of World Insects.

The book's conspiratorial flavour comes from the assertion that Britain is ruled by a smiling, bland, self-serving Mandarin elite that pulls all the necessary strings: politicians and the rest are simply puppets. Is this what passes for "alarmingly authentic . . . all-too-plausible"? These days, public cynicism about politics surpasses the tired thrillerish convention that there are sinister hands invisibly guiding affairs of state. And as for inside knowledge, well, there are several possibilities, all of them alarming. Either Shea wasn't listening when he was in on all those high-level conversations, or he's decided not to spill a single bean; or - worst of all - the Cabinet and the Civil Service really do talk as they do in the book. Here's a typical exchange:

"Now, got a drink? OK. We've got a problem."


"Sex scandal."

"I thought the system had sat on it. Rupert Shand said . . ."

"There's more. And we can't use Bangkok again."

"Leave it all to the chief whip, Michael. He knows who's sleeping with whom, who's a pervert, who's merely whoremongering. He can handle it."

"The one we killed was about Prentice."

"I thought his resigning for family reasons was a little sudden. What was it?"

"His mistress is half Iraqi. Links with Baghdad intelligence. Pity. I liked and trusted Prentice."

This frozen rehearsal of our favourite scandals might sound like a chat between a couple of trainee mafiosi, but this is the Prime Minister and his closest adviser. So now we know what they do in Number Ten all day - sit around talking about who's sleeping with whom and whom to bump off next. Thank God Shea was there on our behalf, building up his "unrivalled inside knowledge". It is not even as if this is a roman a clef. It is tempting to see the book's weak, vacillating Prime Minister as John Major; but later we find that under Ivor's expert guidance the PM has become smooth and skilful with words ("he could slalom down a verbal ski-slope, zigzagging around the rocks of unpalatable truth") - so bang goes that theory.

There are plenty of villains in the book: there's a right wing aristocrat who once worked as a spy for Romania and who now plans the bloodless coup in Downing Street; or a shifty business tycoon with a taste for fraud and murder. Ivor himself, the wise and passionate spin doctor, is not above blackmailing a senior politician until he commits suicide. But Shea reserves his sniffest disdain for the press, in particular, a reporter called Fred Cree (a play on "cred-free'', presumably). "Fred Cree was a born misfit... Fred Cree was unfailingly, unambiguously bitter... Fred Cree was vicious... Cree's motivation in life was envy." Get the rough idea?

Actually, Cree seems to do pretty good work exposing millionaire criminals, but Shea is more concerned with his red eyes and unsightly impetigo - dead-cert signs of corruption. After a while, we can't help liking him, partly because he works for the Independent, and must therefore be a fearless and incorruptible seeker after truth. Anyway, the spin doctor dislikes Cree, so has a quiet word with his editor, and it's bye-bye Fred - sacked for fiddling his expenses ("The Finance Department have been through these receipts like effing ferrets"). Wow. Effing ferrets! That's inside knowledge for you. That's exactly the way people talk round here.