Elephants and morals in a sweat

THE FINAL CUT Michael Dobbs HarperCollins £14.99

Policy decided upon by cynical self-interest, a government split to the core over Europe, a cabinet motivated solely by the retention of power at all costs: Hansard can make pretty thrilling reading these days. And the last part of Michael Dobbs's political trilogy about the final embittered chapter in the career of Francis Urquhart has its moments too.

The Final Cut centres on FU in crisis: just as he is about to overhaul Mrs Thatcher as the longest-serving Prime Minister of the modern era, the word is out he's finished, washed up, tired. His past, as a young national service officer in Cyprus, is catching up with him faster than a non-privatised express train, and his future, at the head of the Urquhart Institute, looks about as enticing as a spell in opposition. Around him plots are being hatched, allegiances formed, knives being sharpened by his enemies and - it's much the same thing - colleagues. But FU, as is his way, is not prepared to go without taking the lot down with him. Never has a nickname been more appropriately coined.

Michael Dobbs is, by day, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. So it remains completely mystifying where he found the inspiration for a parade of characters who represent the most contemptible bunch of second- raters ever committed to print. For instance, he writes this about a fictitious government figure, a man of no principle, prone to talking up his past for his own social advancement: "It had stuck, like so many other imaginative fictions about his origins and achievements. You could fool some of the people some of the people all of the time and Geoffrey reckoned that was enough."

That is, incidentally, Geoffrey not Jeffrey.

But the biggest bastard of the lot, a collosus in a convocation of sods remains FU. Urquhart is a magnificent creation, who has grown through Dobbs's trilogy; thanks less, it has to be said, to his writing than to the fleshing out given by Ian Richardson in Andrew Davies's television adaptation. Such is the mental picture we carry of Richardson in the role, it seems Dobbs now writes in stage directions for his leading man: "For an endless breath Urquhart said nothing. The lips closed, grew thin, like the leathered beak of a snapper turtle, and the eyes ignited with a reptilian malevolence and a desire to do harm that Mackintosh could physically feel."

In the end the problem with this book is that FU is now so strongly realised, the lesser mortals who wilt in his political shadow cannot hold our attention as he does. Half this book is taken up with plotting Urquhart's demise: an in-fighting which cannot, by definition, include the PM himself. When he appears, the page lights up. When he is elsewhere, off camera, all goes dim. It is a case of no FU, no comment.

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