A Week in Books: Sixsmith misses his chance

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The Independent Culture

Perhaps there never will be a good day to bury bad news. Martin Sixsmith, the former transport department spin-doctor who once made a respectable living as a BBC correspondent, was "resigned" against his will after his colleague Jo Moore had twice suggested strategies for interring unwelcome news items. Part of his hurried exit deal involved a promise not to write an account of this affair. Yet the relevant clause forbade only memoirs, but not fiction.

The outcome of this bizarre loophole is Spin (£16.99), a vengeful political satire commissioned by Macmillan - Jeffrey Archer's current patron. Certainly, Spin would never have emerged from the Random House empire run by Gail Rebuck, who is married to Blair's pollster Philip Gould. Even HarperCollins, for all Murdoch's dalliances with the Tories, would have had serious qualms about a novel that presents a cocaine-dealing PM, a paedophile senior home minister and a government spin-machine that covers up murder.

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. All the same, it needs to stay palatable. And the bad news I have for Sixsmith is that his shabby little shocker serves up a diet of purest turkey. Set in 2011, in the wake of terror attacks on Canary Wharf, it depicts a quasi-fascist "New Project" administration, keen on eugenic measures to eliminate the underclass. Its grim secrets come to light thanks to the righteous zeal of... a mistreated spin-doctor. In this welter of crude gags and rib-nudging innuendo, Sixsmith has scraped the barrel so hard that it no longer holds any water: as fiction, as satire, even as payback. No blow is too low, no shot too cheap.

The level of roman-à-clef wit can be gauged by the minor figure of "Dewi Jones", a Welsh minister embarrassed when "caught with a strange man on Clapham Common on a snowy Boxing Day at three in the morning". Ever so daring. This has happened before, and still it baffles me: a bright insider who built a career around the political scene turns to fiction, and straight away descends into frantic gurning and hamming, like a tipsy show-off on karaoke night.

Who will buy this toe-curling tosh? Sixsmith himself provides the answer when a Downing Street spinner mocks the Today programme, with "its audience of sad bastards in the Westminster village, the saddo journalists and political observers". Well, he said it (if a bit inelegantly).

After seven smug years of Blair government, devotees of genuine political novels still await the New Labour answer to Joe Klein's Primary Colors. We don't expect Tolstoy; merely fiction set in the arena of state that lets in some light and shade, irony and surprise, complicated people and plausible events. In the meantime, novelists of insight and talent tend either to shun the corridors of British power (except those in the media they know and hate, as with AN Wilson or Martin Amis) or else, like Alan Hollinghurst, to deploy political upheavals as a sort of historical punctuation. TV drama - notably, The Project and The Deal - often does a subtler, stronger job with full-on parliamentary intrigue.

This is a howling shame. A regime that depends so abjectly on managed perceptions should offer heaven-sent opportunities for a 21st-century Trollope or Waugh to prise open the cracks between appearance and reality. So it may be time for a pro-active approach. Publishers should now be scouring the backbenches for a restless, disenchanted mind with all the feline finesse of Alan Clark's - but, one hopes, without any of the old monster's Nazism and narcissism. I can think of a couple of likely candidates; and so, undoubtedly, can Downing Street.