Chatto & Windus, £25

Eden: The Life and Times of Anthony Eden, First Earl of Avon, 1897-1977, by DR Thorpe

A Prime Minister out of tune with his times

Perhaps the most accurate – and certainly the cruellest – comment on Anthony Eden's bare year and three quarters in Downing Street comes from his successor, Harold Macmillan. Anthony was trained up for the 1938 Derby, Supermac sagely declared: unfortunately, the race was delayed until 1955. Frustrated by the long years as Churchill's heir-apparent, the Eden who emerges from DR Thorpe's scrupulous and exhaustive biography is a man out of time, a politician who arrived in office to find that the rules by which he had always operated swerving out of kilter.

The rudest shocks came in foreign policy, but they were apparent elsewhere. As a domestic politician, Eden presided, without in the least understanding the process, over what one analyst calls "an interlude between two periods of social change: the state-led social reconstruction of the 1940s and the consensus-driven discontents of the 1960s". Within a decade, the courteous interviews of Eden's final stint as Foreign Secretary ("Mr Eden, with your considerable experience of foreign affairs...") had given way to the satire of That Was The Week That Was.

There is a case for saying that Macmillan, always the astutest of operators, was simply a passable imitation of Eden's genuine article: the bright, honourably-minded young man, sobered by the Great War, keen to make the world a better place for those without his advantages. To intelligence (an Oxford first in Oriental Languages) Eden added charm, a dapper wardrobe and personal connections. He was an MP in his mid-twenties, Foreign Secretary at 40, and a magnet for the susceptible lady voter. "The older the woman, the deeper the swoon," an observer of Tory garden fetes remembered.

Suez blew his premiership apart. The surgeon's knife that severed his gall bladder did the rest. Eden became an unwitting victim of the 1956 US presidential election, humiliated by the man he regarded as Britain's natural ally. Eisenhower later had the grace to admit that Eden's forced climb-down was the great foreign policy blunder of his presidency.

Diligently researched, and making good use of material from his previous lives of Selwyn Lloyd and Alec Douglas-Home, DR Thorpe's biography suffers only from an habitual deference to the mighty figures who wander around within it, and Eden's private life – notably his first marriage, which ended in divorce – rarely obtrudes.

Among the photographs, my favourite shows Eden, Union Jack behind him, gravely shaking the hand of an elderly woman outside his committee rooms at the 1955 election: a little symbol of past times, like a three-cornered hat or a hansom cab, vanished into darkness.

The reviewer's biography of George Orwell will be published in July

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