Head of State by Andrew Marr, book review

Marr's foray into political fiction is sharp, lively and full of insider knowledge

When Andrew Marr's publishers scheduled the release date of a novel in which a tight referendum race means that "the entire future of the British Isles hung in the balance", perhaps they thought that, on the eve of Scotland's vote, we might need a little excitement. With the pro-Union camp guaranteed a double-digit lead, why not thrill the public with a satirical fantasia in which a knife-edge campaign convulses the country and the result will "echo around the world"?

"Events, dear boy, events" (and Marr does cite Harold Macmillan's lament) have caught up with Head of State. True, its imaginary plebiscite takes place in September 2017. It involves – as it still might – Britain's membership of the European Union. In an energetic romp crammed with half-familiar cameos daubed in various shades of slap, both Marr's protagonists defy the roman à clef conventions. The head of a "grand coalition" who renegotiated EU membership, his PM Bill Stevenson – cantankerous, eccentric, Churchillian, with a voice "all gravel and pebbles and fast-running water between them" – resembles no active player today. Neither, for all her dominatrix-like steel and guile, does his anti-EU opposition leader Olivia Kite, even if her allure recalls "a collision between Elizabeth I and Lady Thatcher".

As for the seismic shocks generated across politics and society by a too-close-to-call contest, Marr has hit a premature, and possibly unexpected, bullseye. Just 20 months after a serious stroke incapacitated the BBC presenter, writer, film-maker (and former editor of The Independent), he bounces back, bursting with mischief, zest and coded gossip. That is fabulous news. Yet Head of State achieves its prickle of headline-hugging urgency despite a premise that we have seen, or at least thought, before. Marr has already committed his own spoiler, in pre-publicity for the book in June. Still, as they say prior to the football results: if you don't want to know the score, look away from the next three paragraphs.

A few days prior to the referendum, the PM has suddenly died at his desk in Downing Street. To avoid panic, his demise must be concealed until the polls close. So a conspiracy unfolds in No 10. It draws in the unctuous Chief Whip, Ronnie Ashe; the camply Caledonian media chief (one "Nelson Fraser", perhaps not based on Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, but with his sporran fashioned from mammoth fur donated by Vladimir Putin); that ancestrally opaque Svengali of spin, Alois Haydn; a cabal of leathery but vicious Establishment dinosaurs made up of superannuated spooks, soldiers and plutocrats – and even, doing the PM's voice on the radio and through a loo door, Rory Bremner himself. Does he get a cut?

Around this conniving circle hover louche investigative journalist Lucien McBryde –probably not based on spin-doctor Damien McBride – who is addicted to "stimulating powder" and "stimulating, strong women", Kite's genteel but ruthless fixer Jennifer Lewis, and the old-school, expletive-volleying editor of the National Courier, Ken Cooper. Standing first at a tangent, but later dead-centre, are waspish historian Lord Trevor Briskett and that shambolic grande dame of literary Bohemia, Myfanwy Davies-Jones: Jen's mother.

The motif of a defunct leader is hardly fresh-minted. In fact, General Franco – according to credible accounts – passed away considerably in advance of his official departure. Marr's preface, though, states that he took the notion of the post-mortem political charade from Lord Chadlington. Indeed, "The Chadlington Consultancy" shares the book's copyright. Now, since Head of State recycles some routine jibes about those idle, gullible "underpaid dimwits" of the press, could it be payback time? "Peter Chadlington", Marr's collaborator, is not just "a member of the distinguished political Gummer family". Peter Gummer, Baron Chadlington, is also the president of David Cameron's constituency Conservative Association in west Oxfordshire, and the friend from whom the PM bought a plot of land for £137,000 in 2011. In 1974, Chadlington founded Shandwick, and became one of the godfathers of British political PR. Former CEO of lobbyist Huntsworth, he stepped down just last month in the wake of a profits slide. So a few months away from a crunch general election, one of the BBC's key political actors not only pools ideas with the PM's constituency president, but shares a copyright line with him. As another sort of paper might say: you couldn't make it up.

In Marr's novel, full-blown farce and well-salted insider gossip edge into a sharper, if not wholly serious, look around the darker corners of the UK state. The Machiavellian melodrama of House of Cards veers into The Thick of It, and then off into the shadows where fixers out of John Le Carré lurk. All backstage plots need a solid architecture, and here Marr excels. He leads us into a well-researched labyrinth of offices, corridors and tunnels in, and even more under, 10 Downing Street. This backstairs and subterranean intrigue rings true. As does the alarmingly timely advice from lanky banker Sir Solomon Dundas on how to short the pound and so make a pile thanks to "advance knowledge of a change in the likely outcome of the referendum".

Some false notes jar. Marr indulges in little digs against named historians and journalists who have antagonised him – most of all, the hapless Dominic Sandbrook, whose supposedly unread tomes provide the obscure location for letter-drops in the London Library. Even if the author doesn't, some characters buy into that brand of toxic posh whingeing in which Britain's moneyed elite slag off the people that they have systematically under-educated, deskilled and misinformed. Above all, there's something missing at the heart not only of this lively and enjoyable "political entertainment" but other types of British topical burlesque too. Let's call it the Murdoch System. Marr imagines No 10 cordoned off as a "crime scene" after his Baroque cover-up. Yet this kind of romp never exposes the power games that allowed a real conspirator – Andy Coulson, now serving his sentence – to lead the PM's media team. Although Alois the PR wizard spins and weaves, the novel lacks its Murdoch figure.

By and large, our satirists shun Murdochism: the name not just of one media magnate (currently toying with Scottish independence) but of a whole corrupting syndrome. So, if Head of State lands plenty of blows, it – or rather the genre it adorns – also pulls a few punches. Meanwhile, Marr has exuberant fun at the ragged edges of the process that excites Lord Briskett and, next week, might electrify us: "History in the making".

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