Nearly three years ago a blog appeared called The Carpetbaggers, which promised more than it delivered. Two journalists - one white, one black, using false names - had joined the Conservative Party to tell it like it is, from the inside. Our heroes ventured into the Richmond Conservative Association, met the candidate, an ageing activist named Robert, and an "elderly man in a blazer who has a military bearing and a limp", whom they called the Colonel. He was a perfect stereotype Tory, even to the point of spluttering about "political correctness gone mad".
But the blog ended as soon it had begun, with no second entry. Now it has been reborn as the opening of a book in which Chris Horrie and David Matthews set off on an anthropological quest to uncover the "Tory nation". They have had to stretch the definition of "Tory" to find enough material. Their search took them to a village cricket match in Sussex, a WI meeting in Basingstoke, the Royal Show in Warwickshire, a Country Landowners' Association Fair in Blenheim Palace, a conference of the UK Independence Party in Suffolk, and the Dagenham Town Show – all only tangentially relevant to their original mission of uncovering the heart of the Conservative Party.
They did also attend a few genuine party events, posing as disillusioned Labour voters, which allows them to write some sharp pen-portraits of George Osborne and a few minor figures, including the "chick-lit" author Louise Bagshawe, the Henley MP John Howell, and Shaun Bailey, the young black Tory candidate in Hammersmith.
Their unstartling conclusion is that the England of "warm beer, invincible green suburbs and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion", which the Conservative Party was formed to conserve, has gone, and the party "as a living, breathing part of our communities" is "close to extinction" despite the veneer of clever professionals at the top end. But, hey, what happened to the Colonel? The blog encounter with the Richmond Tories is described again with many of the same details, but no Colonel. The only plausible conclusion is that there never was a Colonel. Having invented him to spice up a pseudonymous blog, the authors fell back on the truth as they shed their pseudonyms and transferred to print.
That reveals their book's weakness. In the absence of literary invention, they have a pretty dull story to tell. Chris Horrie was co-writer of a fabulous book published in 1992 about life on The Sun. Then he was writing about funny, grotesque behaviour in an organisation that wielded alarming influence. This time, with very few exceptions, the book is about people who are elderly, powerless, and dull. Its cover promises "strange tales", but what it serves up is mostly just sad.