Disraeli has a lot to answer for

It started in the 19th century. Now you can't move for MPs flogging their fiction. Roger Clarke looks at the sad state of the 'Westminster novel'

"W hen I want to read a novel," said Benjamin Disraeli, "I write one." Many MPs share this view. There are now more published novelists in the House of Commons than at any time in its history, and even Commons clerks like Philip Hensher (Other Lulus, 1994) are in on the act. Next week sees the publication of Edwina Currie's second blockbuster, A Woman's Place (Hodder pounds 16.99), a torrid tale of parliamentary sex where homophobic MPs are exposed as being secretly gay and Currie's alter-ego, Elaine Stalker, is abducted by a sexually-fixated care-in-the-community patient. No wonder Julian Critchley, her parliamentary colleague but literary rival, huffily prescribes a "cold shower" for her, and dismisses her dairy sex scenes as something "from a cookbook".

There are, it will depress Mr Critchley to know, more Westminster fictions on the way. Veteran novelist Douglas Hurd, who admits to writing "in a tank at Sarajevo", says there are "a whole new lot of MPs writing novels", but won't name the guilty men. Labour MP Chris Mullin (author of A Very British Coup) reveals he often finds single pages of manuscripts left in House of Commons photocopiers late at night "with the main character inevitably named Buffy". "They sound like Labour novels," says Douglas Hurd sweetly, seeming to miss the point that in Labour novels the main character is invariably called Alf. Mavericks like Julian Critchley often take to the genre to vent some spleen (in Floating Voter likening Norman Lamont to a gangster and Gerald Kaufman to salad dressing, "one part oil to five parts vinegar"), and he doesn't even bother to disguise their names. Norman Lamont wants to write a novel, according to one political correspondent. After all, he did have a Miss Whiplash in his basement, which is something not even Edwina Currie dreamed up.

And yet the "Westminster novel", with all its promise of Machiavellian intrigue and gothic backdrop, has never looked tattier. Even Jeffrey Archer has been careful not to write too many, and Roy Hattersley has assiduously stuck to writing safe Yorkshire sagas. Only Edwina Currie has managed to squeeze new life into the genre by sexing it up a bit.

Disraeli was the first "serious" Westminster novelist. (Charles Dickens may have been a Commons reporter, but he never dabbled in the genre.) Though his books are largely unread today, Disraeli was already a trendy novelist by the time he reached parliament (and earning considerably bigger advances than Dickens). As a minister, he used the "Blue Books" of parliamentary committees and royal commissions as source material; the "First Report from the Midlands Mining Commission, South Staffs, 1843" provided key material for his novel on Chartism, Sybil.

John Major's favourite novelist, Trollope, tried to get elected in 1868, feeling he'd like a place on the "top brick of the chimney". The experience scarred him. He was taunted about his "fiction" at the hustings, and a Tory candidate shamelessly handed out money bribes to the electorate. But as with Disraeli in Coningsby, Trollope was able to use his "squalid" electioneering experiences in his novels. He wrote afterwards: "I was unable to assume that air of triumphant joy with which a jolly, successful candidate should be invested."

"Triumphant joy" would be a perfect description of the mien of ex-MP Jeffrey Archer, who is also one of the main characters in Julian Critchley's malevolent Brighton Conference farce, Floating Voter (1992). Archer, surely the most successful political novelist, became an MP in 1969 and has been exuding a kind of "triumphant joy" ever since, supposedly turning to writing to pay off debts ("It's a myth," he told me). He is happy to cultivate a public image of courtier to the powerful. Is he really privy to secrets of State? Did his plots really happen?Who cares? First Among Equals, his yarn of parliamentary rivalry, has sold over two million copies, which is more than the combined sales of all of his rivals in the house.

Tory MPs seem keener on writing novels than their counterparts in the house, though they are forever looking over their shoulders, worrying about displeasing the whips. Michael Spicer wrote a dystopian novel in the Seventies called Final Act ("as she dried herself in front of the automatic moisture absorber, Elizabeth considered the day ahead"), a shockingly bad piece of science fiction set in a future Britain that has become a helpless satellite of a bloated Soviet state. In 1988, ambitious junior Foreign Office wallah Tim Renton, Douglas Hurd's FO chum, wrote Dangerous Edge, about an ambitious junior Foreign Office wallah. And in 1992, Nigel West (aka Rupert Allason) took a rest from spy non-fiction to write A Murder in the House about a "red-haired Welshman" windbag Labour MP who is murdered just outside Parliament. Highlights include a Northern Ireland Secretary filmed by MI5 picking up a rent-boy in Belfast.

Before he became Labour MP for Sunderland, Chris Mullin wrote A Very British Coup (1982) which sold over 50,000 copies in paperback and was developed into an award-winning TV drama. "It hit a nerve at the time," says Mullin, in its depiction of a left-wing government being undermined by a corrupt establishment. Busy now with constituency work, Mullin finds no time to write. But his colleague in the Tony Benn camp, Brian Sedgemore, has managed a couple of what a politician might call "disappointing" novels (after completing such worthy tomes as The How and Why of Socialism) of which Mr Secretary of State (1978) was his first ("drunk and saturated with sex, he wanted to be Prime Minister more than he wanted people to like him"). Disappointing, too, was Joe Ashton's gruelling cloth-capped Grass Roots, published the previous year. Ashton on Soho: "It was a world of Chinese, West Indians... of whores, homosexuals, con men, tricksters... porno magazine shops and everything cheap and decadent... what did these people know about the pits and slag heaps of Yorkshire? Why didn't they care about the unemployment in Gritnall." Quite.

The single most distinguishing characteristic of the Westminster novel would appear to be the almost complete absence of quality. Like the celebrity novel, most of these books are unpublishable without a famous name attached to them. All the famous MP-novelists of the previous generation - Maurice Edelman, Lawrence Fienbrough, David Walder, AEW Mason - have been consigned to the unpurchasable sections of second-hand bookshops, and completely forgotten. The same fate surely awaits the current crop. When Francois Mitterrand died recently, it was revealed that he'd always wanted to write novels; after all, Caesar, Napoleon and Churchill all harboured literary ambitions (Churchill wrote one obscure novel aged 23, its original title was the Edwina-esque Affairs of State). The French should be grateful that Mitterrand confined his contribution to culture to green-lighting great buildings rather than writing great fictional tomes. But with the possibility of giving up the day job increasing as a general election looms, British politicians are unlikely to kick the literary habit.

SEVEN ESSENTIAL COMPONENTS OF THE WESTMINSTER NOVEL FOR ASPIRING MPs:

1. Always start at least one chapter: "Big Ben was striking when..."

2. Get your own back. Julian Critchley does. And Edwina Currie's alter- ego, Elaine Stalker, chillingly suggests an over-sexed MP cool his "ardour" by sharing "crab paste with Anne Widdecombe".

3. Get a rent boy in there somewhere. Or go "back to basics" with a female prostitute.

4. Get the Libyans to hi-jack something.

5. Quote Browning at some point.

6. Dedicate your book to the PM or Chief Whip.

7. Sun headlines are essential and fun to write (Douglas Hurd's effort: "Out you Go").

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum