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At last a woman, not just a Conservative

WHEN Edwina Currie was still a parliamentary sprite she made one of the most memorable incisions into the always ambiguous identity of the Tory lady. 'I'm not a woman, I'm a Conservative,' she said in her triumphalist way when I interviewed her for a book on Conservative women, The Iron Ladies.

During the sobering interregnum between then and now, Currie has changed. Her novel, A Parliamentary Affair, published this week, is a monument to her metamorphosis.

For her, as for the other lonely women on the Conservative benches, coming out as a woman was a crisis. Currie conquered that dilemma: self- denial was a condition of her success. In the Eighties her audacity and vanity disguised the degree to which her gender was cauterised. She felt no pain.

Or so it seemed. But those were the days before she was shafted. She was coarse, often candid, sometimes courageous. None of that landed her in trouble when her jibes were directed at the exploitable classes, to whom she always extended a royal 'we'. After all, she claimed to have come from the base, common and popular. Self-made and successful, she was a confident advocate of Thatcherism's project to make Britain over.

But when her argument with society extended to an argument with her government, this bold woman had to be punished. She was braver than her boss, Kenneth Clarke, during the great row about salmonella, when she was probably more right than wrong. That was the end of her career with her own generation of Tory cads. Chastened, she sought revenge.

Yet she has not settled scores and has not caused a scandal. Her revenge is her novel, in the idiom of the sex- and-shopping bonkbuster. Her target is not an individual but a system. As a portrait of her party, her chosen genre is more disquieting than her colleagues' memoirs because it discloses more than Cabinet secrets. It reveals the death of politics in the place that prides itself as the Mother of Democracies.

I had expected, dear reader, to join you in a light-hearted scamper around Currie's confection. The surprise, however, is that the politics is a better read than the sex. This is despite the debut of masturbating woman MP, on page 68. Do the literati among our boy politicians own up to onanism?

Yet this is not an erotic book. To be honest, any book that uses words like 'every fibre of her being' and 'spent' when talking about semen deserves to be pulped. But something more serious is at stake than formulaic writing. The House of Commons could be a corporation. Power is what excites these men. Politics is only the public context and the constraint that adds adrenalin to the dangerous liaisons. The heroine herself, Elaine Stalker, becomes prey in the polygamy that is how corporate man organises his sex life.

Currie was never one to empathise with the exploited. But some of her best characters here are people in pain: closet queers and politicians' wives. The high-flyer herself suffers the same fate as the political wife - endlessly waiting, deferring her public gratification for the private pleasures of brief encounters which leave the reader with an exhaustion that comes not from excitement but from anxiety. Oh God, those ridiculous affairs in which the frisson comes not from orgasmic grandeur but from risk, fright, longing and loss.

The politics disappears in this book. As it did in life. Crass values, corruption of thought, megalomania describe this picture of Britain's ruling party in which the sex provides the clue to the political practice. That is the book's triumph - it is not a romp, it is a tragedy. Its climax is a salutary sex scene in which Stalker's lover, a contender for the premiership, gets what he's always wanted, his woman spreadeagled across his ministerial desk, her face flattened, no eye to meet his eye, taking her from behind. She hated it. He loved it. She never told him.

Always one to risk saying the unsayable, Currie has done it again in A Parliamentary Affair. Now she is taking her politics to somewhere that seems more serious, to Europe. She seems to have recovered herself, the horrible House has finally made a woman of her and, if asked now, she might say: 'I'm not a Conservative, I'm a woman.'