On almost every level, A Parliamentary Affair wants to have its cake and eat it. The heroine is an ambitious Tory MP who spends half her time banging on about how family values underpin Western civilisation, and the other half licking strawberries from the groin of a senior whip called - stand by for a satirical touch - Roger Dickson. The author digs at newspapers for their 'endless sleazy interest' in the private lives of public figures - yet this whole thing is an ultra-seedy kiss-and-tell fantasy about bed-hopping in Westminster. But the most striking contradiction is that a book so desperate to be racy, sexy and crammed with ooh-aah inside information should turn out to be so thoroughly, numbingly conventional.
Yes, this is one of those books in which people 'tuck into' steaks and 'dash off' glasses of sherry, in which September 'dawns' and meetings 'loom', in which characters 'wolf down' casseroles, take 'umpteen' holidays and 'wangle' days off; a world where waiters 'hover' and changes are 'afoot', where tears 'roll silently' down cheeks and shops do 'a roaring trade'. Ministers mutter things such as: 'The poor were ever thus', 'No such thing as a free lunch', and 'What's your poison?'. That's when they are not mouthing off about electoral technique ('the eye-contact-plus-smile trick'), Maastricht, left-wing troublemakers, and every trite political platitude you can think of. At one point Dickson gives a thin, hollow speech about environmental matters to the Tory party conference. It reads like a biting parody. But then we realise - we are supposed to applaud: this performance shows that Dickson has made it, and is the cue for lots of jolly rogering upstairs later on.
As for the plot, there isn't one. We follow the adulterous sexual careers of four politicians, and wait to see what happens when the papers get hold of the news. The dialogue is kindled by a failure of inspiration so persistent it seems almost miraculous. Early on we meet a senior minister and learn: 'Nigel enjoyed talking to women and they warmed naturally to him.' Lucky chap, we think. But all he said was: 'Ah, yes.' Quite a line, isn't it? I've been saying 'Ah, yes' to the women in the office all week, and not one of them has 'warmed'.
Still, by the standards of A Parliamentary Affair, 'Ah, yes' counts as a witticism. Elaine's conversation goes: 'This job is rapidly metamorphosing into something quite different to what I imagined it would be.' And when another minister starts to wax lyrical over the Australian newspaper editor whose 'womanly globes' he has been admiring on his day off, it is time for us to rapidly metamorphose into book-throwers: 'It's as if our . . . what we do together . . . is a spring of water falling on stony ground, bringing life, and joy in living. Now a flowering tree grows, and its fruits are perfect, invigorating. All you have to do is . . . reach out and eat.' Holy election fever] Most of us would leave the room if a government minister started wittering on like this; but the woman in question is moved: she smiles 'through her tears' and gives him a look of 'sweet accord'.
If this sort of tosh were simply the work of someone out to turn a fast buck, no one could object. But it is depressing to see a senior political figure using her hard-won notoriety only to trash political life with such exuberant vulgarity. Michael Portillo's dreaded chattering classes are nowhere near as subversive of the image of politics as this one book, with its tub-thumping claims to be a first-hand account.
So far as inside dope goes, there's not much here except the price of swordfish in the Commons canteen (pounds 8.45) and the nicknames for the Commons bars (lefties hang out in 'the Kremlin' - God, how funny). Otherwise, hidden among the embarrassing in-'jokes' - there is a raving loony candidate called D Healey, who wins 0.3 per cent of the vote - is a reckless vanity posing as vivacious candour. The author is hoping to represent us in Europe, it seems. The least we can do is move to her constituency and vote for someone else.
It doesn't matter that this is a bad book, but it is dismaying to see how thoroughly it has commandeered the time and resources of our cultural industry. Publishers often moan that the British never buy good books - yet they spend all their time and money pushing junk like this. Edwina Currie's is only the latest in a growing line of celebrity novels which no one bothers to pretend are anything more than fodder for the chat-show circuit. There is a widespread feeling that to mock these books is to be merely humourless, but sometimes a sense-of-humour failure is just what is needed. People often wonder whether any-old-one could write a bestseller, and the answer is no: any-old-one could write far better than this, but not many have put in the necessary years of political gaffes and misjudgement; not many have the right brand of narcissistic bravado.
The suggestion that novels are nothing more than dressed-up inside stories is also a blighted one. A Parliamentary Affair is stuffed with clumsy political homilies, point-scoring and endless self-regarding references: the decisive (indeed the only) plot twist involves a journalist doubling over with salmonella poisoning, which means that at the turning point of the book we get a list of facts and figures.
This chaotic lack of narrative purpose particularly afflicts the character of the central figure. It has been claimed that the presence of a vigorous woman at the centre of a political saga makes a refreshing change. That might be true, but it is no excuse for a character who flip-flops between as many roles as a backbencher on the make. She is by turns an eager-beaver careerist, a teen-romance wallflower struggling in a male world, a lusty ballbreaker, a stressed mother, a media star and a jilted lover. The author seems not to mind us thinking that Elaine is Edwina, but she must be kidding: no one would want to be this ghastly and trivial. One Boxing Day she reads an Economist survey which shows that she is more famous 'than anyone in government with the sole exception of the Prime Minister'. This would make most people blush, but Elaine is thrilled to bits: 'She reached for another glass of sparkling saumur and hugged herself.'
A Parliamentary Affair will hugely enrich its author, but this is the least offensive thing about it. Edwina Currie is welcome to her money, and in one sense deserves it. Her book is original to the extent that it plumbs a new depth. It is not gripping by any means (the climactic IRA bomb blast bears all the hallmarks of an explosive melodrama tacked on at the last minute), but on every page there is something new to make us wince. There isn't really a term for novels of this sort. It's certainly not fiction, and it's barely even faction. How about fuction? Shall we try fuction on for size?