The amateurs of Downing Street

BOOK REVIEW; TOO CLOSE TO CALL Sarah Hogg and Jonathan Hill Little, Brown, pounds 17.50
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The Independent Online
Unlike Margaret Thatcher, the current prime minister has been analysed little in office by academics or serious authors. Now two of John Major's closer unelected colleagues, who quit Downing Street recently, have given us a valuable inside glimpse of his administration.

Much of it could be called the higher trivia of politics, from the decorations in Downing Street rooms to the little jokes swapped by the Prime Minister's staff. Major himself comes across as one would expect from close-quarters supporters: a decent, chivvied man of huge stamina and considerable personal courage. When we get to the 1992 election and then the extraordinary events of this summer, the narrative is pacy enough to draw the reader in; at one point I caught myself unconsciously rooting for Major against - well, commentators like me.

But there is something odd here. This is a book which comes alive when there is a campaign on, against the Labour Party, or against sections of the Conservative Party, or against European federalists, but which is much flatter when the real business of government is being described.

Indeed, the earlier parts of the book are unintentionally devastating about Downing Street. The amateurishness, strain and overwork of the Prime Minister's office dominates. Much of the time this is presented as admirably British and jolly. Downing Street is a converted house, crammed with staff. "Compared with any Whitehall department, or the offices of heads of government anywhere else in the Western world, it is tiny. [This] ... puts enor- mous pressure on No 10 staff.''

John Major's personal back- up is "not generous''. Diary pressures, cobbled- together speeches, exhausted meetings, missing clothes, snatched sandwiches ... on it goes.

After a while the reader begins to wonder whether this is jolly and admirable or, rather, a remarkably bad way of trying to govern a country. Major as a leader and Downing Street as a machine come across as essentially passive, driven by outside pressures and rarely in control. "Under the cumulative impact of general tiredness, things began to go wrong. The Prime Minister's schedule had become impossibly overloaded ....''

Things happen. Foreigners happen, newspaper stories happen, polls happen, revolts happen, bad policies happen. Our heroes, fuelled by Big Macs, nursery-school jokes and native grit, battle through. But rarely do the authors convey much sense of purpose, of a driving central intelligence.

This is particularly odd since Hogg was, after all, head of the policy unit and the person in charge of long-term strategic thinking, while Hill was head of Major's political office. The gossip at the time was that the policy unit in the Hogg era was overwhelmed by daily crisis management and therefore unable to think properly. This book, written by the defence, makes that prosecution case compellingly.

The received wisdom is that things are working better under the new team of Norman Blackwell and Howell James - two men who probably won't write a joint book referring to themselves in the third person, as these authors do. But this is about more than personalities; a tendency towards drift and short-termism seems built into the cramped, understaffed machinery at the heart of government. And John Major's experience shows how damaging it can be: administrative inadequacy and political failure are not unrelated.

So although this is a book which will be much quoted by historians of the Major years, it has nearer and sharper uses. I would be surprised if there weren't a few underlined and broken-backed copies lying around the office of the Leader of the Opposition. In fact, I'd be shocked if there weren't.

Andrew Marr

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