Swire’s diaries help show how Johnson entered Downing Street, and has so far managed to remain there

3 Oct

Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power by Sasha Swire

“When the wives get nasty, you know the men have a problem.” So says Sasha Swire after Sarah Vine, wife of Michael Gove, and Samantha Cameron, wife of David, “fur flying, have a set-to” at the 50th birthday party of Andrew Feldman, on 29th February 2016.

For “Dave feels he is being stabbed in the back by Gove”, who has come out for Leave. According to Swire’s friend, Kate Fall, who works at Number Ten, Dave “is taking it very personally”.

What is a trailing spouse to do? The Duke of Edinburgh and Denis Thatcher are among the men who had to work out an answer. In both cases they used humour carried well past the point of self-parody to ease the boredom and insignificance of the role.

But the trailing spouse is still more often a woman, and Swire knows what it is like. Her husband, Hugo Swire, was Conservative MP for East Devon from 2001 to 2019, an early supporter of Cameron and a Minister of State from 2010-16.

Sasha worked for Hugo as his researcher. Towards the end of the diary entry quoted in the first line of this review, she describes what she and H, as she calls him, have been doing down at their house in Devon:

“Meanwhile, down at Chaffcombe we are having difficult conversations about why we are backing remain when our instincts are to leave. I have to somehow justify it to myself as well as convincing H. I spend the whole weekend drafting an article for Hugo for the local press on why he is supporting in, and we finally decide to do it from a foreign affairs perspective.”

This is of some interest, for it reminds one that not everyone who supported Remain really believed in that cause. In Hugo’s case he only does so out of loyalty to Cameron.

It is true that some Remainers argued their case with fanatical zeal. But as Harry Williams remarks in one of his sermons, “All fanaticism is a strategy to prevent doubt from becoming conscious.”

Swire’s diary is not particularly well written. She often lapses into the bland editorialising to which one fears she resorted when drafting articles to appear under her husband’s name.

She is not a new Alan Clark. She is not even a new Chris Mullin, of whom I found myself writing, when reviewing a volume of his diaries:

“Mullin is a gentleman. He avoids inflicting gratuitous pain in his diary. He observes with a keen and even mocking eye the deficiencies of Blair and Gordon Brown, but is never ungenerous about their gifts. He does not betray confidences. The social connotations of the word ‘gentleman’ are foreign to Mullin, who is a plain-living socialist. The Tories who cause him most pain are those who behave in an ungentlemanly way, while the vulgarity of New Labour causes him distress.”

Sasha does not avoid inflicting gratuitous pain, does betray confidences and is often vulgar, though she clearly thinks it is rather grand, and even gentlemanly (a characteristic she attributes to her husband), to behave in this way.

And she has often not actually been at the events she describes. As far as one can tell (but rather irritatingly one can’t at first reading be sure) she was not at the Feldman birthday party. If she had been, she would surely have told us more about it.

On many occasions, she relates what Hugo told her when he got home from some event. There is a second-hand flavour to these reports.

Her diary reminds one of the disappointment which can be seen on the faces of so many MPs. Hugo had hoped to make the Cabinet.

As for Sasha, she is cross that her father, Sir John Nott, Defence Secretary during the Falklands War, has never been made a peer, and she finds that she herself is either ignored, or else reproached for not having a career of her own: “It’s always a weak point for me.”

In other words, like many loud people, she wants to conceal her own insecurities. Her inadequate command of tone springs from a fundamental indecision about how to behave:

“Political wives are deeply involved but have no official status. Do we play submissive? Do we play supportive? Do we get lippy?”

Sasha veers between these different approaches, but is temperamentally inclined to be lippy. She observes with a caustic eye the deficiencies of the men around her. In August 2011, when they stay for three days in Cornwall with the Camerons at Polzeath,

“D talks a lot about sex, as does H – they are typical of a certain type of Englishman who no longer knows how to flirt because they have become terrified of causing offence. What they do instead is become lewd and chauvinistic with each other, which is the safe zone, instead of with us. In fact if a woman actually came on to them I think their eyes would pop out of their heads.”

For all its glaring deficiencies, or in some cases because of them, this is an entertaining and informative book, and will be a valuable source for historians who want to see how opinion changed within the Conservative Party.

How did Boris Johnson become leader? Sasha is quite illuminating about this. In 2012, she is a loyal Cameroon, who writes:

“There seems to be something of a campaign going on at the moment to push Boris back into Parliament… worryingly, it seems to have captured the public imagination… Unfortunately the Olympics have given him a platform to parade his populist touch… The idea of His Blondness with a finger on the nuclear button scares the shit out of me; it also scares the shit out of me that people don’t see him as the calculating machine he really is. This is a man who has no obvious political identity or any proven ability to grasp difficult questions and decisions.”

In March 2016, as the EU Referendum campaign gets under way, Hugo reports back from a dinner in Mayfair that Cameron “is very fired up about Boris and determined to finish him off”.

In October 2017, she says Johnson’s star is sinking: “the past few weeks have highlighted how he is clearly not a leader-in-waiting”.

In November 2018, Hugo is recruited to the Dominic Raab leadership campaign.

In March 2019, she observes that the Johnson leadership campaign is “always shambolic”, an assumption which will prove unsound. She also quotes Rory Stewart going “completely insane” and telling some MPs, “It’s going to be Boris against me, and I’m going to take Boris down.”

In July 2019, by which time Johnson is on course for victory, she says “the odds that he will be the shortest-serving PM are pretty high”.

In August 2019, she goes to a “small and select” dinner at Number Ten and sits on the PM’s right:

“Boris is about the best placement you can get. Cheeky. Flippant. Enthusiastic. Bombastic. Ebullient. Energetic. We have a good laugh…

“I look at his rotund build, thick, creased neck, pale, sweaty face, and characteristic dishevelled appearance; he looks back, as if he is working out if I’m shaggable or past my sell-by date…

“I don’t know what will happen to him, because events make politicians, but I have changed my view of him. Yes, he is an alley cat, but he has a greatness of soul, a generosity of spirit, a desire to believe the best in people, a lack of pettiness and envy which is pretty uncommon in politics, and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition.”

The PM has seduced her, though she also thinks he “is desperately lonely and unhappy on the inside”. These diaries show how Johnson got where is today, and has so far managed to stay there. He knows how to mend fences.

Profile: Ben Elliot, Co-Chairman of the Party, under fire for the seating plan which put Jenrick next to Desmond

3 Jul

Ben Elliot is a more significant figure than his title, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, might suggest. Just as Andrew Feldman was David Cameron’s man in CCHQ, so Elliot controls the party organisation for Johnson.

The Conservative Party Board is chaired by Elliot, not by his Co-Chairman, Amanda Milling. The new Chief Executive, Darren Mott, a long-term servant of the party, reports to Elliot, not Milling, and Elliot is regularly in Number Ten, conferring with Johnson.

Elliot’s success as a fundraiser for the party is generally recognised. He not only raised the money for last December’s election, but ensured there was a surplus to carry the party through the leaner period after the election – a particularly welcome precaution once the pandemic struck.

The question troubling some Tories is whether, while charming the donors, he is sufficiently careful to avoid unfortunate juxtapositions.

He would not have arranged the seating plan for the now notorious dinner last November at which Robert Jenrick found himself sitting next to Richard Desmond. Nor can he be held to answer for Jenrick’s subsequent conduct, which included sending a friendly text message to Desmond and then ruling in his favour on a major planning application.

The seating plan would have been in the hands of the Treasurer’s Department, which appears to have tried to inform Jenrick’s special advisers about it by way of departmental emails which could not be opened because the general election campaign was already under way.

But because Elliot is in overall charge of CCHQ, he still incurs criticism when things go wrong. The buck stops with him.

“He clearly hasn’t understood the politics,” a senior Tory backbencher complained. “It smells wrong.”

“I’ve never met him,” a second senior Tory backbencher said. “He’s invisible. Maybe that’s a good thing.”

“There are mutterings that he’s a disaster waiting to happen,” an activist who knows the party well comments.

But none of those three knows Elliot. Zac Goldsmith – now as Lord Goldsmith Minister of State for the Pacific, International Environment, Climate and Forests, and Animal Welfare (is there a longer title in the Government?) – has known Elliot “pretty much all my life”, has the highest opinion of him, and calls him “without doubt the most effective person I know in terms of getting things done – he is the go-to person, he has an amazing ability to get people onside, to get people together”.

Goldsmith says it is Elliot’s job “to make sure the party can operate”, by raising the necessary funds: “How politicians behave around party donors is for politicians to figure out.”

This is right: the responsibility for behaving with complete propriety rests with the politicians. On the other hand, they ought not to be placed in situations which might lead to unnecessary embarrassment.

And the donors themselves can be tricky. “Donors put up stuff on Instagram – you despair,” one Conservative remarks. “Desmond is a particularly difficult man,” another observes.

Elliot himself possesses such a tremendous, gung-ho ability to carry off awkward social situations that he may underestimate the difficulties these could pose for less self-assured figures.

His insouciant manner suggests to those around him a refusal to contemplate the danger of scandal.

The élan with which his grandfather, Major Bruce Shand, commanded a squadron of armoured cars in the Western Desert during the Second World War, is displayed by Elliot in the less heroic roles offered by peacetime.

One of Shand’s daughters is now Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, while the other, Annabel, married Simon Elliot, a landowner in Dorset.

Ben Elliot, born in 1975, is almost invariably described, in articles about him, as Camilla’s nephew rather than Annabel’s son.

He does not appear to repine at this branding. After a conventional education at Eton and at Bristol University, where he read politics and economics, he set out to make his way as an entrepreneur.

When he was 24, he and two partners set up a firm called Quintessentially, a “lifestyle management” service for people with more money than sense. It from time to time attracts adverse comment in the press, but Elliot has also shown a flair for promoting it by giving interviews about his own lifestyle.

Here is a piece from The Daily Telegraph in 2011 about his perfect weekend:

“In my heart and soul I am a West Country man and ideally my weekends are spent there. I was born and bred in Dorset and I missed it massively when I was setting up Quintessentially, my lifestyle company, in New York during my twenties and early thirties. On my bedroom wall I had a photograph of Hod Hill, the Iron Age fort behind my parents’ home near Blandford Forum. But these days I also spend weekends in Northleach in Gloucestershire, where my wife Mary-Clare’s family live and where we own a home. I was nervous about emigrating north to Gloucestershire but you’ve got to compromise sometimes…

“We met at an Eric Clapton concert in Madison Square Gardens in New York about three and a half years ago. Her father, Steve Winwood, is a songwriter and musician who formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton in 1969, and he was also performing in the concert. The Winwoods are half British and half American; they have a second home in Nashville, Tennessee, where Mary-Clare and I spent some time last summer.”

At the end of the interview he was asked, “What are you most ashamed about?” and replied with characteristic boldness: “I don’t have much shame. I don’t really regret anything.”

He also said: “I’d love to represent a West Country seat in the House of Commons.” It would be surprising if he did not still harbour a desire to become an MP, conceivably for The Cotswolds, the seat where Northleach lies.

Politics has been an interest from his earliest years. Goldsmith can remember Elliot at the age of nine or ten at Hawtreys, their preparatory school, getting people to sign petitions.

Recent years have seen an accumulation of offices: in 2015 he was appointed to the development board of the Royal Albert Hall, in 2016 he was deeply involved on the fundraising side of Goldsmith’s unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of London and became a trustee of the Victoria & Albert Museum, in 2017 he joined the board of the Centre for Policy Studies, and in December 2018 Michael Gove made him the Government’s Food Surplus and Waste Champion.

Publicity for the last role offered scope, in an interview with The Times, for one of the self-deprecating anecdotes of which Elliot is a master, used as the intro to the piece by its author, Damian Whitworth:

“Ben Elliot arrives for our breakfast meeting having already been into battle. ‘I had a row with my youngest son today because he wouldn’t eat all his porridge. It’s bloody difficult. Negotiating with him on anything is a nightmare.’

“When Britain’s new food waste tsar was growing up he was not allowed to leave the table until he had finished everything on his plate. His father once made him sit, picking away at the last scrap of lunch, until 5 p.m. Modern parenting trends are less hardcore. Caught between an intransigent 21st-century four-year-old and the horror of throwing food away, what did he do? ‘I ended up eating most of it.'”

Here is a rhetoric which creates a feeling of complicity between Elliot and anyone who has ever had trouble getting a child to eat.

But behind the genuine charm lies something else. Someone who has worked for Elliot said he has two modes, charming and angry.

One day he will walk in smiling, the next day like a storm cloud. He is no mere boulevardier, a tall, relaxed, handsome man who networks for his own amusement, content to look good in his grandfather’s old suits as he moves among fashionable and well-connected people.

He is a serious person who for most the time conceals his seriousness, as Englishmen of a certain type do, behind a screen of affability, but who gets immensely frustrated when he cannot achieve what he has set out to achieve.

In this he is like the Prime Minister, another man often written off as not serious, because his manner seems to indicate  incorrigible frivolity.

The two of them are more ambitious, incisive and energetic than their critics are willing to admit. Both of them want to make dramatic changes to the organisations they are running, not conduct themselves as caretakers.

Last summer, when Johnson became Prime Minister and put Elliot into CCHQ, preparations began for an early general election campaign, to be run by Isaac Levido, protégé of Lynton Crosby, who himself got Johnson elected as Mayor of London in 2008, and ran David Cameron’s successful general campaign in 2015.

Most of the recommendations of the Pickles Review, set up to work out what went wrong in Theresa May’s disastrous campaign in 2017, had already been implemented.

Elliot raised the money for the 2019 campaign, frightening donors with the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn government. He also ensured that Levido had the space to get on with running the show. No turf wars disrupted what was a highly successful operation.

Johnson since his Oxford days, when the workers, peasants and intellectuals of Balliol were given no glimpse of his upper-class friends, has had a talent for belonging to several different circles which are for most of the time unaware of each other’s existence. Elliot, close to Gove, great friends with the Goldsmith brothers, and a member at 5 Hertford Street, a club owned by Robin Birley, belongs to one such circle.

The press has striven, quite rightly, to find out all it can about Jenrick and Desmond, and to investigate Elliot’s other enterprises, including the Government work obtained some years ago by Quintessentially, and the lobbying firm, Hawthorn Advisors, which he and others founded in 2013.

That sort of journalism is an indispensable check on the abuse of power. But it may also lead, paradoxically, to an underestimate of the abilities of those against whom it is directed; a cutting down to size which misses significant aspects of someone’s character.

Elliot is described, by one who has seen him at close quarters, as an invigorating boss, a genuine believer in entrepreneurship who sees the good in people, and takes it personally when people criticise Johnson, in whose leadership campaign he played a important role.

If Elliot lacked self-confidence, he would be useless as a fundraiser. To ask people for large sums of money in return for the opportunity to eat an over-priced dinner with Jenrick, and bid for an absurdly expensive game of tennis against Johnson and Elliot, requires a degree of impudence.