A full colour Andy Coulson looms ominously behind a black and white David Cameron on the front cover of Andrew Blick and George Jones’s book on aides to the Prime Minister. In a week when another former prime ministerial adviser, Damian McBride, has been spilling the beans on life behind the scenes of Gordon Brown’s government, the story of the apparatchiks who work in the shadows of the people in power seems ripe for revelation.
However, if this makes you think that the text is going to be filled with juicy disclosures about today’s politics then, after a compelling first chapter detailing the workings of Cameron’s Downing Street, you will be sorely disappointed. Although Blick and Jones share a publisher with McBride, the revelations here are rather more limited. Coulson’s last appearance comes on page 11, and the section on the PM’s political machine is done and dusted by the end of the introduction. McBride, meanwhile, is touched on in just a few sentences.
Salacious it isn’t, but this book is an extraordinarily well-researched and at times very readable chronicle of the people who have stood at the elbow of prime ministers since Walpole. Blick and Jones have knocked up an impressive list of interviewees, too, and it shows in the formidable breadth of this work.
The chapters on early prime ministers are the most sluggish. They do manage to draw a number of interesting parallels with the present day, including how Robert Walpole — or ‘Bob Booty’ as one contemporary comic musical called him — was pushed into a U-turn by opposition in the press. But this section is tough going, as the aides are presented as a collection of faceless CVs one after the other. I wanted to picture them and to get a sense of personality, but the authors were unable to turn words into faces.
Where there are more interesting tales, Blick and Jones don’t delve deeply enough for my liking. We are told that Peel’s private secretary, Edward Drummond, was killed by a man named M’Naghten whose acquittal created an international legal precedent, but the intriguing detail is lacking. Similarly, one passage relates that Edmund Burke ‘soon made a spectacular impact’ as an MP, but it’s not explained in what way.
Fortunately the leap to the late nineteenth century marks a shift in gear and the stories become more vivid as the years roll by. We are told that Disraeli’s private secretary Montagu Corry was responsible for negotiating what was then the largest ever book advance for his novel Endymion, while there was speculation about whether boss and secretary were lovers as well as colleagues. Still, though, the text is written for the political obsessive more than the casual reader. Maundy Gregory, the shady figure who sold peerages for Lloyd George and the only person ever to be convicted of selling honours, is glossed over in a line or two in favour of other less murky figures.
Fast forward to the land of the still-living interviewees and there is a greater sense of mischief. The depiction of the in-fighting in Howard Wilson’s team is well put, while there are some super nuggets in the section on New Labour.
The overall impression is that the aides are only as interesting as the people they serve, while it is hard to pin down any coherent sense of a structure surrounding them — in part because the system is so reliant on the whims of the person in Number 10. The book may at times lack fireworks, but for a political aficionado it more than merits an evening read by the fire.
At Power’s Elbow by Andrew Blick and George Jones is published by Biteback.
Bobby Friedman is the author of Democracy Ltd: How Money and Donations Corrupted British Politics.