Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries

If Boris Johnson was Oasis, Gyles Brandreth would be The Beatles. Without his devil-may-care eccentricity and candid, often rebellious, sense of humour, Boris would not be the politician he is today. For my generation Brandreth was the first Tory whose wit immediately made him more acceptable and even likeable. Now he is lovable and these diaries prove why. He is proper old school and the pages drip with the names of highly decorated military men and various references to the royal family. He is a real establishment Tory. Brandreth has the wonderful knack of writing how he speaks and has a charming line in understatement, making seismic political events sound like trivial matters happening on a village green. As a result, these diaries are breezy, wonderfully inappropriate and an addictive read.

Compared to other big political diarists – Alan Clark, Tony Benn and Alastair Campbell – he was only involved for one term (1992 to 1997), but what a term it was. The slow march to Tory obliteration is captured hilariously here. There are moments, as there always are in books like this, where you cannot help but wonder if the author really did write that at the time or if they have tinkered a bit since. In the entry for 1 April 1992, Brandreth writes about Neil Kinnock ‘giving a triumphalist oration at a rally in Sheffield and in ten days’ time he’ll be prime minister’. There is a real thrill in reading something committed to diary at the time, almost like finding something from the wreck of the Titanic. Another gem is John Major’s confidence at cabinet just days before Black Wednesday that ‘we will stay in the ERM whatever happens’.

This high society eccentric is not immune to the pressures of local politics and the image of a high-status Tory being hounded by his local paper for missing constituency meetings is a precious reminder that no matter how much some politicians may enjoy the status that politics affords them, if the seat is neglected there is a price to be paid. Despite his love of describing his elevated lifestyle, campaigners on all sides will identify with the psychology of the candidate that he exposes. One particular polling day story involves his local party chair assuring him that ‘it’s coming along nicely’ and Brandreth wondering to himself how on earth he could tell. That was 1 May 1997. We have all been there.

These diaries are a true mix of styles. Just when you fear that he is becoming too pompous, Brandreth will undercut himself with self-deprecating humour. More than just a record of events, there is also brilliant political insight. On the day that John Smith dies, Brandreth admits that after consoling Labour members of parliament, many Conservatives believed that Smith’s sad passing would ‘save Major and kill Heseltine’. Much has been made of how Labour candidates began to manoeuvre in the wake of the awful news, but Brandreth reminds us of the reality of politics, even of the nature of people: the immediate implications of any tragedy are often very clear. What more do you want from a political diary? Funny, candid and provocative.

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Matt Forde is a stand-up comedian and talkSPORT presenter. He used to work for the Labour party www.mattforde.com

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