Magazine article The Spectator

Douglas Writes and Tells

Magazine article The Spectator

Douglas Writes and Tells

Article excerpt

MANY POLITICIANS write autobiographies when they retire which reveal nothing. Douglas Hurd has written a novel, which reveals everything. The Shape of Ice, to be published next month, purports to be about events in the distant future. Actually it deals with the recent past. The book's main characters bear an uncanny resemblance to some of Lord Hurd's closest colleagues in the Thatcher and Major governments.

The book is supposedly set in some fictitious future Conservative administration which sweeps to power after the fall of Tony Blair. If so, why does the fictitious Prime Minister sound so much like John Major? `He had a knack of seeing with some sympathy into the minds of others, which made him a good colleague and an excellent chairman. Other more heroic gifts such as a subtle intellect, a soaring imagination or resounding eloquence he left to others.' Ring any bells?

The Home Secretary, Roger Courtauld, strikes a chord too. He is `heavy in body, heavy indeed in political weight, but light in spirit, always in good humour - a fat man, always on his toes.' Courtauld always writes his speeches at the last moment, shoots his mouth off, is brilliant but lazy, notably disloyal and is fond of a pint of beer. In short, Lord Hurd does not even try to conceal the fact that this `big, bluff bugger' is modelled on Kenneth Clarke.

But most telling of all is the portrait of Margaret Thatcher. In this book she is given the name of Joan Freetown. Freetown is not Prime Minister, though she would very much like to be, but Chancellor of the Exchequer. She is humourless, fanatically hard-working, dogmatically right-wing and inflexible. She combines a fondness for holidays in Switzerland with an amiable husband called Guy who saves her from going completely round the bend.

Lord Hurd is unable to hide his finding Freetown/Thatcher detestable. Most of the deadliest jibes in the book are aimed at her. Consider: `Her formidable intelligence was hampered by a failure to handle human conversation.' Or, worse still: `She was a thoroughgoing politician of not quite the first class, her exceptional determination balanced by tactical ineptitude.'

On the broader international scene there is trouble in Moscow from a fascist leader based on Zhirinovsky. David Trimble takes centre stage as Strachan, leader of the Ulster Unionists and - like Trimble - a law graduate of Queen's, Belfast. The assessment is accurate but damning: 'Strachan was honourable and had shown much personal courage during the Troubles. It was impossible to trip him up because he constantly brought down each discussion to the level at which he was expert, that of grinding details. It would not have occurred to him that any more imaginative equipment was necessary for the Unionist leader.'

All this will be obvious enough to any reader of the book with a passing interest in British politics. To those with a specialist knowledge of Westminster, there is much more besides. No. 10 press spokesmen play an important role. There was a `raffish interlude when the Press Office had been run by a red-haired enthusiast from the Foreign Office'.

Clearly this fictitious press secretary from the Foreign Office has no connection whatever with Sir Christopher Meyer, now British ambassador to Washington. …

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