X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

Please note: Previously subscribers used a 'WebID' to log into the website. Your subscriber number is not the same as the WebID. Please ensure you use the subscriber number when you link your subscription.

Coffee House

A history of spinners, from Robert Walpole to Damian McBride and Andy Coulson

28 September 2013

10:00 AM

28 September 2013

10:00 AM

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.

[Alt-Text]


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.  

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close