Spookery, Skulduggery

David Runciman

  • The Friends of Harry Perkins by Chris Mullin
    Scribner, 185 pp, £12.00, March, ISBN 978 1 4711 8248 8

Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was a nostalgic book that turned into a prophetic one. First published in 1982 and set towards the end of that decade, it nonetheless recalled the politics of the 1970s. The novel tells the story of Harry Perkins, a Bennite leader of the Labour Party, who wins power at a general election but has it prised away from him by a conspiracy of securocrats, tycoons and Labour turncoats. Its characters were recognisable as an amalgam of the passing generation of Labour heavyweights, from Benn himself to Barbara Castle and bruisers like Denis Healey and Eric Heffer. Its atmosphere derived from the lurid tales of spookery and skulduggery that emerged in the dying days of Harold Wilson’s premiership, when the longstanding suspicion that Wilson was a KGB plant led to rumoured attempts by MI5 and others to undermine him by any means necessary. Even in 1982, these stories seemed to be going out with the tide. Benn had lost the Labour deputy leadership contest to Healey in 1981 – it was a close-run thing, but it was also the closest he would ever get to the top. Michael Foot, the party leader, was facing the brute realities of the Falklands War and the defection of the so-called Gang of Four to the SDP. The Labour left wasn’t about to have power wrested from it. It was beginning to dribble away.

The sense of nostalgia was even more pronounced when the book became a successful TV series in 1988. Harry Perkins was played by Ray McAnally, who seemed entirely plausible as a man swept to office on a wave of popular affection, notwithstanding his radical programme (quit Nato, dismantle Trident, take down the press barons). The trouble was no one in the actual Labour Party remotely resembled him. By this point, Peter Mandelson was communications director, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in Parliament and Neil Kinnock – scarred by having to defend unilateral disarmament in the 1987 general election – was on the long march to respectability and another defeat in 1992. That defeat didn’t breathe new life into the left. It redoubled the modernisers’ determination to get over the top with one last push. The televised version of A Very British Coup was more up to date than the novel (and was set a few years later, in the early 1990s). The suits worn by some of the politicians were sharply cut; the spies laid their schemes not in smoke-filled rooms but by the flickering green light of computer screens. Still, it was comfort TV. It depicted a world that looked just like the real one except that nothing in it would actually come to pass. The voters weren’t about to embrace socialism, forcing the establishment to do its worst. Labour was about to become the establishment.

Since then, two things have changed the way Mullin’s book is viewed. First, its title has become part of our political lexicon and is regularly used to describe any attempt to subvert the will of the people without being seen to do so. In the conspiratorial, confrontational, confused state of our politics this is an idea we seem to find it harder and harder to do without. (When I googled A Very British Coup, the first result was an article by Robert Peston describing the recent attempt by Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn and Oliver Letwin to seize parliamentary control of the Brexit process. The headline read: ‘A very British coup against the PM’.) The second thing is Jeremy Corbyn. The book is now being marketed with the subtitle: ‘The novel that foretold the rise of Corbyn’. This is stretching it a bit. Harry Perkins isn’t much like Corbyn. He’s more of an insider’s outsider who has manoeuvred his way to the top of the party by design rather than by accident. He’s quite comfortable playing the game of conventional politics, unlike Corbyn, who often refuses to play the game at all. But the arrival of Corbyn at the summit of Labour politics, and perhaps one step away from Downing Street, has raised the question of what would happen if he got there. Would the dark forces of the establishment do their worst? Would the Parliamentary Labour Party allow them to get away with it? Even if Mullin’s book didn’t foresee Corbyn’s rise, it might yet map out his fate.

This is a propitious time for a follow-up. Mullin has now written the sequel, which picks up the tale after the death of Perkins, who is depicted as having lived out the remainder of his life as a political ghost, unreconciled to his public demise but unable to avenge it. He gets a warm and wistful send-off. ‘In death,’ Mullin writes, ‘Perkins attracted a much friendlier press than he had done in life. Those who had most reviled him were most fulsome in their tributes.’ So this isn’t going to be Corbyn’s story, at least not yet. Instead, the book follows the fortunes of Perkins’s former press secretary, Fred Thompson, who was portrayed in the first novel (and especially by Keith Allen who played him in the TV version) as a proto Seumas Milne, all flinty attitudes and angry disdain for the bastards trying to do down his boss. But this isn’t Milne’s story either. We discover that after the coup that did for Perkins, Thompson gave up on politics altogether and moved to a remote Scottish island with his aristocratic wife and their two adorable daughters. He only comes back when he’s offered the chance to fight Perkins’s safe Sheffield seat. He is by now a changed man, less cocksure and more wary, wanting to do some good and make a difference, but afraid it may be too late. The Friends of Harry Perkins traces his rise from the backbenches to the brink of Downing Street.

The time frame for this is deliberately confusing. As Mullin tells us in his preface, the new book is set in a future that overlaps with the recent past. Many of the characters from A Very British Coup reappear – these are the ‘friends of Harry Perkins’ – even though most of them would be far too old for active politics and some, like their former mentor, would surely be dead. The political landscape is also hard to pin down. We are somewhere in the mid-2020s – Brexit has taken place and people say things like ‘I haven’t voted for twenty years. Not since that Tony Blair let in all those migrants’ – yet the political mood music seems to come from the time when Mullin was making his own way in Parliament (he became an MP in 1987 and served for a time as a junior minister in the Blair government). The ‘friends’ meet regularly in a restaurant in Soho that sounds suspiciously like the Gay Hussar, once a haunt of Labour politicians (now closed). They communicate by handwritten notes or on the phone, and political vendettas are played out through the leader pages of the broadsheets. Politicians make or break their reputations with speeches in Parliament and live in fear of becoming the subject of a Panorama exposé. Mullin pays lip-service to the existence of social media, but only in order to trivialise it. One of Thompson’s allies is ‘said to command a large following in the Twittersphere’, as though that were something both superficially fashionable and essentially unverifiable. Death threats, when they are received by politicians, come ‘in envelopes enclosing the very newspaper cuttings that had provoked the ire of the righteous’. This unreality is compounded by the description of Thompson’s rise to the top. He forges a name for himself with his fearless performances in the Commons. For example:

He painted the housing crisis as yet another of the bills coming in for the Thatcher decade. At the very mention of their hero’s name, the pinstripes on the government benches rose like a lot of Pavlov’s dogs. ‘Will the honourable gentleman give way?’

Fred ploughed on. The cries of ‘give way’ intensified. He looked around, his eyes alighting upon Jason Joslin – J.J. to his friends – a smug young man of modest origins who had, by fair means or foul, clawed his way to considerable wealth. Witness the Armani suit and the gold cufflinks that protruded a full three inches from the sleeves of his jacket.

‘I give way.’

‘The honourable gentleman traduces a woman whose shoelaces he is not fit to tie,’ snorted Joslin.

Parliamentary debates, for anyone who can still bear to watch them, no longer contain much of this kind of rhetoric and Armani suits are thin on the ground. It sounds a lot more like 1995 than 2025. And even in 1985 Thatcher wasn’t much to be seen wearing boots with laces.

The effect is to make the new book appear even more nostalgic than its predecessor. Ironically, it draws on the age of politics that put paid to the era for which A Very British Coup was still holding a flame. Thompson is not exactly Blair, but he is more Blair than he is Corbyn, and he also has a streak of the early Gordon Brown – purposeful, crusading, high-minded, effective. He skewers the Tories for their greed and their hypocrisy and he promises that Labour can do better: not fantastically better, just better than we have grown accustomed to. Thompson is the sort of politician who discovers what’s possible as he tries to make the case for it and who keeps being surprised when he gets a hearing. He is cautious and constantly fearful of overstepping the mark. But in the end, he brings the party round to his point of view.

The party here primarily means its parliamentary representatives and its voters. The members barely get a look in. Mullin’s description of the Labour leadership contest – one Thompson eventually wins – treats the hustings in Parliament as far more consequential than the subsequent hawking for members’ votes. Once the MPs have had their say, Thompson has to take his message outside Westminster:

There then followed months of navel-gazing as the candidates processed around the country addressing closed meetings of members. At every stop Thompson hammered home his message. ‘We’ve lost five successive elections, we can’t afford even a little punt on the outcome of the sixth.’ It was a message many on the ‘no compromise with the electorate’ wing of the party didn’t wish to hear.

As things stand today, Labour has lost the last three elections. Mullin is anticipating two more defeats before the party pulls itself together. If New Labour was a hard slog – Blair and Mandelson needed four defeats in a row to get people lined up where they wanted them – this next iteration sounds almost interminable. Compared to Harry Perkins’s breezy popular triumph, Thompson has to do it the hard way.

He also has to make an agonising choice as leader of the opposition. After much soul-searching, he commits Labour to reverse Brexit and decides to campaign on a promise to take the UK back into the EU. It’s a difficult decision because although, in Mullin’s novel, Brexit has been a catastrophic failure – the country is poorer, even more ill at ease with itself and just as resentful as ever – it has also become a fact of life. Trying to undo it means confronting all the pent-up frustration that led to Brexit in the first place. This produces the deepest irony of all, and the one that gives this novel its peculiar bite. The security services, who helped to bring down Perkins and drive Thompson into political exile on his Scottish island, now signal that they are willing to support him. He has come to represent the sort of political responsibility they are hankering for after years of feckless and fantasy-driven Tory rule. The securocrats are looking for a politician who can rescue the country from the Brexit nightmare: no more very British coups for them. The enemy within is no longer the deep state – it’s the angry mob. Thompson’s hopes for national renewal are at risk of being undone by the implacable resistance of rogue elements among the people themselves.

The Brexit-related event that overshadows this book isn’t the referendum result but the murder of Jo Cox. That, for Mullin, is where the real danger lies: the true irreconcilables are the individuals on the margins of public discourse whose sense of betrayal will never be assuaged. The Friends of Harry Perkins is a far bleaker book than its predecessor. Long sections of the narrative are given over to describing the terrible illness that afflicts one of Thompson’s young daughters and the toll this takes not only on his marriage but on his sense of political optimism. A Very British Coup was a comforting book because it concerned an actual conspiracy, and conspiracies only have to be exposed to be defeated. They give us a sense of political agency: stop the conspiracy and stop the rot. The dark powers at work in The Friends of Harry Perkins are not the result of anyone’s scheming. Some are acts of God. Others are the result of forces no one seems able to control. Hovering in the background throughout is a brewing war between the US and China, which makes the goings-on inside British politics look redundant. In A Very British Coup bad things happen to good people because of public indifference and inattention. The solution is clear: wake up the people! In The Friends of Harry Perkins, bad things just happen. And the public is wide awake enough already.