In the kitchen of Chaffcombe Manor, her rambling Devonshire home, Sasha Swire, whose mischievously indiscreet political diaries are published this week, appears to be suffering from a bad case of the writerly equivalent of buyer’s remorse. Round and round the table she goes, as busy as one of her bees, pausing only occasionally to fling open the door of her Aga, into which she then carefully inserts her bum (I think the idea is to warm it up, but given that the weather is fine today, perhaps it’s more a matter of comfort). “Oh, please don’t put that in,” she yelps at one point, my having brought up a particularly choice entry from 2012, in which Michael Heseltine pretends, at a private dinner, that the Queen has asked him to form a government (he then proceeds to appoint his various guests to his imaginary cabinet). But it’s in your book, I say: all the world will be able to read it soon. She performs another frantic circuit of the room. “Oh, I beg you. Please don’t write about that.”
Is she really worried? Apparently, she is. Earlier this year, when she emailed, out of the blue, a literary agent, wondering whether the diaries she kept between 2010 and 2019 would be of any wider interest, this – the jamboree of publication – was almost impossible to imagine. But now, it’s a terrible reality. Her friends (and enemies) are about to find out just what she and her husband, Hugo, formerly the Conservative MP for East Devon, think of them. Michael Gove will discover that they regard him as “ever so slightly bonkers” (after our meeting, Gove’s wife, the journalist Sarah Vine, will publish two vicious ripostes, complaining of Swire’s poshness and insisting she barely knows her). Boris Johnson will learn that she believes he is “desperately lonely and unhappy on the inside”. Worst of all, David Cameron, under whom her husband, his friend and fellow old Etonian, served as a minister, will have to make his lucrative speeches knowing that his audience is now fully acquainted with the fact that he’s the kind of guy who likes to talk penis size at parties (on the occasion of George Osborne’s birthday in 2013, the PM could be found laughing uproariously at Hugo’s likening of Gove’s member to a Slinky – a toy for which, Sasha writes, their generation has a particularly fond “attachment”).
“Maybe I was naive,” she says. “But I’m terrified of causing trouble. People are going to make this all about David; they won’t see the integrity of the diary as a whole.” She and Hugo are still close to the Camerons; they stayed at their house in Cornwall only last weekend. “Sam said to me: ‘I suppose you’re going to call me a communist [in your book]’, and I said ‘yeah’, and she laughed.” (Swire regards Samantha Cameron as a “lefty”). Her big problem, however, is that circumspection is not, and never has been, her thing. In 2009, when the new-look Tories were keen to get more women on to the backbenches, “Dave” wanted her to stand for a seat. “But I’m completely the wrong sort of character to do that. You’re so pent-up in politics. You can’t say anything.” Her book, she insists, is like her: “image-free”, the polar opposite of the boring volumes published by ex-politicians – and on this score at least, I think she’s right. I haven’t been so gripped (or so appalled) by a political diary since I read Chips Channon’s, a Conservative MP in the 1930s (his journals are so racy, we still await the unexpurgated edition) – though with the crucial difference that while his pages are stalked by political giants such as Churchill, Swire’s are populated mostly by what we might call political garden gnomes (Theresa “Old Ma” May, Dominic Raab “C Brexit”, Gavin “the gossip” Williamson).
I’m not going to knock men for being men. They do say: he’s got a bigger one than me
Swire, a former art student – she was at Central Saint Martins with the designer John Galliano, who loved to dress up “this girl who had to go to a lot of balls” – was a journalist before she married and had children (Saffron and Siena, whom Cameron refers to as Chardonnay and Sauvignon). And it shows. She makes for quite a beady diarist. Yes, her instincts are tribal. She is, after all, the daughter of Sir John Nott, a defence secretary in the Thatcher government (it was Nott who introduced her to Hugo, a former army officer and Sotheby’s auctioneer whose mother, a dowager marchioness, travels with a butler). But just occasionally she also has a vague sense of how things must look to outsiders, something that gives her book its queasy piquancy. Following a Downing Street Christmas party in 2011, for instance, she notes that the closeness of Cameron’s circle is “unprecedented… a very particular, narrow tribe of Britain and their hangers-on”. It’s “enough to repulse the ordinary man”, though this doesn’t alter the pleasure she and, say, George Osborne’s wife, Frances, take in weekending at one another’s grace and favour homes (“We are like kids in a sweetshop,” she writes, on receiving an invite to Dorneywood).
She also has a nose for the idiotic – and boy, was there a lot of idiotic stuff going down in the Cameron years. To take one example, in late 2010, the PM was much in thrall to the “relationship” agenda of Steve Hilton, his T-shirt wearing director of strategy. What did this agenda involve, precisely? “Steve is actually suggesting putting top 10 tips on relationships in Ikea flat packs, which he’s identified as being a moment of extreme stress,” writes Swire, adding that no one can understand Cameron’s enthusiasm for such daffiness. But then, Cameron, by her telling, is easily pleased. Days later, she and Hugo are invited to Chequers for the weekend. On the Sunday night, the PM treats them to some “disgusting RAF catering cheese toasties and a particularly unchallenging episode of Poirot”. When she goes to bed, he and Hugo stay up “to admire Keira Knightley’s nipples when she comes out of the fountain in Atonement”.
How to put this? Didn’t she ever… balk at this stuff? Didn’t she find the disjunction between the men’s small talk, and the vastness of the political decisions being made, painful to behold? Bum in oven, she shakes her head. “I’m not going to knock men for being men,” she says. “They do say: he’s got a bigger one than me.” As for the fact they’re always on manoeuvres – acres of her book are devoted to the crazed ambitions of “Boy George” Osborne and Michael Gove – well, aren’t the women at it, too? Take Amber Rudd. Swire has known Rudd, the former home secretary, since they were teenagers: “She’s the sort of woman who ran the empire: quite religious, very funny, doesn’t see the bad in people.” Swire was always trying to get her to smarten up her wardrobe. But they’ve drifted apart recently, largely because of Rudd’s behaviour during Brexit: “I didn’t approve of what she was up to.” (Swire reluctantly voted Remain, while the “politically naive” Rudd was a full-blown Remainer who resigned as work and pensions secretary in 2019 feeling that the government favoured a no-deal Brexit over a deal). “I think the Remainers behaved very badly,” says Swire. “People blame the ERG, but for all the nutters that are in it, they were just trying to deliver the thing.” For a long time, even Dave and Sam thought – hoped – Brexit could be stopped.
Diary of an MP’s Wife begins a decade ago, with her husband’s appointment as minister of state for Northern Ireland in the newly elected coalition government, and ends as he stands down from parliament in 2019 (between 2012 and 2016, Swire was also minister of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs). It takes in the EU referendum and Cameron’s resignation (Sam was so upset, she had to fortify herself with a large negroni before the couple emerged from Downing Street so he could give his resignation speech); Cameron’s subsequent rage at Gove and Johnson; the rise (and fall) of the weird and staring Theresa May, whom Swire can’t stand; and, finally, the ascent of Boris Johnson. Along the way, there is all sorts of juicy stuff. Among other things, it will answer some of the questions you may have about why it is that the hapless Gavin Williamson has clambered so far up the greasy pole (his labyrinthine knowledge of Tory sexual peccadilloes, apparently).
Swire was always terrified that Johnson, AKA one of “the Kardashians”, would become leader. She was for Dominic Raab, whose “hotness” reduces her to liquid on the page. But at a dinner in Downing Street in August 2019, when Boris is still “pinching himself” at his victory, she is seduced. Sitting side by side, he makes her a sandwich of goat’s cheese and figs; she urges him to prorogue parliament. “I can’t really sleep at night,” he confides. “It’s all so worrying.” There’s also some more classy banter, when she tells him that Hugo once dated Jerry Hall. Johnson is impressed. “Hugo!” he shouts. “Did you shag Jerry Hall?” Following this encounter, Swire is moved to observe that Johnson is “an island, a spinning, mad island”, who just wants to be loved.
By this point in our conversation, Swire has finally taken a seat. Time to pin her down. Does she agree that, if her book has a theme, it’s that politics in Britain comes with a strong whiff of Keystone Cops? Yes, actually, she does. “Outsiders think politics should be very professional. It’s not. It’s totally amateur. That’s why it’s so sexy and so toxic, and I’m so happy I’m not in it any more.” She found it fascinating. But it was not easy. “When your husband becomes a minister, everyone thinks it’s glamorous. At the Foreign Office, he was away all the time, flying to Rio for a one-hour meeting. You arrive, and there are some sirens going: that’s the glamorous thing. But then you come back, and your wife asks why you’re never at home. It’s exhausting. You’re not in the job because you’re the best at it. There are all these other things in play.”
The “other things” have to do with whether a person’s face fits; her husband, she believes, never made it to the cabinet because he was an Etonian at a time of obsession with diversity – and this infuriated her. In her diary, when Cameron’s resignation honours list comes in for some stick in the press (Hugo was knighted), she writes: “Why can’t Dave pack out the list with his cronies if he wants to?” Still, even she was shocked when Boris Johnson elevated the newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev to the peerage earlier this year. After meeting him at Chequers in 2015 – a weekend during which she regaled the other guests with the details of her rising middle-aged libido – she wrote in her diary that he is a “charisma-free zone”; she was amazed that he’d managed to “penetrate the very core of the political establishment”, and slightly bewildered by his interest in the magical powers of the Chaffcombe honey she’d brought the Camerons as a gift.
Why can't Dave pack out the honours list with his cronies if he wants to?
She and Hugo met the Camerons before David and Hugo were elected MPs; George Osborne invited them all to dinner. “We did become great friends. I don’t know why. David didn’t really have many friends in politics. We just have a laugh together.” She remembers being at the Astor estate on the Scottish island of Jura (Samantha Cameron’s mother is married to an Astor) when David told Hugo he was going to stand for leader: “They laughed, because the absolute expectation was that David Davis would get it.” Unlike Osborne, who she believes would like to get back in the game, Cameron is perfectly content with his new life: “He’s close to Samantha. He’s devoted to his children.” She regards Cameron as fundamentally decent, though she disagrees with him about Gove and Johnson: “The idea they only came out for Leave because they wanted to be prime minister, which is his view, is far-fetched. They are all narcissists, but even so.” But perhaps this is just because she knows how it feels to be a semi, or clandestine, Leaver. In her diary, she describes scooping a despondent post-referendum Sam in her arms. Secretly, though, Swire was “mildly excited about Brexit”.
We whip through her cast list. Does she stand by her analysis that Gove is bonkers? “I’m not going to say any more than is in the book,” she insists, pressing her lips together. A pause. “Actually, I love Michael. I can forgive anything if they’ve got colour. The more dangerous, the more alcoholic, the madder they are, the better.” Another pause. “Where Michael is slightly dishonest is with his ambition. He’s always lied about that. He’s a typical hack. He loves being at the scene of the crash. I think he’s quite dangerous.” Double U-turn complete, we move on to Dominic Cummings, whom she describes in the diaries as “stark raving mad”. “It will all go tits up with him, it always does,” she says. “He’ll explode.” Theresa May? “She didn’t have an original idea in her head. And no friends, either.”
What about Julian Fellowes, the Tory peer and writer of Downton Abbey? I love the bit in the book about him (apparently, his turbaned wife, Emma, sticks up her hand if she wishes to interrupt him when he’s in full flow; sometimes, permission is denied). “Oh, she’s actually charming,” she says, answering a question I haven’t yet asked. “I mean, we call everyone mad. I don’t know if she is actually mad.” Eyes narrowing, she looks at me intently. “What about Claudia Rothermere?” she asks (Rothermere is the wife of the owner of the Daily Mail). “Do you think I’m going to get into real trouble?” In the book, the gorgeous Lady Rothermere has the seemingly sex-deprived Hugo “panting”, but she’s also depicted as somewhat queenly and – the irony – obsessed with her family’s privacy.
After this roll call of shame, we have some lunch. Then she shows me around her empire. The house dates from the Domesday Book; the garden is pure Sissinghurst. Lingering there for a moment, Hugo appears, eating a large bag of Twiglets (when I first arrived, he asked if I had “any objection to people called Hugo”). A chicken has escaped from its coop, and there is a comic moment when the Swires’s dog, Rocco, chases the chicken, and Hugo (sort of) chases the dog. We also visit her writing room, a fairytale tower in which she writes “novels that are not published”. There are so many barns. The one in which David Cameron suggested she put a snooker table – “So home counties,” she said to her husband, crushingly, of this – is now a fully functional Victorian-style pub. Another is a disco room, with lights. “Rather good exercise,” she says, switching them on. When I admire her taste – you’ve never seen such luxuriantly boho bathrooms – she doesn’t disagree. “People are either World of Interiors or they’re House and Garden,” she says, firmly. “I’m very much World of Interiors.”
Before I go, clutching my own jar of Chaffcombe gold, I ask what she sees as the highs and the lows of the Cameron years. The lows are easy. “Austerity was tough,” she says. And its greatest achievements? “God, that’s such a heavy question. I don’t think there were many fireworks. They were good managers.” She sighs. “I don’t know, really.” Momentarily, she seems a little deflated. But driving me to Exeter station soon afterwards, she recovers her equilibrium. The gossip is eye-popping. Dave and Sam… Michael and Sarah… Boris and Carrie… It may be that she is glad to have escaped her duties as a constituency wife, to have left behind for ever the local councillors she describes as “toilet seats”. However, I still think she misses the bigger game. The world of interiors is all very well. But a scrubbed kitchen table is as nothing compared with the baize-covered affair in the cabinet room, a piece of furniture that is shaped like a boat – or, seen from some angles, a coffin.
• Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire is published by Little, Brown on 24 September (£20). To order a copy for £17.40 with free UK p&p go to guardianbookshop.com.