Discretion may be the better part of valour, but it is the worst part of a memoir.
Kate Fall was David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff for 11 years, first in opposition and then in Government. Her desk was positioned outside Cameron’s door so she became known as The Gatekeeper.
By all accounts, she was good at her job. In his own disappointing memoirs, David Cameron praised her highly: ‘I valued her emotional intelligence and judgement more than anyone’s.’ She clearly has a story to tell.
In his own disappointing memoirs, David Cameron praised Kate Fall highly: ‘I valued her emotional intelligence and judgement more than anyone’s’
But will she tell it? ‘I wrote this book with the hope that it would shed some light on the world behind the public facade,’ she writes on page one. ‘The “blood, sweat and tears”. The chaos and camaraderie. The friendships and fall-outs. The victories and regrets. I want to share with others what it is like behind that famous door of Number 10.’
Bizarrely, four pages later, she repeats the same passage, with the words slightly rearranged. Has her computer’s copy-and-paste mechanism gone berserk? ‘I wrote in the hope that I could shed some light on the world behind the facade of politics, to share with others what it is like behind that famous door. The blood, sweat and toil. The chaos and comradery. The victories and regrets. The friendships and fallings-out.’
So she promises a lot. But there is always a tension in political memoirs. The author wants to boast about what went right, while the reader wants to hear what went wrong. True to her reputation for good manners, Fall is careful to highlight the friendships over the fallings-out, and the camaraderie over the chaos.
Her book has a jolly, can-do, Famous Five air about it, with old chums David and Kate and George (Osborne) and Samantha (Cameron) pictured embarking on their great big adventure. Of their first day in Downing Street, she writes: ‘We are like school children who want to huddle together in a corner and laugh at our good fortune.’ But where was Timmy the dog? Who knows? Perhaps settling in to his new job as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Fall maintains her matey, jolly-good-show tone throughout the book, sometimes against almost insuperable odds. It comes as a surprise to find that the people occupying Harold Macmillan and Rab Butler’s old desks are all hooked on Game Of Thrones, and josh each other with schoolboy nicknames. ‘Where’s Sobsborne?’ asks Prime Minister Cameron, the day after George Osborne has been spotted shedding a tear at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.
IT’S A FACT
MPs hanging their coats in the cloakroom of the Houses of Parliament will find space for their swords… and at least one MP uses it.
The role of the Famous Five’s wacky, scatterbrained Uncle Quentin, full of madcap theories, is taken by Michael Gove, who eats his breakfast during Cabinet meetings and is forever getting into scrapes. In a particularly funny passage, Gove decides to shed as many trappings of government as possible, and elects to drive himself to work. ‘This is a very noble gesture, with a slight hitch – Michael is a terrible driver. He has come late to it in adulthood, only passing his driving test after the birth of his first child (and following quite a few attempts). He arrives and is shown the car park, which is accessed via a car lift. Only, Michael takes the angle slightly wrong, and the lift doors close on his car when he is halfway in, then – automatically – the doors go forward and back, forward and back, until the car is crushed with Michael in it. Mrs Gove is not best pleased.’
Sadly, such indiscretions are few and far between. For the most part, Fall regards her role as a memoirist as an extension of her job as gatekeeper: to present the polished face of the Cameron administration to the world, and to paper over any unseemly cracks.
Take the case of Andy Coulson, for example. To many observers, it was always reckless of Cameron to appoint this former editor of the News Of The World as the Conservative party director of communications, particularly as Coulson had been forced to resign his editorship over phone hacking allegations. As we all now know, Coulson was to end up in prison.
But, in Kate Fall’s eyes, he could do no wrong. ‘Yes, there were warnings, but not of a specific nature; most of the feedback was positive,’ she writes. Once Coulson is installed in Number 10, everyone finds him ‘one of the most professional people we have worked with, a brilliant manager and a rare adviser’. When he is forced to resign from Number 10, prior to his arrest, ‘There are a lot of tears on the day he leaves.’ There must surely have been fury and recrimination too, but her lips are sealed.
Such loyalty may be admirable, but candour is the oxygen of a memoir, and its absence renders everything lifeless. She reveals next to nothing of her own private life, beyond the fact that her daughter and son were six and three years old when she embarked on what she calls ‘Project Cameron’ and 17 and 14 when it was over. She never reveals the name of her husband, her sole reference to him being restricted to three words, in brackets. In passing, she says of her gang in Downing Street: ‘We are all quite wrapped up together… Relationships collapse. Some under the stress of never being put first… Three marriages break down after the 2010 election (including my own).’
By this, she seems to suggest that the pressure of her work led to the end of her marriage, but she sheds no further light on it. Her memoir is further impaired by a tendency towards truism. We learn, for instance that ‘In politics, personalities matter’. Of Prime Minister’s Questions, she tells us: ‘There is no doubt that a leader who fails to deliver at these weekly exchanges will begin to fade in the estimation of their colleagues over time.’ Hold the front page!
Clusters of clichés abound. One passage goes: ‘Judgement is everything in politics. The more senior you are, the more it matters. In the end, the job of a politician is to make decisions on our behalf.’ I also have doubts about her decision to write her book in the present tense. Presumably, she hoped it would lend a diary-like urgency to events that might otherwise seem stale, but it feels forced and artificial. It also gets her into a muddle with her tenses whenever she tries to refer back or forward in time.
Kate Fall is interesting about the way the architecture of Number 10, with its ‘higgledy-piggledy corridors and random rooms’, lends itself to ‘closed doors and inner circles’, which then exacerbates some people’s sense of being left out
Nonetheless, the book has a pleasantly breezy tone, and offers the odd sharp insight into the effect of power on those who gain it. As The Gatekeeper, she would watch MPs who had just gained promotion in ministerial reshuffles. ‘Some remain themselves. Others seem to grow a layer of pomposity in the short time it takes them to walk down the corridor – normally in inverse proportion to the importance of their job.’ Alas, with characteristic tact, she offers not a single example.
She is interesting about the way the architecture of Number 10, with its ‘higgledy-piggledy corridors and random rooms’, lends itself to ‘closed doors and inner circles’, which then exacerbates some people’s sense of being left out. By and large, it seems that Cameron’s two administrations – the first with the Lib Dems in tow, the second without – were friendlier than many others, though she is notably more waspish to those, like Michael Gove, who finally broke ranks. ‘He always speaks like he is presenting a bouquet of the sweetest-smelling flowers,’ she writes.
Of Steve Hilton, the maverick ‘guru’ who was the Dominic Cummings of his day, and then fell from grace, she writes astutely: ‘For David, Steve represented Dumbo’s lucky feather: with it, he can fly. But David finds, as Dumbo does, that he can fly without the feather – and he always did.’ How long will it be before Boris Johnson starts to wonder if he can fly without the aid of his own lucky feather?