In a phrase coined by William Hague, and used more than once in Ben Riley-Smith’s engaging first book, “The Conservative Party is an absolute monarchy, moderated by regicide.” Riley-Smith, political editor of this newspaper, adds that “the Conservatives pride themselves on being the most successful political party in democratic history.” The one begets the other.
Yet in The Right to Rule, an exhaustively researched history of the past 13 years of Conservative government, there is precious little success – more a succession of failures, lucky breaks and dashed expectations. It’s unsurprising that there’s an awful lot of crying; at some point, virtually everyone seems to have been in tears.
Riley-Smith’s story begins with David Cameron’s canny decision to opt for a full coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, rather than a looser and less stable arrangement – something for which, we learn, he had planned before the television debates and the subsequent eruption of “Cleggmania”. And it concludes with an up-to-the-minute dissection of Rishi Sunak’s travails as the current, and increasingly beleaguered, occupant of 10 Downing Street. In between, May, Johnson and Truss all come and go.
The Right to Rule studiously avoids unattributed or prurient gossip. Even so, every one of its 10 chapters, each of which focuses on a major event from those 13 years, manages to throw up nuggets for political historians and general readers alike. We learn, for instance, that Lib Dem strategist Ryan Coetzee, seeing the party’s imminent annihilation in the 2015 election, said: “I feel like a man standing naked on a beach watching a tsunami come towards him.” We hear of Cameron’s sense of personal betrayal when it came to Brexit, as he hissed: “I always knew Boris was a s---, but I didn’t realise Gove was.”
It’s revealed, too, that Theresa May hated George Osborne, to whom she only referred as “that man”, yet this was mild in comparison to her advisor Nick Timothy’s loathing of her chancellor, Philip Hammond, who was incensed to discover that Timothy supposedly referred to him as “the c---”. (While there’s a lot of swearing in this book, it’s unsurprising to discover that May herself never did.)
There are generous doses of black comedy. When Johnson was in intensive care with Covid-19, then-President Donald Trump sent over a “big parcel” of experimental drugs, which were promptly confiscated by Chris Whitty. We discover that Boris was also, in Riley-Smith’s summation, “prone to believing political conspiracies”, such as Dominic Cummings allegedly being paid a retainer by Rishi Sunak’s billionaire father-in-law. From the other side, Jeremy Corbyn is allowed to declare that “I freely admit that I did vote Remain” in the Brexit vote, thus ending years of speculation perhaps.
Yet this clear-sighted book, which treats its five Conservative prime ministers with scrupulous balance – perhaps because all of them, excluding May, have given Riley-Smith new interviews – is also dominated by Brexit and its aftermath, described by Osborne as “probably… the thing that the whole 13 years so far will be remembered for.” He wasn’t wrong. The pre-Brexit chapters on Cameron’s reign, detailing the seduction and annihilation of the Lib Dems, seem to come from another epoch. As Riley-Smith says, “as far as the public are concerned, [Cameron] has vanished – a ghost of referendums past.”
Riley-Smith is an excellent, pithy writer with a knack for a telling phrase, as when he writes of Sunak that “[his] early Tory leadership bid felt akin to an agile swimmer being forced to don an old-fashioned diving suit.” It seems, at the time of writing, that the electorate have made up their mind and will allow Sir Keir Starmer – a ghostly, near-absent presence here – to bring Sunak’s reign, and Tory hegemony, to an end. If so, The Right to Rule will acquire a valedictory quality; either way, it will remain among the best books written about the chaos and carnage of the last 13 years.
The Right to Rule is published by John Murray at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books