Sasha Swire | 'I just want it to stand as a portrait of a political decade'

Sasha Swire | 'I just want it to stand as a portrait of a political decade'

"What I immediately loved was the intimate view of politics. Sasha is sufficiently an insider to be able to give us the jaw-dropping, revealing moments, and sufficiently an outsider to view everything and everyone with a laser-sharp gaze.”

From Samuel Pepys to Shaun Bythell, the fascination in reading other people’s diaries lies not only in the immediacy of their response to events, but also in their unedited candour. Now we have those of Sasha Swire, lauded in the above quote by her editor Richard Beswick. Little, Brown acquired her book Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Politics in a highly competitive auction, and it’s easy to understand why it was so keen to publish. Covering the period 2010–19, Swire’s diaries are riveting, opinionated, gimlet-eyed for detail, and frequently hilarious. Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Jacob Rees-Mogg and many more are all targets for Swire’s impaling prose, and regard- less of your political persuasion, you will be agog.

Speaking via phone from her home in London, Swire tells me that keeping diaries is a habit that goes back to her childhood. “It’s always been my instinct to write things down. So during my time inside politics, I wanted to make myself alert to everything that happened, and recording it became part of my routine—like cleaning my teeth.” Previously a journalist, Swire is married to Sir Hugo Swire, a former Foreign Office and Northern Ireland Office minister of state who was Conservative MP for East Devon until the general election of December 2019, when he stepped down and left politics. Swire’s inner-circle ringside seat also derives from the fact that she and her husband are close friends of David and Samantha Cameron, and that her own closest female friends include Kate Fall, Cameron’s former deputy chief of  staff, and Amber Rudd, former home secretary.

Swire’s immersion in the world of politics dates back much further than the decade covered by her book, however. Her father is Sir John Nott, probably best remembered by most as Secretary of State for Defence in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet during the Falklands War. Together with Swire’s Slovenian mother Miloska, he appears at numerous points in the book, most poignantly when Swire reflects on the first poem she ever wrote as a child, “all about the deafening silence in the kitchen as he worked away at his papers”.

While Swire emphasises that her diaries were never writ- ten with the idea that anyone else might read them, I ask her at what point she began to think they might be worth publishing. “Though I’ve always written, I found the whole publishing side of writing quite scary,” she tells me. “But when Hugo left politics, I looked through a list of agents to see if there was one who represented someone who had written diaries. And I saw that one of Caroline Dawnay’s clients was Chris Mullin [politician and acclaimed diarist]. So I sent her an email saying: ‘Look you’ve never heard of me and I’m not seeking representation, but I’d just like an opinion on these’.” The ensuing “publishing tornado” took her completely by surprise, she says. “For a long time I didn’t know what I had. When you write at the centre of a bubble, it feels normal to you, so you don’t know if it’s of interest to other people. But Caroline loved the diaries and so I was immediately hurled into the back seat, and she took the steering wheel.”

No Gove lost

Much of the book’s appeal lies in its sheer wealth of political gossip and in the way in which Swire satisfyingly skewers many of the current main players in politics, whom she has observed plotting their path to the top over the past decade. In “Yes Minister” vein, the machinations of civil servants and so-called “spads” (special advisors) are also on naked display. We encounter Dominic Cummings in 2014, for example, when he was a spad to Michael Gove. “He looks like one of those odd amoebas you find in jars in school science labs, but what always struck me was his overinflated view of his own importance,” Swire writes. She describes Gove himself by writing that, “like many over-excitable journalists, he mistakes headlines for achievements”; while Prince Andrew is a “painful... mixture of blokeyness and royal arrogance”. Friend though he might be, David Cameron too comes in for considerable ribbing, and also criticism: Swire records shouting at him over his stance on Syria, although she later writes that she thinks history will judge him kindly.

Swire comes across as a formidable character in her diaries: fearless in making her views known, whether it be to the Prime Minister or the Prince of Wales. “I am quite outspoken. I think I get that from my father. If I’m sitting next to someone and they’re boring me, I will provoke them just to have some fun. My husband says I don’t have any brakes. He doesn’t know how he got through the Foreign Office with me as a wife. But I would never do anything to upset him or my family. And my book is not a ‘kiss-and-tell’, and I hope it’s not seen as sensationalist. I just want it to stand as a portrait of a political decade.” Swire does admit to being nervous about publication, but perhaps not half as nervous as many of those who appear in it. “They’re running around like headless chickens thinking, ‘Oh my God, what has she written?’ because they know how gobby I am.”

While the headlines at publication are likely to hone in on Swire’s forthright opinions, Diary of a MP’s Wife is more than just a trove of political gossip. For one thing, it provides a rare female perspective on what is still a very male world. Says Swire: “There is a lot of mansplaining: as a woman, you’re not really meant to have an opinion. And as an MP’s wife I was still expected to play a traditional role. The first letter I received after Hugo was elected said: ‘Do you want to join our MP’s wives’ club? Our first event is a cookery demonstration at the Aga centre.’”

A back seat

I ask Swire if it is a relief to no longer be so immersed in the politics of the day? “It’s the most wonderful, wonderful relief. I don’t watch Andrew Marr anymore, I don’t watch ‘Newsnight’. It was a roller-coaster and I met some amazing people. But the scrutiny and the exposure is horrible, it’s really horrible. You have to be incredibly robust as a character.” Given that she has already written more than 200 journal pages during lockdown, Swire’s career as a diarist appears far from over, however.

If you are a left-leaning Remainer (remember them?), Swire’s political views mostly won’t agree with you. But in a sense the point of this book is not solely to chart the party politics of the past decade, entertaining though this aspect is. There’s a kind of timeless- ness in what it reveals about the machinations of those who scent the possibility of power, the arrogance of many of those born into privilege. I say as much to Swire, and she concurs. “I’m of an age now where politics feels cyclical. I’ve seen it all before. The characters are the same: the ones who are elbow- ing their way into the limelight, the ones who shouldn’t be in the limelight. I’ve been there and I’ve got the T-shirt. And it was a helluva ride.”

Book extract 
It was not until my husband entered politics that a consistent narrative seemed to weave itself through my journals. Re-reading the diaries has reminded me how politics not only brings friends together, even old ones, but how it wrenches them apart when they become passionate and partisan.

I think it is rare indeed to read a female perspective on what is still a very male- dominated and secret world. As my great friend Kate Fall once told me, ‘It’s always the men that write history.’