Our critic selects his pick of this year's best political books

Hobbits, dunces, Martians… and other politicians: Our critic selects his pick of this year’s best political books

  • Tony Rennell rounded up a selection of this year’s best political books 
  • Michael Cockerell reveals the truths he’s discovered in Unmaking Our Leaders 
  • Alan Duncan shares his personal jottings as junior foreign minister in Thick Of It 


by Michael Cockerell (Biteback £20, 368 pp)

For half a century, master TV interviewer Michael Cockerell’s X-ray eye has penetrated the confected fronts of Britain’s political leaders, probing beyond the sound bite, pricking the Westminster bubble of self-regard.

The truths he discovered are laid out in this riveting chronicle, sketch after sketch, in which foibles and beliefs are exposed and analysed. Macmillan, Wilson, Thatcher, Blair — they’re all here, plus many others, skewered by their own words.

It’s full of surprises. He asked each of the past nine prime ministers whether they had any doubts about their ability to do the job. The only one who said yes was, believe it or not, Boris. ‘We all have worries and insecurities,’ he confessed.

UK-based literary critic Tony Rennell has rounded up a selection of this year’s best political books. Pictured: Boris Johnson and Sir Alan Duncan

It’s written with panache and acumen. He astutely describes Boris’s regime as a blend of Shakespeare, Monty Python and The Sopranos, ‘penned by a scriptwriter on speed’.

But underlying the criticism is sympathy at the impossible nature of the job. Prime ministers are ‘constantly in the line of fire . . . theirs is an often thankless task.’ Worth remembering as we fry our leaders in the unforgiving pan of public opinion.


by Andrew Mitchell (Biteback £20, 384 pp)

Events, dear boy, events. No one has more reason to acknowledge that old political saw than floppy-haired, bicycling Tory toff Andrew Mitchell. One event brought his downfall — the moment when, as David Cameron’s newly appointed chief whip, he got into a nasty spat with police officers at the gates of Downing Street and to whom he allegedly used the word ‘plebs’. A promising career was toast.

Given ‘Plebgate’, I wasn’t expecting to have much sympathy for him. Dad also a Conservative MP, family in the wine trade, Cambridge, loads of money and social connections — one of the born-elite, with an entitled manner (and manor too, no doubt!).

But, in this wry and often unsettling account of his political life, what emerges is a thoughtful, well-meaning man, aware of his privilege but anxious to use his position to do good.

And no more so than in his years as international development secretary when he fought sceptics in his party pressing to cut back on aid and let the Third World go hang.

This is an engaging inside political story told largely from the backbenches, and all the more entertaining for it.


by Sebastian Payne (Macmillan £20, 432 pp)

The collapse of the Red Wall of Labour seats was the story of the 2019 general election, helping the Tories secure a stonking majority. But was it a one-off — votes lent, rather than secured — or a seismic upheaval which changed politics for good?

Payne, a London-based journalist from Gateshead toured the North to find that disillusion with Labour there runs deeper than a mere protest vote. The party made its appeal to the traditional working classes, only to discover they have no truck with the class war platitudes mouthed in wealthy Islington and Hackney.

Alan Duncan (pictured) shares his personal jottings as junior foreign minister in his political book In The Thick Of It

Labour’s disdain for pro-Brexit voters was crucial in their decision to go blue. Even more so was its then leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

In the catalogue of grievance against him, one stood out: his wishy-washy reaction to the poisoning of the Skripals by Russian agents in Salisbury.

This was too much for innately patriotic working-class voters, who didn’t trust him or Labour to do what was best for Britain.

But will they trust the Tories next time, or will Boris blow it? Only the 2024 general election will tell.


by Alan Duncan (Collins £25, 512 pp)

If you like your politicians roasted and reviled, then this rambling tome of personal jottings by junior foreign minister Duncan is for you. Boris, he declares, is ‘a stain on our reputation’, Michael Gove ‘a martian’, Priti Patel ‘a brassy monster’ and John Bercow a ‘hobbit’. Who would have thought the handsome, affable Sir Alan had so much bile in him?

Duncan never made it to the top table of politics, which niggles away at him. Why does PM Theresa May ignore me? Why am I not involved in the Brexit talks? Why am I not on TV more?

He tots up the slights and slings them back — while never slow in patting himself on the back. ‘I deliver quite a humdinger,’ he writes with effortless pride of a speech at the UN.

But though he was not a player, he did have a front-row seat in the self-immolation of May’s brief administration as she lost the plot on Brexit. Duncan, a Remainer, watches on in sorrow and in anger at the plotting and duplicity.

But as for his judgement . . . on September 8, 2018 he tweeted: ‘This is the political end of Boris Johnson.’ It wasn’t. And when he described one fellow Tory MP as a ‘self-deluded, treacherous dunce’, I found myself wondering if he was looking in the mirror.

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