Under my byline

Peer behind the scenes

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 30 May 2009

A glimpse of life in the political village of Westminster

Meghnad Desai, Dead on TimeDead on Time
Meghnad Desai
HarperCollins India
pp 256

At 1.20 pm on the fateful single day in the late 1990s that comprises the timespan of this political thriller, British prime minister Harry White is sitting down to lunch with Matt Drummond, a newspaper billionaire, in Drummond’s suite at the Ritz in London. In order to be here, the PM has cancelled at very short notice a lunch with members of his Commission on the New Millennium — including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi, a Duke, a “fiery Black poet”, two professors and a “token woman”.

Drummond, you should know, is the man who has “secretly funded” White’s rapid rise to the top of the Labour Party and, less than two years before the story starts, to the premiership itself. Drummond, a no-holds-barred businessman who runs the Lew Drew News Corporation (does that ring a bell?), leads, for tax reasons, a mostly offshore life on his yacht in the Mediterranean. So when he calls, the PM must come.

“The most important thing for me was that lunch,” explains Meghnad Desai, the author, “that a powerful publisher can make a prime minister cancel. That’s what I wanted to convey, that’s how much power media has over politics.” Desai, or rather, Baron Desai of St Clement Danes — he was made a life peer in 1991 for his services to the Labour Party — has been a politician for most of his 44 years in the UK, starting from the very grassroots, in addition to his work as an economist and teacher at the LSE.

The billionaire wants the PM to do him a costly favour: lose the Scottish elections, so that his media companies will continue to have favourable access in Scotland. But this, White, as a newish PM and party leader with a close rival waiting eagerly for him to slip up, cannot afford to do. He says as much, and the meeting ends amicably.

Little does White know how thin the ice is upon which he skates. Not just his political future is at stake, but also his life. Drummond, of course, will stand with White so long as the politician continues to be useful; but waiting in the wings are others from White’s past who harbour poisonous grudges and no expectation of material profit.

This is, roughly, where the making of this novel began. “It’s the kind of idea that people were bandying about when Tony Blair became [Labour leader],” says Desai. “Some people in the Labour left were so unhappy that a) we had a big majority and b) he was the leader; we were talking about dumping him or something, and then we talked about political assassination — I was in America when Kennedy was shot — and then I mentioned that only one British prime minister had ever been assassinated, a man called Spencer Perceval [in 1812]. So then we decided to write a novel together, three or four of us. Luckily nobody else did anything, but I started thinking about that.”

Blair led Labour into government in 1997. Since then, Desai’s book has had a bumpy journey. The first draft was stolen along with his suitcase at Brussels railway station. Much later, Desai subjected a new draft to the close scrutiny of Ruth Rendell, “a great friend and a great thriller writer. She said, yes, the plot will work, so I wrote up a version, and then she said this is too cut-and-dried, you have to give colour and depth to your characters, give them a history, have more description.” Five drafts on, the final book is full — even too full — of characters, each with an elaborate history.

“[Perceval] was murdered because a businessman from Birmingham thought that he had gone bankrupt because of the PM’s policies. So he went down to London and he shot him. That was a completely private thing,” Desai says. “I thought, let me get a private angle into this, invent a private story which would catch up with this man,” Harry White.

So the narrative flits back and forth, almost minute by minute, between the different characters with their private stories and motives, with the central thread being Harry White. Those stories range from the merely sordid to the truly disturbing, and feature an improbable prevalence of unequal sexual power dynamics — even given what one reads about scandal in British public life. Specifically, older male characters exploit younger, dependent women.

“They’re all more or less what’s happened to people,” Desai counters. “There’s very little extreme invention. I had to find a scandal for Terence Harcourt [the PM’s chief rival] which would actually lead to such a big explosion. So it had to be really, really shocking and it took me a long time to invent that. [But] this is the fact of people at the top — they use people. Sometimes they use them nicely, sometimes they use them badly, but they use people. A lot of people in politics are basically waiting for their turn to do the same, so they are in apprenticeship, they are observing.”

Yet even some of the exploiters retain sympathy — notably White, whose sexual appetite pales in comparison with that of, for example, John Kennedy. “People who are, as it were, victims,” says Desai comfortably, “are also not morally as pure as they may pretend to be. They’re colluding in this.”

It’s a dirty little world, but somehow innocent in its self-absorption — like the author himself, who seems above it all and has kept, moreover, a free hand with which to attack Gordon Brown. “British politicians are much less sensitive than Indian politicians,” he says.

It’s amusing to connect these fictional characters with their real-life counterparts. Murdoch (down to his young Asian partner) and Blair surf in and out, and the sole true innocent, deputy PM Frank Thompson, is based on a Labour leader whom Desai clearly respected (John Smith); there are others. Ever so often one thinks with a jolt: my God, is Murdoch so awful? Was Blair like this?

More worthwhile, though, is the detailed illumination, from the inside, of EU negotiations, the career path of a British politician, how the media and local politics work, the rigid mesh of grudge and dependency that seem to be the foundation of political life in the UK. This is the real heart of the book. Something like that must be true of India as well — but who’s to know, if nobody dares say?

(Visit the publisher’s webpage for the book. Here’s a review by me, written more recently.)

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