Peter Snowdon’s history of the Conservative Party in opposition, quickly updated last year to include the final stage in their recovery, has four white men on its cover striding towards the reader – Cameron, Osborne, Hague and Clegg. It tells you immediately the sort of book that Back from the Brink: The extraordinary fall and rise of the Conservative Party is: tightly focused in on politics as seen from and carried out in Westminster.
This is an account of senior political figures and their political, policy and media manoeuvrings. The public feature very rarely (unlike in Deborah Mattinson’s memoirs from the Labour side), except in aggregate in voting figures or polling results and even then only occasionally. Despite the majority of voters in the election which put David Cameron into first place in May 2010 being female, women only rarely feature save in the form of Mrs Thatcher or changing party candidate selection rules.
If you take as given that very narrow focus, the book is extremely well executed with a clear narrative style packed full of detailed interview accounts from the main participants. Generally both sides of the argument are put when it comes to assessing personalities, with David Davis and Chris Grayling being the only two senior Conservatives whose reputations come out worse at the end of the book than at the start.
Overall the book’s message is that the Conservative modernisers got it right, and where they didn’t it was for not pushing on effectively enough with modernisation. As that is not a message someone such as ConservativeHome’s Tim Mongtomerie would agree with the absence of a serious consideration of the different strategies available to the party is a shame.
Missing too is any real sense of quite who David Cameron is, deep down. The book quotes him saying, “I think you’re right that it took me quite a long time to get here [to the moderniser viewpoint], but let’s hope that, like slow cooking, the result in the eating will be much better, stronger and more convincing” yet subsequently there much cooling, warming, cooling and yet more rewarming of Cameron’s approach to modernisation.
The book thins out too as we get to 2009 and then 2010, though both of these drawbacks are to a degree inevitable given the lack of perspective that seeing Cameron in power for several years will give future authors. Those future authors, and students of the period, will I am sure however be grateful for the detailed, readable account from one perspective of the Conservative fall and rise packed as it is with so many interviews with the key figures.
If you are the sort of person interested in why William Hague gave up on modernisation midway through the 1997 Parliament or how Iain Duncan Smith went from rebel to leader to outcast to Cabinet Minister, then this is the book for you. Along the way there are the delights of quotes such as the one from ex. Australian Prime Minister John Howard to William Hague: “You know, William, there’s only one thing harder than the first year in opposition … It’s the second.”