Book review: Fighters and Quitters
For aficionados of political theatre, Theo Barclay’s run-through of great resignations is a surefire box office smash.
In the age of Brexit, it can be easy to forget that politics is occasionally an exhilarating spectator sport. Thankfully help is on hand from Theo Barclay. In Fighters and Quitters, he gleefully sets out the skulduggery and subterfuge that has led various unfortunate politicians to fall on their swords in recent years.
Barclay kicks off with an assertion that modern day resignations fall into three patterns. The daylight assassination and the principled stand are relative rarities. The most common type of resignation - and the most fun to watch - is the slow death in which “the flailing minister, enmeshed in a scandal or dogged by allegations of misconduct, attempts to hold out but eventually succumbs to the inevitable, their reputation lying in tatters”.
In a crowded field, the most brilliantly bizarre resignation in this book is that of John Stonehouse, the Labour MP who faked his own death on a beach in Miami after months of meticulous planning. The author revels in the details of the tale by noting how, having sent British newspapers into a frenzy, the Labour MP made it to Australia with two new identities and settled down in the suburbs of Melbourne, where “he applied to join the local jazz club”. Stonehouse was eventually caught when Australian police mistook him for Lord Lucan. Amazingly he then returned to the Commons in his old job as MP for Walsall North, where he was shunned by colleagues but didn’t stand down until a year later.
Giving Stonehouse a run for his money in the bizarre stakes is Ron Davies, who resigned as Tony Blair’s secretary of state for Wales after he was picked up by the police wandering around Brixton at 4am. The explanation that Davies then provided to Blair for his late-night activities is sublime. “He had been driving from his constituency to see his wife when he became overcome with tiredness,” Barclay recounts. “He decided to stretch his legs at midnight on Clapham Common, where he had bumped into a Rastafarian man and the pair got talking. They decided to go for a curry together… at which point the Rastafarian pulled a knife, robbed, Davies and stole his car.” Shortly afterwards, Davies resigned citing a moment of madness". But he never confirmed the allegations that he was cruising for gay sex.
While many arrogant and duplicitous politicians have only themselves to blame for their downfall, Barclay observes that the process is often accelerated by a canny rival who has kept the scandal in the news. A prime example is cited in the chapter on Liam Fox, whose troubles were seized on by the tenacious Labour backbencher John Mann. After Mann spotted a story in The Guardian, he began to fire parliamentary questions at Fox about his dealings with the infamous Adam Werrity. Fox made the fatal flaw of skirting around the truth in his replies and his slippery turn of phrase “piqued the attention of Labour MPs and journalists well versed in the underlying rumours about his sexuality”. The then defence secretary finally fell on his sword a few weeks later.
As well as being a lively compendium of great resignations, Fighters And Quitters is also something of a treasure trove of eye-catching quotes. The resignation of Davies after his late-night amble around Clapham Common apparently caused as progressive a figure as Blair to worry that "we could get away with Ron as a one-off aberration, but if the public start to think the whole cabinet is engaging in gay sex we could have a bit of a political problem".
Writing about Peter Mandelson’s double-resignation, Barclay recounts how Blair eventually disowned his fellow New Labour architect - and then Alastair Campbell went further with a particularly snide briefing to lobby journalists. They were told that "the future for Peter Mandelson" would be to "shut up, and then go off and have a lovely life with Reinaldo". Of course Mandelson - whose 2001 rallying cry has inspired the title of this book - did not so such thing and made a shock return to frontline politics as Gordon Brown's unlikely right-hand man a few years later.
Meanwhile in covering the downfall of Stephen Byers, the author doesn’t neglect to mention what senior civil servant Richard Mottram was overheard shouting at a bewildered colleague in the Department for Transport: "We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department's fucked. It's been the biggest cock-up ever and we're all completely fucked."
Barclay rarely reveals his source material, making it hard to know where some of the best lines have come from. But he more than makes up for it by charting the downfall of his chosen politicians with elegance, panache and a strong sense of schadenfreude. For aficionados of political theatre, the result is a surefire box office smash. It is also a timely antidote to interminable debates about the customs union and the Irish border.