The out-of-power couple: Barbara Amiel with Conrad Black (Photo by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

October 13, 2020   4 mins

Two Tory wives have published books which crush the idea that Conservatism means normality, or even sanity: Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MP’s Wife, in which she eviscerates David Cameron, her husband Hugo Swire and, unconsciously, herself; and Barbara Amiel’s Friends and Enemies, a memoir written — and this must be unique — in the style of 1980’s sex-and-shopping “queen” Judith Krantz and also Franz Kafka. She makes a lengthy defence of her husband, the former Telegraph owner and Tory peer Conrad Black, who was imprisoned for obstruction of justice and fraud. The second is by far the odder book but Amiel has been a drug addict for years. She has no boundaries. Swire, though, has too many: I think of them as fences in her mind.

Swire is professionally thwarted and angrier than she pretends: she obviously wanted to be a cabinet minister but instead is a superb diarist who has written a betrayal, as superb diarists do.  Swire is self-pitying, and this book might serve as a homily on how not to marry your way to happiness, but to work for it.  It would certainly suit her Thatcherite credentials — she is the daughter of Sir John Nott, Margaret Thatcher’s defence secretary. Did she marry Sir Hugo Swire, who is stupider — and nicer — than her, by mistake? (A typical Swire line is: “I can’t kill a pet, it’s not in me”). She doesn’t say: betrayal will only extend so far. She alludes to a marital crisis, and Samantha Cameron dried her tears, but she doesn’t tell us exactly what happened, as Alan Clark would have done. I also sense a thumping crush on Call Me Dave, which may explain her hurry to include his comment about toppling her into a Cornish bush to “give her one”. (That is the scoop here. She was formerly a journalist, as Amiel was: surely there is more?)

It would have been a better — and more moral book — if she had been honest. She prides herself on her political nous, telling her husband how to strategise, and he duly sags, like a coat — but she doesn’t care about the country her set is governing. Both these books are immune to those beyond the elites. Swire’s primary resentment is that her father did not get a peerage. Her secondary resentment is that her husband didn’t get a peerage. Nor did he make the cabinet, due to what Swire thinks is positive discrimination: there were already too many old Etonians in the cabinet.

But she doesn’t really have political convictions. She has self-interest. I think she inserted passages to make herself more sympathetic because they do not read like contemporaneous notes; and it is obviously a lie that she didn’t write this book for publication. A passage about Michael Gove’s “geeky-smart” son chatting to Swire is cut off with the words “which would be unfair to repeat here”. Eh? Isn’t this your secret diary? If you are interested in political gossip — and this book confirms things but does not expose them — it is gripping because betrayal is always gripping. Cameron comes out well, but he was never a deceiver. He likes himself too much. The fact that he was photographed in his ludicrous shepherd’s hut at the request of the joiner who built is probably the last word on that.

Amiel is a different thing: an outsider. She was born in Watford, her father committed suicide when she was 15, and her mother, who hated her, didn’t tell her about his death until years later. Amiel’s love for her father is her touchstone: I’m not surprised she has dramatic relationships with men. She left home at 15 too because her sister would try to kill herself when she was around; her family treated her like the ghost-child in The Ring, then. When her mother chucked her out, she lived on her wits in Toronto: shoplifting; hanging out with Leonard Cohen; being beautiful, a curse for the emotionally untethered woman, and getting engaged to the first Jew she met, because she thought she might be a bourgeois housewife.

The most interesting fact — the one that makes this incoherent book make sense — leaks out without self-understanding: she is addicted to codeine. Codeine is a painkiller; an anaesthetic. Amiel writes from inside the addiction — she could hardly not — and that gives the prose an unbalanced quality, which echoes the effects of drug addiction. She is hyper-sensitive and numb by turns; both milk and stone.

Most reviewers have called the book funny. What they mean is that Amiel, unlike Swire, cannot edit herself: that is the drugs. So, she relates how she sullenly performed fellatio on the publisher George Weidenfeld, who introduced her to society in return; that she followed a man home and his dog licked cream off her; that she brutally assaulted her own dog and does not know why (it was anger, I think, because this dog loved her); that her third husband encouraged her to take her own life. Black though, she adores: he represents the security and status that her childhood denied her, and she is loyal to that. She buys him new clothes: a Jewish wife at last. She treated the status as a drug, exactly: she went mad with it; she didn’t enjoy it; and it ruined her.

Her adventures with the Park Avenue hags practising competitive couture are painful to read if, like me, you like Amiel the untethered, because you can only think: what happened to the hack? She was more interesting when she lived in studio flats and drank Carnation Milk. She found the hags terrifying: “Those dreadful lesbian suits,” asks one of Saint Laurent couture, “why do you buy them?” When Conrad fell they fled of course, because they were only ever friends with the money; as Swire was only friends with the power.

Barbara and Conrad became something very small — “wounded snails” — though Conrad Snail did publish his life of Franklin D Roosevelt. She felt the loss of status keenly: “I had stardust, that ephemeral something that denies explanation, but not enough.” Then she compares herself to a Monarch butterfly — a queen in flight, but small again. I think the rage in this book is almost entirely self-hatred, and the rest is her tribute to Black, who saved her as much as he could.

Swire says too little for fine literature and Amiel too much, but if you resent the rich, all of whom have as little concern for the world beyond as you would imagine, these books will feed your every prejudice. You might feel a little pity too, for something worthless lost.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.