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Right Honourable Reading: The Best British Political Novels

Posted on 24th July 2019 by Mark Skinner
As the keys of 10 Downing Street are handed over to Boris Johnson, now is the perfect time to revel in the atmosphere of Westminster and Whitehall with some specially chosen political novels. From the new Prime Minister’s own, typically rambunctious, fictional offering, to biting satires of Machiavellian ambition and gripping thrillers of intrigue and betrayal, we present ten great Parliamentary page-turners.

Whether it is the clandestine conversations conducted in darkened corridors or the pulsating, adversarial debate on the floor of the House, there is something about the shenanigans and chicanery of Westminster that makes for compelling reading. Henry Fielding satirised political corruption as early as the 1740s and, during the high Victorian golden age, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope translated the hypocrisy and self-aggrandisement of the electoral hustings to the pages of the panoramic social novel. 

The high water mark of the British political novel came in the 1980s, when polarised political opinion forced both Conservative and Labour parties to their respective ideological extremes. A Very British Coup, First Among Equals, Paradise Postponed and House of Cards all date from the Thatcher era, and all provide strikingly different angles on what proved to be a very divisive and passionate era in British political history. The period remained fertile ground even after the Iron Lady had been ousted; What a Carve Up! and The Line of Beauty may have been written under Major and Blair respectively, but both deal with the feverish political climate of the neo-liberal ascendancy.

With the appointment of a controversial new Prime Minister and the shifting, convoluted saga of Brexit, we are now, arguably, living through an even more politically turbulent era. Modern authors from Sam Byers to John Lanchester are skewering post-truths and populism with razor-sharp satire and urgent ideological critique, whilst broader questions of identity politics suffuse numerous great contemporary novels. The ten books below run the gamut from sly lampoon to prophetic fable, and from moral drama to high-stakes thriller, and are, most definitely, worthy of your vote.

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An epic Victorian novel that proves that British politics was ever murky and duplicitous, The Prime Minister is the fifth of Trollope’s Palliser series and finds Plantagenet Palliser occupying the most important position in the land. A thoughtful meditation on the corrupting nature of politics and a fascinating dissection of nineteenth-century Westminster.
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The eternally scheming, marvellously Machiavellian Chief Whip Francis Urquhart plots a course to Number Ten in Michael Dobbs’ scabrous assault on political ambition. Spawning not one but two classic television adaptations, House of Cards is a wickedly entertaining portrayal of Westminster at its venal, amoral worst.
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A work of uncanny political prophecy, Rule Britannia, a dystopian vision of Britain turning her back on the European Economic Community, was written in 1972. Du Maurier’s final novel, it is a nightmarish vision of a conjoined Britain and America, trigger happy US marines and chaotic States of Emergency. A neglected gem ripe for rediscovery.
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Jonathan Coe is a prince among comic novelists and What a Carve Up! is one of his signature books. Trenchant, impassioned and screamingly funny, this vituperative 1980s-set satire centres on the gloriously ghastly Henry Winshaw MP and the havoc his personal and political choices wreak on wider society.
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Mining a rich seam of first-hand political experience, Jeffrey Archer spins a typically compelling tale of ambition, betrayal and hubris. Spanning 25 years and a huge cast of characters both real and invented, First Among Equals charts the fortunes of a quartet of impressionable MPs as they jockey for position and, ultimately, the biggest job of all.
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Written with Mortimer’s customary wit and keen observation for English social mores, Paradise Postponed mixes genteel country living with the cut and thrust of Westminster politics. A Socialist clergyman and a ruthless Tory backbencher fuel a sprightly narrative steeped in class, avarice and compromised principles.
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A profound panorama of British politics and society in the Thatcherite 1980s, Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel sees naïve Nick Guest enter the orbit of a Tory MP and his glamorous family. Politically acute, emotionally nuanced and written with dazzling style and grace, The Line of Beauty is a sophisticated delight and a modern classic.
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Rueful and engaging, Mullin’s evergreen fable about a Socialist Prime Minister battling the vested interests of the Establishment has proved both prescient and enlightening in the light of recent developments. Channelling elements of the thriller, the polemic and the political drama, A Very British Coup is a very satisfying read.
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From one of the first women elected as an MP comes a labyrinthine golden age whodunit set amidst the corridors and chambers of the Houses of Parliament. An accomplished novelist as well as a pioneering politician, Wilkinson weaves a twisty tale of murder and intrigue, fashioning a credible and engaging amateur sleuth in Parliamentary Private Secretary Robert West.
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The incumbent British Prime Minister’s tilt at fictional immortality, Seventy Two Virgins is a broad, riotous Whitehall farce boasting deft plotting and an eye for the satirically absurd. Events spiral out of control during a US state visit, leading to a welter of comic coincidence, misunderstanding and inspired set-pieces worthy of Tom Sharpe.
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