The Friends of Harry Perkins

Chris Mullin

Scribner, £12

Review by Rosemary Goring

Near the start of Chris Mullin’s sequel to A Very British Coup is a carefully drawn portrait, a rare moment of calm and contemplation in a book that often forgets that fiction is meant to illustrate, not precis. The scene is the remote Scottish home of Fred Thompson, former aide to the ill-fated Labour prime minister, Harry Perkins: “An unmade track leading down to a sandy bay. A white-washed stone house, solar panels on the roof. Shirts fluttering on a clothes line strung between a wooden post and the corner of an outhouse. Logs stacked neatly against the porch wall. Outside, evidence of children: a tricycle, a football, a rag doll sitting on a low wall by a bed of leeks. Beyond the garden, through a wooden gate, a path leading down to the beach...”

Note that paragraph well. It is not only one of the best written passages in the book, but one that, by story’s end, holds immense significance. This cottage, in the Western Isles, is the place to which Fred Thomson retreated, after the downfall of Harry Perkins, and where “he grows vegetables and scratched a living writing for a local newspaper”.

Former Labour MP Chris Mullin published A Very British Coup in 1982. It was a semi-comic but deadly serious novel about a left-leaning Labour Prime Minister brought low by a malign, self-serving establishment. As Mullin writes in a foreword to The Friends of Harry Perkins, that novel “has endured so long because a number of the events described were subsequently shown to be true. There [italic]was[end] an M15 agent on the council of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The security service [italic]was[end] vetting senior BBC personnel.” Thanks to its perspicuity, Mullin’s publishers have reprinted it as “the novel that foretold the rise of Corbyn”. Now, in response to the age of Corbyn and other ineffectual, malfunctioning or actively obstructive politicians, comes Mullin’s take on Brexit.

Set ten years from now – albeit with many of the original characters eerily unaged – it opens with Harry Perkins’ funeral. On the same day, America declares war on China. To everything that follows, much of it in the piranha tank that is Westminster, the gathering storm between these superpowers is seemingly but a footnote. But of course, the noises off put the UK’s political games in perspective. Indeed, the proper view of what unfolds in this heartfelt and unedifying tale is like a scene watched from the wrong end of binoculars: reduced, shrunken, and pitiful.

Taking its title from the informal dinner club of which Thomson is a member, it shows him being persuaded to stand for Harry Perkins’s old seat of Sheffield Parkside. This means bringing his “posh young wife” Fiona and their two daughters out of their island idyll and into the English north. What unfolds is relayed astonishingly briskly, so it’s no great surprise – and there is not even an attempt at building tension – when Thomson walks into his new role as MP: “the Tory lost his deposit and the UKIP candidate polled less than the Monster Raving Loony Party. The natural order of British politics appeared to be reasserting itself.” Less old-school is the encounter he has with a constituent: “I hope you’re not one of those traitors who are plotting to take us back into the EU” says an unemployed grouser, with charges of GBH on his CV.

In Mullin’s vision of the future, leaving the EU has solved nothing. “Brexit Britain was a gloomy place... Even now, after nearly a decade of negotiations, no significant agreements had been reached.” Indeed, the late 2020s look remarkably similar to today, before we’ve even left. On almost every level this is not a novel about the aftermath of Brexit but almost a mirror image of the present situation. The debates preoccupying Mullin’s politicians and advisors are the very ones that dog the House of Commons at this moment. If Mullin seriously thinks nothing substantial will have changed, he is so lacking in imagination he should abandon fiction now.

As Thomson swiftly climbs the Labour ladder, he is accompanied by dry asides from the author. So, for instance, he is reminded by one well-wisher that Labour voters are conservative: “On race, patriotism, the bomb, Brexit – you name it. It’s just that they happen to vote Labour.”

The upwardly mobile MP is helped on his way by the most unlikely sources, among them Sir Peregrine Craddock, the former head of MI5, who will be familiar to all readers of the earlier novel. His decision to support a Labour MP shows the degree of turmoil into which the country has been thrown.

Mullin, a veteran diarist, has a knack of pithy description, adding touches of colour and wit. One politician’s wife is “the daughter of a duke, related to half the statues in the Foreign Office”. Unsurprisingly, Scotland’s affairs are dismissed in a single phrase: “The Scots Nats are away on a trip of their own.”

In only one respect does Mullin conform to the principles of fiction, in adding a secondary plot line, far from the back benches, in which emotion rather than parliamentary process is to the fore. As trouble befalls Thomson’s family, an affecting dimension of tenderness and pain highlights the ugly manouevring of political sharks. Overall, though, The Friends of Harry Perkins is not so much a novel as a diversion. So slim it could be read while MPs cast their indicative votes, it is intended to be the first post-Brexit novel. The denouement of Jonathan Coe’s recent novel Middle England has already been ruined by our delayed departure, but one fears the scenario Mullin foresees could still become reality. It truly is a fearsome prospect, because an undertone of menace colours the book, as it does the country today.

By its end, the tranquillity of a cottage in the Western Isles, bathed in woodsmoke and fitful sun, seems like another universe. It might stand for the best of Britain as it was before this debacle, a paradise never to be regained.