The Friends of Harry Perkins: A Very British Coup gets a sequel
Politicking and double-dealing in a post-Brexit satire by former Labour MP Chris Mullin
The late Ray McAnally as the left-wing prime minister Harry Perkins in the TV adaptation of A Very British Coup
The Friends of Harry Perkins
Published in 1982, and set in the late 1980s, Chris Mullin’s political satire A Very British Coup detailed the sabotage of Labour prime minister Harry Perkins by covert elements in the British establishment. The novel remains popular, says Mullin in his preface to The Friends of Harry Perkins, because, in 1987, former MI5 officer Peter Wright “caused a sensation with his claim that a group of MI5 officers . . . had plotted to undermine the government of Harold Wilson”.
It is to be hoped that history doesn’t repeat itself, and that some of the more sinister plot twists in The Friends of Harry Perkins remain confined to the realms of fiction.
The novel – or, at 185 pages, novella – opens in sombre fashion: “Harry Perkins was buried on the day that America declared war on China.” Not that the war will necessarily involve Britain: “Brexit Britain was a gloomy place. True, the Armageddon that some had prophesied had not occurred, but neither had the economic miracle promised by the Brexiteers. Instead there had been a long, slow decline into insularity and irrelevance.”
Is it possible to satirise contemporary British politics?
That decline has occurred, of course, on the Conservative Party’s watch. What is required, decide those few of Harry Perkins’ friends who remain, is a charismatic young idealist who will lead the Labour Party back into power. Fred Thompson, Harry’s former political advisor and confidante, seems to fit the bill, although Thompson isn’t alone in wondering if he’s made of sufficiently stern stuff to prevail.
Is it possible to satirise contemporary British politics? Mullin, a Labour MP from 1987 to 2010, certainly gives it his best shot, although the satire is gentle rather than savage as he charts Britain’s decline over the past half-century: “As he had promised, Fred opened an office in the constituency, in a 1960s shopping mall close to the city centre. It had once hummed with life, but now consisted mainly of struggling coffee shops, a branch of Poundland, a betting shop and an Oxfam bookshop.”
The Thompson who takes to the hustings is more Tony Blair than Jeremy Corbyn, a media-friendly figure who espouses a populist vision, although “It was a message many on the ‘no compromise with the electorate’ wing of the party didn’t wish to hear”.
On occasion, though, Mullin cuts close to the bone. The moment the post-Brexit scales tipped, we learn, “came in the form of a bland little statement from the motor manufacturer, Nissan, that they would be setting up a plant in the Czech Republic to build the latest model of their electric car”. With the Conservative government experiencing recurring crises, “the public was becoming accustomed to the sight of grim-faced Unionists marching up Downing Street to present a new list of demands to the beleaguered prime minister”.
In the wake of Rupert Murdoch’s death, the younger Murdochs are no longer interested “in messing about in British politics”. Meanwhile, “Threats of murder and rape continued to clog the inboxes and Twitter feeds of politicians, Labour and Conservative, perceived to have strayed from the one true path”.
It’s not all cynical politicking and double-dealing, though. Much of the story is concerned with the personal life of Thompson, who is married to the long-suffering Elizabeth, and is the father of two young girls, Catherine and Lucy. The briskly paced tale is spartan in style, and most affecting in its stark declarations of grief when Thompson experiences personal tragedy.
Apart from the consequences of Brexit, Mullin touches on issues such as illegal immigration, the housing crisis and nuclear stockpiling. Ultimately, however, his targets are the careerist politicians from both sides of the house who enter Westminster with rather more ambitions than principles, a good example being the Labour leader, Mrs Jones, who, hoping to undermine Thompson’s popularity with the electorate, requests that he take on the housing portfolio: “Housing? I don’t know the first thing about housing.”
“Oh, you could learn it all up . . .”
That was the thing about clever people: they thought politics could be learned.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is the editor of Trouble is Our Business (New Island).