Book review : Lady Rendell's The Birthday Present

This book review appeared in Tribune
The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine (Viking, £18.99)
31 October 2008
“WHY look into the crystal ball when you can read the book?” was one of Nye Bevan’s immortal metaphors as he invited people to contemplate the Conservatives of his generation. Today it is pointless reading the crystal balls of the press which give David Cameron and his millionaire front bench a free ride as the contradictions, corruptions, cuts and complacency that the next election is in the bag are allowed to flourish without any critical examination.
So as so often in the past it is to the make-believe world of fiction that we must turn to discover the real nature of the men who would govern the nation. Make-believe? Up to a point. In Alan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty we had a Channel 4 type documentary on the Notting Hill world of cocaine-ridden Conservative dinner parties and sleaze-ridden politics in which the devoted young worshippers of the goddess Thatcher cut their teeth.
These are the men who now control the Tory Party – rich beyond the knowledge of all but a handful of voters. Ivor Tesham is a perfect scion of this Conservative world. Like David Cameron he was educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford. He is charming, likeable, smooth and fluent on his feet. Like Boris Johnson he has a winning way with ladies. Tesham represents today’s Old Etonian clique who have won control of today’s Tory Party, sidelining oiks like David Davis and with better judgement than Yorkshire’s laddo, William Hague, who allows himself to be photographed for the Daily Mail swilling champagne with City wealth fund managers at a £1,000 a night luxury hotel for the super-rich on Lake Como.
Ruth Rendell, a Labour peer and crime novelist without peer, writing as Barbara Vine pushes back Tendall’s life a few years to the Thatcher-Major years. He swiftly climbs the ladder of promotion while all the time indulging himself. Above all in bed. He seduces the beautiful young wife of a Mr Pooter in the north London suburbs. Then, setting her up for a some bondage and S+M, something goes terribly wrong.
Tesham is not a killer nor a vicious man. He drinks champagne more than he sniffs cocaine. But Eton, Oxford, wealth and charm do not guarantee core human decencies and month by month our Tory hero slips into a net of deceit with his unwillingness to confront what he has done.
There are other characters of contemporary London – the loneliness of a woman who cannot find a partner or a life. The squalor of living on benefits. Rendell captures the House of Commons brilliantly and holds the reader’s hand as plot and character come together in a seriously satisfying thriller. It can be read as a classic crime novel. But Lady Rendell has done more. She has told us about today’s Tories. We have been warned.