Literature can do power struggles too

Lord of the Flies, A Very British Coup, House of Cards … fiction can almost match reality when it comes to political intrigue

Parallels with Shakespeare characters have proliferated in coverage of recent political skulduggery (not inaptly since Boris Johnson is writing a biography of the bard), but fiction has plenty of other examples of ruthless leadership struggles, whether on the right, the left or far from Westminster.

Macbeth (1606) by William Shakespeare

Invoked by David Cameron’s aides apparently nicknaming Michael Gove’s wife Sarah Vine “Lady Macbeth” the Scottish tragedy offers other similarities to the Tory bloodletting as it depicts Macbeth and Banquo as allies before the death of Duncan, only for the former to turn against Banquo (because of the witches’ prophecies) and rub him out. Pairs of rivals can also be found in Richard II, Richard III and the Roman plays.

Barchester Towers (1857) by Anthony Trollope

Trollope’s political Palliser series lacks top-level feuding – his hero Plantagenet Palliser only reluctantly heads a coalition government – but it can be found in spades in this clerical novel: high church archdeacon Grantly and evangelical Dr Proudie are in contention to be Bishop of Barchester, and after Proudie wins the see they and their entourages – including in the winning camp ambitious Mrs Proudie and machiavellian curate Obadiah Slope – squabble and plot continually.

The 1963 film adaptation of Lord of the Flies.
The 1963 film adaptation of Lord of the Flies. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding

Perhaps the closest equivalent in modern fiction to the Johnson-Gove shenanigans: Ralph becomes the leader of the boys marooned on a desert island with Jack ostensibly an ally but scheming against him. Eventually Jack makes a leadership bid and calls on the others to depose Ralph, with less success than Gove had when knocking out his rival by announcing his own candidacy.

Bill Brand (1976) by Trevor Griffiths

Ibsen-influenced TV drama in which a newbie hard-left Labour MP – resembling the Jeremy Corbyn of a few years later – has a ringside seat as his cabinet minister mentor takes on a rightwing rival after ill-health forces the PM to resign (as Harold Wilson indeed did that year, after which Jim Callaghan beat the left’s standbearer Michael Foot). Also notable for Brand’s girlfriend (Cherie Lunghi) being called Alex Ferguson.

A Very British Coup (1982) by Chris Mullin

A working-class, leftwing Labour leader becomes PM but is crushed by establishment forces, sneakily assisted by a treacherous chancellor with his eye on No 10. A Bennite parable subsequently taken as a warning (either of coups within the party or after coming to power) by Corbynistas.

First Among Equals (1984) by Jeffrey Archer

Bestseller following four disparate rivals, all would-be PMs, from the 60s to their political prime in the 80s: notably assumes these contenders would all be men although it appeared five years into Margaret Thatcher’s reign.

House of Cards (1989) by Michael Dobbs

Archer meets Jacobean revenge drama in another work viewed as prophetic; or at least fortunate: long before the current US version, the Richard III-influenced BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies aired in late 1990 just as Tory rivals competed to lead the country after Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. Gove’s enemies might see parallels between him and Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart, who brings down a PM who has sidelined him and then initially pretends reluctance to take part in the ensuing leadership contest.

The Absence of War (1993) by David Hare

A play portraying a Labour leader (loosely based on Neil Kinnock) forced to rein himself in and preoccupied with the threat posed by an undermining shadow chancellor who eventually succeeds him: seen as uncannily anticipating New Labour’s Blair-Brown “TBGBs” and Ed Miliband’s leadership – but no one foresaw brothers battling to lead the party.

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in the RSC production of Wolf Hall
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in the RSC production of Wolf Hall. Photograph: Publicity image from theatre company

Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel

Featuring the power struggle at Henry VIII’s court between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, presented very differently by Mantel from the handling of the opposing courtiers in Robert Bolt’s 1960 play A Man for All Seasons.

The Red Queen (2010) by Philippa Gregory

Women tend to be limited to wife, girlfriend, accomplice and helpmeet roles in contemporary political thrillers; so, bizarrely, historical fiction like Gregory’s Cousins’ War series and parts of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga is closer to the current contest in the Tory party (and potentially the Labour party) where they are equal or dominant players. Centred on Red Rose heiress Margaret Beaufort, arch-enemy of Richard III, the novel shows her organising rebellion against him before she triumphs when her son Henry VII becomes his nemesis and successor..


John Dugdale

The GuardianTramp

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