How Boris Johnson helped inspire Anatomy of a Scandal.

Photo credit: REUTERS. Boris Johnson confirming his intention to stand as Conservative leader at a business meeting in Manchester last week. “Of course I’m going to go for it,” he said.

Photo credit: REUTERS. Boris Johnson confirming his intention to stand as Conservative leader at a business meeting in Manchester last week. “Of course I’m going to go for it,” he said.

The voice down the end of the phone was rich and cajoling: the tone that of someone used to charming their way out of situations, either by appealing to your better nature or by playing the hapless buffoon.

“Deep background, deep background,” Boris Johnson chuntered. It was the day after he’d been sacked by the then Conservative leader Michael Howard for lying about his affair with the journalist Petronella Wyatt and the reason this had become such a huge story - other than it being of sex scandal involving an MP - was that Boris had dismissed it with characteristic élan a week earlier as “an inverted pyramid of piffle.”

I was the Guardian lobby correspondent working that November Sunday in 2004 and, with the News of the World threatening to reveal details of the affair and a subsequent abortion, I was tasked with tracking him down. To my surprise, he rang me back. Obviously this couldn’t come from him, he explained, hence his “deep background, deep background” - journalistic code for his comments being completely non-attributable. And there was a definite “all-chaps-together-because-we-work-in-journalism-let’s-not-stitch-me-up” air about our conversation. But yes, amid all the bumbling and the skirting, it was clear the story was true.

We didn’t stitch him up. We didn’t run a story about him confessing to this, partly because we wanted to throw the story forwards. (He’d been sacked as Tory vice-chair and shadow arts minister on the Saturday afternoon, and this story would appear on the Monday morning, after all.)

But the fact that he had lied about the affair and had thought he could get away with it for almost a whole week rankled. It sounds naïve but I think this was the first time I was aware of a public figure blatantly not telling the truth. Not in a semantic sleight of hand; a sly massaging of the figures.

But by telling a great big fib.

I wish I had a contemporaneous note of that conversation. I have searched my attic for the relevant notepad but after three house moves, and 14 years, I can’t find one. I never imagined ever relaying it: it goes against all journalist ethics to betray a source, even one who’s betrayed his wife countless times and, in spinning the erroneous £350m a week for the NHS claim, has betrayed the electorate. (To say nothing of his slapdash betrayal of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratliffe by conveying inaccurate information about why she was visiting Tehran.)

But the conversation stuck with me for over a decade, and was a key inspiration when I dreamed up the idea of a novel involving an Old Etonian and Oxford-educated minister. Not that Boris is in any way my fictitious James Whitehouse, a man accused of raping a parliamentary aide with whom he’s been having an affair, in a lift in the House of Commons. For one thing, James is an athletic, former Oxford rowing Blue who is conventionally handsome with his chiselled jaw, green eyes and six foot three rower’s frame. For another, for all his faults, I never thought the former foreign secretary abusive at all.

But in his relationship with the truth – crucial to the issue of consent at the heart of my novel - there are clear parallels.

As my narcissist James tells his wife: “I told the truth, near enough. Or the truth as I saw it.”

It’s a philosophy Boris Johnson, the favourite to become the next Conservative leader and prime minister and a man whose relaxed attitude to the truth has been copiously documented, could have spouted himself.

 

Anatomy of a Scandal: number 5 in the charts, tour dates, and a quick catch up.

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I’m absolutely delighted that, ten days after publication, Anatomy of a Scandal has stormed to number 5 in the Sunday Times bestsellers’ charts - in a week when abuse at the heart of Westminster’s in the news once again. I am proud, but also grateful to everyone who’s bought my novel, and in particular to the team at Simon & Schuster who’ve been championing it for almost two years.

I’m off on tour this autumn, venturing as far as Wales, Devon and Scotland to talk about my prescient novel about power, privilege and consent.

The first stop was last weekend, where I appeared at Guildford Literary Festival with my bestselling writer friend and fellow S&S author, Louise Candlish, and for most of these events I’ll be pairing up with other authors, which I thinks makes for a far more interesting discussion. So I’ll be talking alongside authors including The Secret Barrister and William Clegg, QC, psychological thriller writer, Amy Lloyd, EC Fremantle, whose latest has been described as a Jacobean Gone Girl, and novelist Sofka Zinovieff.

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Anatomy’s also been picked as The Mail on Sunday YOU magazine’s reading group book of the month for October. You can get 20% off the £7.99 price of a copy, and read about the inspiration behind it here. From Thursday, 17th, it will be both the book of the week in Waitrose, and a deal in Tesco where you can snap it up for £2.50 if you buy a copy of the Sun. (It’s also £3 in Sainsbury’s.)

Enough hustling. I need to get on with writing, inspired by the large audience Louise and I met at Guildford - one of whom told me she’d been reading my novel until 4am that morning; and another who was inspired to tick off a man who’d been trying not to pay for his cappuccino at the hotel bar after listening to us talking. A third concluded, after listening to us: “But you’re lovely women, really.”

We are, and I am. Do come to any of these events if possible. I’d love to meet you.



Anatomy of a Scandal is a WHSmith Richard & Judy pick!

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I’m usually hopeless at keeping my own secrets, invariably wanting to share good news. But this summer there have been two I’ve held tight and I can’t tell you what a relief it was to share one last Thursday, when Anatomy of a Scandal was published in paperback.

As the obligatory sofa shot reveals, my novel about power, privilege and consent has been picked as one of Richard and Judy’s autumn Book Club picks. I could not be more thrilled. For a writer who loves reading the books they pick, and aspires to write novels that provoke and resonate, this feels like the pinnacle of my career.

Although I’ve known since early June - June 8! nearly three months! - it didn’t feel completely real until I met the legendary pair less than a week before publication day. OK, so I’d already answered questions for them and written an essay on the inspiration behind Anatomy of a Scandal; I’d gone through the proofs of these pages; and I’d even seen a finished copy of the special WH Smith’s edition, which I’d hidden in a box in my office so that my children wouldn’t stumble upon it or I’d inadvertently show it to friends. But I didn’t quite believe it was happening until I was on my way to a five-star central London hotel to record a podcast with them.

I was ridiculously early, of course, and there was no sign of them initially. (I didn’t realise they and the production team were hidden away downstairs.) But after I’d been asked various questions about my writing technique - to be spliced into the trail for the interview - and given myself a pep talk in the loo (where I correctly guessed another smartly-dressed woman might be an author; she turned out to be Amy Lloyd, author of The Innocent Wife), I was ushered to meet the couple who are so well-known that, like Nigella, or Tess and Claudia, they’ve no need for surnames.

And they were lovely. Warm, interested, professional and so intent on putting me at my ease. Richard drew parallels with his own experience as a court reporter before he went into broadcasting, and with their experience as TV hosts in pouncing on a story. “We’ve found that, haven’t we Judy?” he said, referring to a part of the novel where journalists, listening as evidence in the court scenes, know they have a top line.

Although I’d been told they read all 15 books on this selection’s shortlist before whittling them down to the final six, I hadn’t expected them to remember mine in such detail. (That’s a reflection on me: I can love a novel but a few months later will have forgotten the names of characters, or even a twist.) I genuinely felt as if they were immersed in and engaged with the novel. And as I left, Richard told me: “Some books choose themselves. It’s a fantastic read.” (You can read what they have to say about Anatomy of a Scandal here, while the podcast will be live from November 1.)

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Meeting the two of them, and seeing my novel at the front of the Cambridge store, and advertised in the window, were real “pinch me” moments: experiences I doubt I’ll ever forget. I’m so proud that they’ve rated my novel but most of all I’m delighted their seal of approval means Anatomy of a Scandal will be widely available, and hopefully read. (As well as the special WHSmith edition, it’s on sale in Waterstone’s, independent bookshops, amazon and in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose - the full sweep of supermarkets.)

In an era in which the issue of entitled men becoming even more powerful has never been more evident - see Kavanaugh and President Trump’s apology to him this morning - nor the subsequent burgeoning of women’s rage, I hope my novel, in some tiny way, adds to the debate.

And that other secret? Well, there’s a hint of it in the questions posed by Richard and Judy at the end of their edition of the book. But the details? I’m still having to keep them safe.




Powerful allies, frat boy culture and consent: how Anatomy of a Scandal resonates with Kavanaugh.

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It’s the US paperback publication of #Anatomy of a Scandal today - and once again the timing could hardly have been more prescient. The issue of what happens when entitled boys become powerful men has been thrown into sharp focus by a televised drama that has gripped America: the Senate judiciary committee hearing into whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford at a teenage party 36 years ago.

Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is alleged to have clamped a hand over the then 15-year-old’s mouth and wrestled with her clothing. Giving evidence under oath, Dr Ford said she believed she was going to be raped and accidentally killed, and was “100 per cent” certain he was the 17-year-old who pinned her to a bed against her will. A visibly irate Judge Kavanaugh repeated that he was innocent. But while the President immediately tweeted his support - his performance “showed America exactly why I nominated him,” - Judge Kavanaugh’s injudicious behaviour has raised doubts about his suitability as a Supreme Court justice. As an article in the New York Times yesterday opined: “Retribution and distemper — even under extraordinary stress, which can obscure but also amplify a person’s character — are not qualities one should seek in a Supreme Court justice or a judge of any kind.”

Without creating spoilers, Anatomy of a Scandal - my #metoo marriage thriller/courtroom drama - explores the sort of frat boy culture that Judge Kavanaugh is alleged to have enjoyed at Yale law through a fictitious Oxford university dining club called The Libertines. (Itself, a thinly disguised Bullingdon Club, to which the former prime minister David Cameron, and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson belonged.)

In my present day story, when my charismatic politician James Whitehouse is accused of raping a parliamentary aide with whom he’s been having an affair in a House of Commons elevator, he retains the backing, at least in private, of his ally, the Prime Minister - just as Judge Kavanaugh retains the support of President Trump.

I’ve written about the cognitive dissonance of writing fiction only to see it reflected in real life here for the US literary site, CrimeReads: a piece prompted by the Westminster sexual harassment allegations, that led to the resignation of two Cabinet ministers, last October (and included three claims of an MP groping in a lift.)

A year to the week that the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke, Anatomy of a Scandal’s themes of power, privilege and consent, and its examination of a certain kind of toxic masculinity have not only been seen in Hollywood, sport and the City but are now being discussed in relation to a nominee to the Supreme Court.

In the words of People magazine which picked it as their book of the week, it’s “a nuanced story line perfectly in tune with our #metoo times.” To quote New York Times bestselling author Lisa Jewell it “completely skewers the zeitgeist.”

I hope it enrages, as much as it entertains.

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