Jeremy Corbyn is not a reader. Indeed, Tom Bower – author of ‘Dangerous Hero’, the controversial biography of the Labour leader released earlier this year – alleges ‘The Absolute Boy’ has never actually read a book. This would certainly tally with Corbyn’s admission that he hadn’t read the full EU Withdrawal Agreement, perhaps the most important piece of legislation generated by a British government in the last 50 years. Then again, judging by their contributions, I doubt he’s the only one on the Opposition benches not to have bothered.
Politicians need a cultural life, a “hinterland” as Denis Healey called it. It seems pertinent, therefore, to consider what the various Conservative leadership hopefuls might have on their bookshelves.
Johnson, the front-runner, is undoubtedly well-read. He studied Greats at Oxford, as many of the greats do. A bombast with a thirst for the fray, Boris applied himself to his studies almost as keenly as to drinking and chasing women. His genuine love of Latin and Greek feeds into everything he does, with his speeches and journalism liberally peppered with references to all the classics: Aesop, Plato, Carry On Cleo. This is a man whose library is almost as well-stocked as his larder.
“Et tu, Brute?” A young Michael Gove tried his hand at a number of careers – journalist, comedian, actor – before finding his calling: as a political assassin. The Oxford English graduate, who has gained a reputation in the Conservative Party as a curious mix of Frank Underwood and Frank Spencer, has made no secret of his ambition. As a Cabinet Minister, he became known for taking on “the Blob”, which seems a rather harsh nickname for his former Vote Leave colleague but there we have it. Since being appointed Environment Secretary, Gove has shown a particular fondness for Larkin, quoting liberally from his nihilistic poem Going, Goingin a speech in 2017:
‘First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.’
As the last week has evidenced, not the only line he remembers.
A keen dancer, Hunt is the only leadership contender with a sprung floor in his house – though, presumably, it’s not in his reading room. Married to a Chinese or Japanese woman (he can never quite remember), Hunt is a cultured man who speaks several languages. Recent reading includes The Spy and the Traitorby Ben Macintyre and Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. He is a particular fan of Henry Kissinger. On China is currently perched on the bedside table, and he described World Order as the book which influenced him more than any other in recent times. The key for Hunt is whether he learns from Kissinger’s mistakes or repeats them. But one thing is sure: he dances a better lambada.
Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab’s favourite work of fiction is War and Peace.
A seemingly un-ending, complex and turgid story, Brexit has many parallels with Tolstoy’s opus. He also enjoys autobiography, and one can’t help but imagine him making notes for his own. “Launched leadership bid. Upset some feminists, admitted to smoking weed. Everything going smoothly.” The lawyerly Raab – after graduating from Oxbridge, he worked for Linklaters, the magic circle firm – is sometimes criticised for seeming cold and lacking in humour. But the Brexiteer has a more playful side. When asked which fictional character he’d most like to be, he replied, “Fantastic Mr Fox.”
Sajid Javid is the son of a bus driver, a fact he tries not to mention more than thrice per interview. A mathematically-minded former banker with little interest in the Arts, Javid seemed a perfect fit for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, where he served as Secretary of State under David Cameron before his promotion to the Home Office. Javid’s favourite book is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He reads the famous courtroom scene twice a year. “It’s about the power of the individual,” he told The Spectatorin 2017. “About sticking up for your beliefs, against popular opinion. Being that individual that really believes in something and goes for it.” Javid certainly believes he could be Prime Minister – and he’s going for it.
Rory Stewart, the Eton and Oxford educated former private tutor to Princes William and Harry, likes to think of himself as an outsider. Bolstered by a Twitter campaign which has seen his support amongst Tory members shoot up to 1%, Rory cemented his appeal to the ordinary voter with his funny and relatable tale of toking opium at a wedding in the Middle East. Stewart particularly enjoys travelogues, with The Baburnamaby Zahiruddin Babur Shah and V. S Naipu’s India: A Million Mutinies Nowamongst his favourites. This is a leadership candidate with a taste for the exotic. And he is a travel author himself: The Places in Between, the story of his journey through war-torn Afghanistan, became a bestseller.