Review: Michael Spicer, The Secret Political Adviser (2020)

Witty, brash, but with little insight, Michael Spicer’s new book is based on his online satirical sketch show, The Man in the Room Next Door. It is is stylised as a collection of files submitted anonymously to the publisher. The files contain information about a shadowy organisation, Axworthy, and in particular the role of ‘M’, a secret political adviser who has direct access to the Anglosphere’s leading politicians. This is, of course, a piece of fiction used to frame the comedic rantings at the incompetence of modern governments.

Spicer is witty. His rants are often relatable (“There are just too many February birthdays. By the beginning of March my blood type is Colin the Caterpillar”). His descriptions of politicians will seem apt to those on the left, though are bound to make those to the right tut disapprovingly. The insults (especially those targeted at Boris Johnson) are verbose, well-constructed, and gratuitous (on page 127 we are treated to a pocket book of go-to insults ready for Johnson’s premiership). They are rarely insightful, picking up on a few character traits (Johnson studied Classics; Jacob Rees-Mogg looks and acts like he’s from the Edwardian period), but rarely cutting deep. The targets of M’s ire are uniformly (and only occasionally unfairly) derided for their incompetence. At points, however, Spicer simply descends into name calling, missing the substance or insight that makes satire funny. Johnson is a “rinky-dink posho” and an “absolute horsefart”; Trump has a dodgy tan and an inept tailor (watching him walk down the hallway is like “watching a football mascot arrive for a job interview”). Spicer relies on low-hanging fruit, however this probably speaks more to the quality of politician we have more than anything else; satirists can’t simply sit out the Trump administration in the hopes that the next president can give them more of a challenge.

The Secret Political Adviser builds on the universe of Spicer’s show by fleshing out ‘Axworthy’, the shadowy and illusive organisation that is pulling the strings. The book doesn’t go much further, other than indicating that the incompetence of the politicians is leading to unwanted exposure. Throughout the book there are references to journalists trying to make sense of leaks hinting at Axworthy’s existence. This might have been fleshed out more; as it is, it provides something that binds the book together, but little is done to develop it into any meaningful narrative. There was room to go further here, and this would have given the book more value. Otherwise, it is bound to age badly – and age quickly. Are people going to want to read this in a year’s time? In two year’s time? Probably not. It’s also worth mentioning that this kind of organisation is a staple trope of far-right conspiracy theories: a liberal-leaning organisation standing behind the people in power and pulling the strings. We don’t get much of a sense of Axworthy’s politics, other than they are pro-competence – something we can all surely get behind, regardless of our personal leanings. One must assume that, were Britain under Labour and the USA under the Democrats, M would be equally exasperated by any foolishness that would undoubtedly arise. 

The book is reasonably short. There are 185 pages of content, though much of this is stylised to read like emails, text messages, Twitter DMs, or scribbled notes, so this takes up a lot of the space. It could easily be read in an afternoon, though it’s probably best sitting on the coffee table. There, it is ready to be picked up when people come over so you can laugh at the range of flowery insults given to Boris Johnson. It is interesting to read as a brief reflection of the past four years and the political journey the UK and the US have taken; I found myself remembering moments that had faded from my memory (which perhaps I might have preferred to forget). As satire, it’s okay; not great. Fans of Spicer’s show or Britbox’s Spitting Image will probably find it entertaining. It’s certainly not worth the £9.99 RRP. If it can be found for a couple of quid in a charity shop or online, then it might be worth picking up for a bit of fun or a quick read on the train.

Michael Spicer, The Secret Political Adviser: The Unredacted Files of The Man in the Room Next Door (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2020), pp. 192.

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