Yes… yes… yes, minister!

Yes, yes, YES!, minister! The former advisor to Boris Johnson, who has penned the summer’s raciest bonkbuster, says she would LOVE to be hailed ‘the Jilly Cooper of Downing Street’ (but no, it’s NOT about anyone in particular!)

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Cleo Watson’s insider knowledge of Westminster’s scandalous side has been put to good use. The woman behind summer’s raciest book tells Richard Godwin why she would love to be hailed as the Jilly Cooper of Downing Street

Before you get to the filthy parts in Whips, the raucous bonkbuster by former Downing Street deputy chief of staff Cleo Watson, you come to the author’s note. ‘I’d like to reassure the reader that any seeming inspiration from real events or people is inadvertent,’ Watson writes. ‘Honestly, not everything’s about you.’

To which many readers in SW1 will surely mutter, ‘Yeah, right.’ For Watson, 34, is a genuine Westminster insider who’s been right at the heart of power. She worked for Prime Minister Boris Johnson from August 2019 to November 2020, a spell that included the proroguing of Parliament, the landslide Tory election win, the Covid pandemic, Johnson’s hospitalisation, the Barnard Castle fiasco and the events that would become known as Partygate.

Indeed, it has been reported that Watson bought the infamous birthday cake. (She denies that – but admits she was at one of the events.) Prior to that, she worked for Theresa May during the ill-fated 2017 general election and was recruited personally by Dominic Cummings to work on the Vote Leave campaign. She has spent much of her career in the room where the big stuff happens.

So naturally, when you come to the scenes in her novel where special advisers service ministers on their desks – and buttocks are splayed across the windows of Chequers – well, if anyone would know, Watson would.

Top, Necklace, Earrings,

‘Oh, I had to leave out so much more,’ she says over lunch at the Corinthia London hotel, a hangout for politicos. ‘I’d included a scene with an MP watching porn in the Commons on his phone but had to take it out because it ended up happening in real life. And I had this storyline where the prime minister is unwell and the deputy takes over – this crazy lady who runs the country off a cliff in a matter of weeks,’ she laughs.

Whips is irresistible: silly and tawdry, it plays to all your worst suspicions about the people running our country. ‘It’s hard to imagine what it is like being at the centre of some of this stuff,’ says Watson. ‘But these are human beings. Or close to, anyway.’

Once labelled ‘the gazelle’, Watson is unnervingly tall, immaculately turned out and also a little cagier than I’d expected. She is, however, as funny in person as she is in print and my sense is that if you can survive what she experienced in No 10 with your sense of humour intact, you can probably survive anything.

She describes the job as ‘like being punched in the face repeatedly’. It helped that she is happily married to Tom, a barrister, who was ‘supportive and patient throughout and thoughtful about separating overall politics from my personal career’. And you can see why Watson became a valued member of the operation. ‘I didn’t mind thinking of myself as someone who had some emotional intelligence around the place. But I suspect I’m not the only woman to have fallen into a nannying role with Boris. He responds to it well. He doesn’t like being told off. He likes being mollycoddled.’

For all that she conforms to the True Blue stereotype – ‘I’m a fairly posh, middle-class blonde woman’ – she is far from an ideologue. She has voted for every party at some stage or other and only briefly became a Tory member when an edict came from on high that all special advisers (SpAds) had to join. ‘I suppose I’m pretty mainstream,’ she says of her own politics. ‘I feel sympathetic with the rest of the country now, in that I don’t think we have any great options in front of us. It would be comforting to think there was a party that really represents you – a bit like believing in God.’

If there is a deity in her pantheon, it is the romance author Jilly Cooper – and Whips is very much in the JC mould. ‘My friends and I would sit around during our school lunch breaks reading extracts to each other,’ she says. ‘I always thought it’d be cool to be a lady author writing away in my silk pyjamas with a gin and tonic.’ It was something she joked about when she was at Number 10 – one day I’m going to put this in my novel! – and once she was sacked by Boris Johnson she ran out of excuses to put it off.

The book is a warm-hearted romp, following the sexual misadventures of three university friends – Jess, Bobby and Eva – as they each negotiate jobs in Westminster.

Eva is an aide for the prime minister, a role complicated by the fact that her own father, Percy Cross, is himself a maverick ex-PM, with a much younger girlfriend, now unsure what to do with himself.

Despite Watson’s protestations, Percy has obvious echoes of Boris Johnson. Challenged about this she stammers a little, but at one point, someone even says, ‘Let Percy be Percy’, as people once did of Boris. ‘That’s true,’ she laughs. ‘Although the weird thing about that is I’d written it all by this time last year and there was no hint that he [would be] gone by summer.’

The person Watson tried to keep in mind for the more outrageous scenes was former health secretary Matt Hancock, who resigned in 2021 after he was filmed snogging an aide in his office in a breach of Covid restrictions. No individual book character was inspired by this episode, she insists (the affair actually came to light after Watson had left Downing Street).

However, she was aiming for similar levels of cringeworthiness. You should ‘have your toes curled into hooves with embarrassment’ as you read, she says. ‘We’ve all seen that front-page picture [of Hancock], and it does take some of the eroticism out of it.’

Watson insists that she never personally encountered predatory behaviour in Westminster – she suspects it’s something to do with being six-foot tall and married – but the place does lend itself to this sort of thing.

 Top, Skirt, Earrings and bracelet, Shoes,

All those empty second homes. The long nights at the office. The aphrodisiac effects of power. ‘MPs suddenly become attractive because they’ve got power and then they’re susceptible to charm because hot girls have not paid attention to them before.’

Watson herself had a ‘wonderful’ childhood in a rambling 17th-century farmhouse in the Brecon Beacons. Her parents, Robin and Liza, ran their own business from home – a residential English language school. This meant they had plenty of time for her and her siblings: Molly, 48, Annabel (Bee), 44, Flora, 41, Nell, 38, and Archie, 33, who are all seemingly terrifyingly accomplished, tall and good-looking.

‘They are like the Mitfords, but without the Hitler angle,’ says one family acquaintance.

It’s not hard to see the imprint of her family in her career. Her sister Annabel worked for Theresa May when she was home secretary; another sister, Molly, once a journalist, later wrote her own bonkbuster, In the Pink, in 2004 while Watson was still at school.

Both clearly left an impression – and opened doors. ‘Hopefully without going fully down the ‘nepo baby’ route, it’s definitely the case in politics that you want people around you who you trust. So, I think [my family connection] would have helped.’

She took politics and economics at Cardiff, and had the chance to study for a year in the US, where she first picked up the political bug, ending up interning on Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

After university, she opted to work in branding but, by 2015, her interest was beginning to wane. ‘I was wondering what to do when I was walking down the street one day and bumped into Dominic Cummings and I was like, whoa! Again, it sounds ‘nepo’, but he is friends with my eldest sister.

I remembered meeting him when I was a teenager. He said: ‘There’s going to be a referendum next year and it’s going to be really interesting. What do you think about the EU?’ I told him, ‘I don’t really know, to be honest.’ And he said, ‘If you’re still interested in campaigns, you should join the referendum campaign.’

Watson makes it clear that the majority of her friends are not Brexiteers and she describes her husband Tom’s family as leaning towards Labour.

‘If you’re interested in campaigning, I’m not sure it’s helpful to be really ideologically entrenched in what you’re doing,’ she insists. ‘You can be blinded to what the other side is saying. And the idea of being super-loyal – say, to a minister – isn’t always helpful either because you’re possibly not inclined to tell them what they ought to hear.’

It was helpful, too, to hear criticisms from outside.

‘My friends and family gave me feedback. It’s important not to dismiss criticism – you have to be able to look friends who are A&E staff in the eye. It does hold you accountable.’

She stresses that there was no shortage of competing ideologies within the party. 

‘The Conservative party doesn’t quite know what it is any more. There’s an interesting tension between people like Iain Duncan Smith – who was a party leader and considers himself a ‘greybeard’ – and some of the more modern thinkers who believe in climate change.’

She saw herself as more of a ‘pragmatist’; someone who tried to find a path that people could agree on.

Her admiration for Cummings – who many Tories now view as treacherous and dangerous – is evident. ‘Whether during the [2016] referendum or the 2019 general election, Dom long held the view that serious institutional changes were needed in this country,’ she says. ‘We have to fund the NHS properly, we have to think seriously about our energy supplies – I think most people would basically agree with that now. With Brexit, Dominic basically thought: ‘I can see a route through and it’s worth doing this to try and make something happen here.’

So Brexit was never the endgame in itself. It was an opportunity to change things fundamentally.

‘There was this moment coming out of the 2019 general election where it really felt like something great could’ve happened. And it just feels like a bunch of people fell out. I don’t think we’ll get that opportunity again for 30 years.’

Watson speaks with genuine sadness about Cummings’s tempestuous relationship with Johnson. I remind her that in a previous interview she referred to them as being divorced; she jokingly responds that she’s a ‘child from a broken home’.

‘Regardless of their politics, you could see why they were once a force to be reckoned with. Dom was the strategist with the clear vision and goals. And Boris, when he’s in the right frame of mind, can really communicate and connect with people.’

As pressures mounted in Number 10, it was ‘lubricating’ this relationship that ended up consuming most of her energies.

She remains sad that the Partygate narrative ended up dominating the story that is told about these difficult months.

‘My memories of that period are us on the phones ringing up hospitals to find out how many people had died that day, signing off potential sites for mass graves and looking at renting ice rinks for morgues.’

She feels for the civil servants who do not get to tell their side of the story. ‘It’s like the entire government Covid response is synonymous with partying the whole time and not the extremely traumatic stuff they were having to do.’

How did she get on with Carrie?

‘While she was pregnant and Boris was seriously ill, I was just thinking, ‘S***, she’s about to have a baby and he’s gone into ICU’. It was absolutely terrifying and obviously she was vulnerable. She was stuck up in that flat by herself. She was my age, and I thought, “That looks really hard – I don’t think I’d be cut out for it. So good on you.”‘

Her spell finally came to an end in November 2020, a couple of weeks after Cummings was given the push, though she did later work with Johnson during the Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow. One of her last interactions with the then PM was a shared car journey through central London – when she feels that she had a glimpse of the real Johnson.

‘He was asking me questions about myself, which was slightly unusual. I told him I didn’t go to Oxford and his face – it was like he was having this lucid moment. He said: ‘It’s really weird being me’. It’s hard to tell sometimes which version you’re getting. He was generally in performance mode, but this felt like no masks were on.

‘I thought: “Yeah, it must be weird being you. You’ve been one of the most popular guys in Britain and then one of the most hated. Everyone knows everything about your private life. You’ve got this competitive family. It must be weird being you.” I wondered if what he was saying was: “I don’t know who I am any more.” He does have these different versions of himself – he’s always performing. But he always seemed happiest when he was by himself, reading or writing. As much as he fed off adulation, he seems to genuinely enjoy writing his books and making his model buses.’

Watson thinks that Johnson’s spell at Number 10 was always going to be brutish and short. ‘Character is destiny – I’m not sure that he would still be prime minister now even without Partygate.’

She was at one of the gatherings in question – she has testified to the inquiries – and insists that they didn’t feel like parties to those there at the time.

‘It was this work environment and it was a couple of sandwiches – it just didn’t feel as stupid as it obviously was.’ However, she well understands the anger around them.

‘It was the lying. When I’ve spoken to friends who’ve lost family to Covid, they’ve said it wasn’t just that these events were happening, it was that we were lied to about it for months. There’s a time and a place when you just have to say sorry, we’ve completely messed up.’

Later she adds: ‘Truthfully, having worked for Theresa May, had she seen any of this stuff happening, she would’ve said, “What the f*** are you doing?”‘

The end, when it came, was abrupt. Watson says it was nothing personal, she just reminded Johnson too much of Cummings. ‘But feeling ready to leave when the time comes is a good feeling,’ she says. ‘Some people still have an itch to scratch but I’d scratched mine right down to the bone.’

I suspect being a ‘lady author’, G&T in hand, will be a much happier existence.

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