Michael Heseltine, the famous knife-wielder of the Thatcher decade, once remarked: “He who wields the knife never wears the crown.” It’s a truth that Aiden Hoynes (David Tennant) fails to recognise. The liberal Hoynes resigns from a decisively conservative government in order to trigger a leadership battle that he hopes to win.
The coup fails after the terrifically slimy Bruce Babbish (Ed Stoppard), Hoynes’s best friend in Westminster, screws him over and supports the PM. Hoynes becomes a bitter stalking horse outside the government. The comparisons with Heseltine are irresistible. They’ve even turned Tennant’s hair blonde to make it more explicit.
That’s not the only reference to contemporary British politics: we also see the Balls-Cooper axis at the heart of the Labour party. Hoynes’s wife, Freya Gardner (Emily Watson) is a political high-flyer with deeply held – though less brash – ambitions of her own. She is quickly promoted to Work and Pensions Secretary after Hoynes resigns, in no small part an exercise in needling Hoynes.
Hoynes callously manipulates Gardner to the point of sexual abuse, but she recognises this manipulation early on. “Sometimes you have to do bad things to get into power, to do good things once you’re there,” Hoynes whispers in Gardner’s ear before a sex scene. What Hoynes really means, Gardner realises, is that she has to do bad things to get him into power. The sacrifices that she has made for husband’s career continue even though she is finally the one in the limelight. Predictably she starts to fight back – domestically and politically – becoming closer with Babbish and colluding in his plotting.
The programme is at its best when it portrays the sheer dullness of the backbench politican’s life. Ejected from ministerial politics, Hoynes clearly struggles to readjust to the slow mundanity of his constituency. So instead he plots the demise of the government from behind a computer screen in a generic suburban neighbourhood. Westminster-watchers will criticise the show for being too cynical; for characterising politics in terms of the infighting, duplicity and egoism that only rarely bubbles to the surface. That’s fine – it’s political drama, not documentary, after all.
10 Downing Street is the death star, the focal point of party machinations and the apex of its power. In one ridiculous scene Gardner arrives early for Cabinet. With time to kill, one supposes, she has a quick ponder and then decides to sit in the PM’s chair – just for kicks. Her reaction is positively orgasmic. There’s nothing profound about it; it’s just plain awkward, like watching Game of Thrones with your parents.
If The Politician’s Husband is something of a poor man’s Macbeth, then Hoynes is a poor man’s Iago. He’s a total shit, but he’s also really shit at being one. The result is a drama that manages to be utterly compelling on the first watch – more so than its BBC1 Thursday night rival Question Time at least – but which lacks the depth or sophistication that’ll make you buy this box set instead of, say, the Danish political drama Borgen.