Skip to main content
Mile End Institute

'Coherent, characterful and often compelling': Ben Riley-Smith's The Right to Rule

In his latest piece for the MEI Blog, Jay Jackson reviews Ben Riley-Smith's anthropological account of Conservative government since 2010 and concludes that it is a coherent, characterful, and often compelling accompaniment to studies of policy and process. 

Front cover of Ben Riley-Smith's The Right to Rule, showing a cartoon of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak and the book title.
Estimated Reading Time: 3-5 minutes.

Tony Benn wouldn't like this book. The late left-wing firebrand (who died 10 years ago today) was famous for his insistence that politics should not be about personalities, but about policies. Riley-Smith’s tale of thirteen years, five prime ministers and the implosion of the Tories, however, is unapologetically concerned with personalities, feuds, and the role that individuals in positions of power have played in the dramatic last decade of British politics.

This book is not a deep dive into how Conservative policies have shaped Britain … Instead, it is an attempt to understand how the Conservative Party kept changing, kept revolting and kept winning. (p. 22)

The great man theory of history is very much out of fashion nowadays and while the author’s relentless focus on people axiomatically limits the lessons the reader can take away from the book, it does provide for some interesting insights that other approaches might miss.

For example, the outsized importance of the 2001 intake of Conservative MPs, a group of just 26 freshly elected Tories, of which two went on to become Prime Minister (David Cameron and Boris Johnson, whose rivalry the author explores at length), one became the most influential Chancellor of the Tories’ tenure (George Osborne), and another whose name became a rhyming by-word for persistent incompetence and the struggles of the coalition days (Chris ‘Failing Grayling’).

Likewise, the book restores George Osborne – too often written out of histories that prefer to focus on the irresistible Boris vs Dave battle, to the centre of the story of the last two decades of Conservative politics. From his nimble political manoeuvrings in opposition, domination of the economic discussion with his timeworn ‘long term economic plan’ that forced Labour to accept the Conservatives’ framing on the economy, and his reinvention as newspaper-editor-cum-podcast-host – via the omnishambles and being booed at the Paralympics, the architect of austerity did more than anyone to shape the events of this long Conservative government, and has left a lasting legacy on the social and political landscape in Britain that will echo through the coming decades.

The pitfalls of this person-centred approach, however, are, demonstrated by the fact that at times it did feel the book was a Lynton Crosby hagiography. The Australian political strategist rightfully deserves a prominent place in a book covering governments he played a large part in helping win elections – the 2015 win in particular looks even more astonishing the further away from it we become; but explorations of character and influence must be situated within the contexts in which they exist, as opposed to plucked out of them and analysed in isolation.

Right to Rule is full of the behind-the-curtain tales and nuggets of political colour that obsessives love these books for. Letting us know, for example, that chilli con carne was on the menu for David Cameron and co. as they awaited the results on election night in May 2010 or revealing the existence of a ‘big parcel’ of experimental COVID drugs that President Trump sent to Boris Johnson as he was suffering from COVID in April 2020. Riley-Smith’s intimate knowledge of events and journalistic flair are on full display as he draws back the curtain allowing readers to be ‘in the room’ at significant moments.

Then there are the inevitable questions the book poses. What happened to the infamous Ed-stone? What if there had been a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty? What if Boris had campaigned for remain? What on earth possessed Nick Clegg when he decided his party would vote for a rise in tuition fees? What if just 30 MPs had switched sides during the third ‘meaningful vote’ on Theresa May’s Brexit deal? What would Boris Johnson’s premiership have looked like without COVID?

Politics - like everything – is ultimately about, for, and of, people, and none of what Riley-Smith so comprehensively chronicles was inevitable. When studying events of the past it can often feel, with the benefit of hindsight, that that course of events was always going to happen; but the human lens through which Right to Rule is written – highlighting the randomness and contingencies present in even the most important decisions made during by our politicians – reminds us how close we were to a different path.

The biggest question raised, though, is about the person-focused approach of the book. This is a question the author is aware of, and addresses, for example, when discussing Vote Leave’s campaigning in the referendum: ‘playing on existing tory rivalries and bitterness had benefits for Vote Leave. It was the story the press was most interested in – a dispiriting reflection of how political hack-pack can work’.

History is shaped not just by great forces and the randomness of events, but, at points, by a handful of individuals with outsized influence whose rivalries, grievances and unchained ambition leave their mark. (p. 70)

The primary takeaway from the book is the grossly outsized importance of Conservative Party leadership elections in the recent history of this country. Four of the five Tory Prime Ministers featured were elevated to Number 10 via this mechanism, and even David Cameron’s premiership which was ushered in by a general election win as Leader of the Opposition, had the tone set with lines drawn and positions taken during the 2005 leadership contest in which he saw off David Davis – for example, by promising to withdraw Conservative MEPs from the mainstream centre-right faction in the European Parliament and join the more radical, populist, anti-EU faction.

Whilst it would have benefitted from being a bit longer, coming in at a surprisingly slim 348 pages of actual text, and is best read in conjunction with more detailed accounts such as Antony Seldon’s magnificent ‘At 10’ series of books, Riley-Smith’s pacy, dramatic narrative meant I often found myself reading this for longer than I might have intended to when I sat down. And that is amongst the best compliments a reader can give a book.

Jay Jackson is a political commentator who has written for outlets including Labour List, Compass, and 



Back to top