It was surely one of the most timely sessions at this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. As Michael Dobbs, creator of the intrigue-laden political series House Of Cards, took to the stage in Dubai, the screen behind him promised he would discuss the “dark arts of politics”, both real and fictitious. It made sense. In the same month that a new American season of House of Cards saw Kevin Spacey’s calculating incumbent US president Frank Underwood embroiled in a Ku Klux Klan scandal, so Donald Trump had his own questions to answer about the white supremacist group.
It feels, then, that the line between fact and Dobbs’s fiction is becoming fascinatingly blurred. “Donald Trump will inspire writers for a very long time,” he noted at the festival.
In fact, one of Dobbs’s major challenges over a 30-year writing career that has dovetailed with his time working at the very heart of British politics, has been that truth is often stranger than fiction. “Imagine if I’d tried to write a book about a French president discovered going for an evening’s assignation with his mistress … on the back of a moped,” he tells us just before his trip to Dubai. “Nobody would have credited it. So yes, I don’t often have to look around too far for inspiration … but sometimes I have to water the truth down.”
Famously, the House Of Cards story began for Dobbs after his own brush with power left him battered and bruised. On the eve of the 1987 election he had a “huge falling out” with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher after, in a cabinet meeting, he took the brunt of her mistaken concern that she was going to lose the election.
“She was utterly beastly to me,” he says of his role as Thatcher’s chief of staff. “But then, that doesn’t stop me thinking she was an extraordinary woman who gave me an inside seat on what was history in the making. So I had time to fill on holiday, I decided to start writing and out came this character Frances Urquhart.”
It’s telling that in the first book, the drama begins and ends with the toppling of a prime minister. But Dobbs prefers to cite Shakespeare rather than Thatcher as inspiration. “I wasn’t necessarily trying to ‘say’ anything explicit about contemporary politics with House Of Cards,” he admits. “It was more a love of Shakespeare that got me thinking. Take Julius Caesar. This chap was the most powerful man in the world, and on the steps of his own capital he was hacked to death by his best friend. I thought ‘wow, this ain’t bad’. It is timeless, an enduring story of ambition, vulnerability, weakness, desperation.”
And of course, power. Urquhart is, in the books and the initial BBC series which began its run in the 1990s, not encumbered by principle or policy. In the current Netflix series, where Francis Urquhart is replaced by Frank Underwood, it’s a similar story, reinvented for the corridors of the Capitol.
“It’s a wonderful series,” he says of a show on which he has an executive producer credit, “and the reason it works is because it’s about characters and what people do with and to each other. That, to me, is what politics and history is all about.”
We’re back to those “dark arts” again. Dobbs has an interesting theory on where they cross the line into something more troubling. “Look, politics is a rough, tough game where principles are inevitably compromised because you simply can’t get everything pushed through that you believe in,” he says. “But the dark arts stem from when people make too much of a compromise, and where power becomes the most important thing.”
Yet for all his wickedness, Urquhart has become something of an antihero. Whisper it, but might Dobbs have actually got on with him – or Underwood – in the Machiavellian corridors of power?
“That is a difficult question,” he says. “Well, I’ve managed to get on with some extraordinary people of course, and I think I would have loved Urquhart’s wistfulness and irony. He has a wonderful sense of humour. Frank Underwood, though, I might have had a bit more difficulty with – he scares me.”