House of Cards [CHAPTER 10]


 

Ten


I knew a man once whose memory was so desiccated that he quite forgot he’d hung a Howard Hodgkin on its side for three years without realizing, yet who remembered he’d been a trustee of the Tate, which he never was. He became Minister for the Arts, of course. I wonder whatever happened to him after that?

Wednesday, June 30

The Strangers’ Bar in the House of Commons is a small room of dark paneling and quiet corners overlooking the Thames where Members of Parliament may take their “Stranger” or non-Member guests. It’s usually crowded and noisy with rumor and gossip, occasionally with moral violence, sometimes physical violence, too. Some politicians just don’t do sober.

   O’Neill was propped up on one elbow against the bar while struggling with the other to avoid knocking the drink out of his host’s hand. “Another one, Steve?” he asked of his immaculately dressed companion.

   Stephen Kendrick was a newly-elected Opposition MP who had yet to find his place. He gave off a mixture of messages, his light gray Armani mohair suit and pearl white cuffs contrasting with the pint of Federation bitter that he clasped in his immaculately manicured hand. “You know better than me that Strangers can’t buy drinks here. Anyway, since I’ve only been in this place a couple of weeks I think it’s a little early to ruin my career by being caught spending too long with the Prime Minister’s pet Irish wolfhound. Some of my more dogmatic colleagues would treat that as treachery. One more and that’s my limit!” He grinned and winked at the barmaid. Another pint of dark bitter and a double vodka tonic appeared in front of them.

   “You know, Rog, I’m still pinching myself. I never really expected to get here. Still can’t decide whether it’s a dream or just a bloody awful nightmare.” His voice was thick with the back streets of Blackburn. “Funny thing, fate, ain’t it? When we worked together at that little PR shop seven years ago, who’d have guessed you would now be the Prime Minister’s chief grunter and I’d be the Opposition’s newest and most talented MP?”

“Not that little blond telephonist we used to take turns with.”

“Dear little Annie.”

“I thought her name was Jennie.”

“Rog, I never remember you being fussy about what they were called.”

   The banter finally broke the ice. When O’Neill had telephoned the new MP to suggest a drink for old times’ sake they had both found it difficult to revive the easy familiarity they had known in earlier years. Throughout the first couple of rounds they had sparred gently, avoiding the subject of politics that now dominated their lives. Now O’Neill decided it was time to take the plunge.

   “Steve, as far as I’m concerned I don’t mind you buying the drinks all night. Christ, the way my masters are going at the moment I think a saint would be driven to drink.”

   Kendrick accepted the opening. “It’s got bloody messy, bloody quick, that’s for sure. Your lot do seem to have lost the elastic in their knickers. Hell’s bells, I can’t believe the gossip. Samuel furious with Williams for putting his head on the block with the PM, Williams hacked off with Collingridge for screwing up the election, Collingridge raging about everything and just about everyone. Bloody brilliant!”

   “They’re all knackered, can’t wait to get away on holiday. Squabbling about how to pack the car.”

   “You’ll not mind me saying, old chum, but your gaffer’s going to have to put an end to all the bickering pretty damned quick, or else. I may be wet behind the ears but once rumors like that start, they begin to gain a life of their own. They become reality. Still, that’s where you and your mighty publicity machine come to the rescue, I suppose, like the Seventh Cavalry over the hill.”

“More like Custer’s last stand,” O’Neill said with some bitterness.

“What’s the matter, Rog, Uncle Teddy run off with all your toy soldiers or something?”

   O’Neill emptied his glass with a savage flick of his wrist. Kendrick, his caution overcome by curiosity, ordered another round.

   “Since you ask, Steve—between you and me, as old friends—our ancient and vastly overrated Chairman has decided to retreat behind the barricades. Just when we need to come out fighting.”

   “Ah, do I detect the cries of a frustrated Publicity Director who’s been told to shut up shop for a while?”

   O’Neill banged his glass down on the bar in exasperation. “I shouldn’t tell you this, I suppose, but you’ll know about it soon enough. You know the hospital expansion program we promised at the election, matching Government funds for any money raised locally? Brilliant idea. And we had a wonderful promotional campaign ready to go throughout the summer while you cloth-capped bastards were off on the Costa del Cuba or wherever it is you go.”

“But?”

   “Not going to happen, is it? I had everything in place, Steve, ready to go. And by the time your lot had packed away their buckets and spades and come back in October, I would have won the hearts and minds of voters in every marginal seat in the country. We had the campaign all set. Advertising, ten million leaflets, direct mail. ‘Nursing Hospitals Back to Health.’ But…The old bastard’s pulled the plug. Just like that.”

“Why?” Kendrick asked consolingly. “Money problems after the election?”

   “That’s what’s so ruddy ridiculous about it, Steve. The money’s in the budget and the leaflets have already been printed, but he won’t let us deliver them. He just came back from Number Ten this morning and said the thing was off. Lost their nerve, they have. Then he had the balls to ask whether the bloody leaflets would be out of date by next year. It’s so amateurish!”

   He took another large mouthful of vodka and stared into the bottom of his glass. O’Neill prayed he had followed Urquhart’s instructions not to show too much disloyalty, nothing more than professional pique and a little gentle alcoholic excess. He was still puzzled. He had no idea why Urquhart had told him to concoct an entirely spurious story about a non-existent publicity campaign to pass on in the Strangers’ Bar, but if it involved landing Williams in the shit, he was all for it. As he swirled the slice of lemon around his glass he saw Kendrick give him a long and deliberate glance.

“What’s going on, Rog?”

“If only I knew, old chum. Complete bloody mystery. Total fucking mess.”


Thursday, July 1

The Chamber of the House of Commons is of relatively modern construction, rebuilt following the war after one of the Luftwaffe’s bombs had missed the docks and carelessly scored a direct hit on the Mother of Parliaments instead. Yet in spite of its relative youth the Chamber has an atmosphere centuries old. If you sit quietly in the corner of the empty Chamber on one of the narrow green benches, the freshness fades and the ghosts of Chatham, Walpole, Fox, and Disraeli pace the gangways once again.

   It is a place of character rather than convenience. There are seats for only around four hundred of the six hundred and fifty Members, who cannot listen to the rudimentary loudspeakers built into the backs of the benches without slumping to one side and giving the appearance of being sound asleep. Which sometimes they are.

   The design is based on the old St. Stephen’s Chapel, where the earliest parliamentarians sat, like choirboys in facing pews, yet there is little that is angelic in the modern set-up. Members face each other in confrontation, as antagonists. They are separated by two red lines on the carpet, whose distance apart represents the distance of two sword lengths, yet this is misleading, for the most imminent danger is never more than a dagger’s distance away, on the benches behind.

   Almost all prime ministers end up being hacked, chopped, or forced bloodily from office. More than half the members of the Government’s Parliamentary Party usually believe they can do the job far better. Those who have been sacked, or who have never been offered a job, sit behind their leader measuring the width between his or her shoulder blades. The pressure is relentless. Every week prime ministers are called to account at Prime Minister’s Question Time, an institution honored only for its excess. In principle it gives Members of Parliament the opportunity to seek information from the leader of Her Majesty’s Government; in practice it is an exercise in survival that owes more to the Roman arena of Nero and Claudius than to the ideals of parliamentary democracy. The questions from Opposition Members usually don’t even pretend to seek information, they seek only to criticize, to inflict damage. Will this pathetic excuse for a Prime Minister fuck off?—or words to that effect. Similarly the answers given rarely seek to give information but are intended to retaliate and to cause pain and humiliation. And prime ministers always have the last word, it gives them the advantage in combat, like the gladiator allowed the final thrust. That is why a prime minister is expected to win. Woe betide the prime minister who does not. Tension and terror are never far behind the confident smile. It made Macmillan sick with tension, caused Wilson to lose sleep and Thatcher to lose her temper. And Henry Collingridge was never quite up to any of their standards.

The day following O’Neill’s evening foray into the Strangers’ Bar hadn’t been running smoothly for the Prime Minister. The Downing Street press secretary had been laid low by his children’s chicken pox so the normal daily press briefing was of inferior quality and, even worse to the impatient Collingridge, was late. So was Cabinet, which had gathered at its accustomed time of 10:00 a.m. on Thursday but had dragged on in confusion as the Chancellor of the Exchequer sought to explain, without any evident offense to Collingridge, how the Government’s reduced majority had taken the edge off the financial markets, making it impossible in this financial year to implement the hospital expansion program they had promised so enthusiastically during the election campaign. The Prime Minister should have kept a grip on the discussion, but it rambled on and ended in embarrassment.

   “A pity, perhaps, that the Chancellor wasn’t a little more cautious before allowing us to run off and make rash commitments,” the Education Secretary commented, dripping acid.

   The Chancellor muttered darkly that it wasn’t his fault the election results were worse than even the cynics in the Stock Market had expected, a comment he had instantly regretted. Collingridge tried to knock heads together and instructed the Health Secretary to prepare a suitable explanation for the change of plans. It was also decided that this change of course would be announced in a fortnight’s time, during the last week before Parliament ran away for recess.

   “Let us hope,” said the septuagenarian Lord Chancellor, “that by then minds will be on the follies of summer.”

   So Cabinet overran by twenty-five minutes, which meant that the Prime Minister’s briefing meeting with officials for Question Time was also late, and his ill-temper ensured that he took in little of what they were saying. When he strode into a packed Chamber just before the appointed time for questions, he was neither as well armed nor as alert as usual.

   This didn’t seem to matter much as Collingridge batted back questions from the Opposition and accepted plaudits from his own party with adequate if not inspired ease. Business as usual. The Speaker of the House, the man in charge of parliamentary proceedings, glanced at the clock and decided that with just over a minute left of the session there might be time for just one more outing to round off the session. The next question on the Order Paper was from one of the new members; a good moment, he decided, to initiate new blood.

“Stephen Kendrick,” he called across the Chamber.

   “Number Six, sir.” Kendrick rose briefly to his feet to indicate the question from the Order Paper that stood in his name: “To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for the day.” It was a hollow question, identical to Questions One, Two, and Four, which had already preceded it.

   Collingridge rose ponderously and glanced at the red briefing folder already open on the Dispatch Box in front of him. He read in a dull monotone. They’d heard it all before. “I refer the Honorable Member to the reply I gave some moments ago to Questions One, Two, and Four.” Since his earlier reply had said no more than that he would spend the day holding meetings with ministerial colleagues and hosting a dinner for the visiting Belgian Prime Minister, no one had yet learned anything of interest about the Prime Minister’s activities—but that was not the intention. The gladiatorial courtesies were now over and battle was about to commence. Kendrick rose to his feet from the Opposition benches.

   Steve Kendrick was a gambler, a man who had found professional success in an industry that rewarded chutzpah and oversized balls. No one had been more surprised than he had been, apart from perhaps his ex-wife, that he’d decided to risk the expense account and sports car by fighting a marginal parliamentary seat. Not that he had expected or indeed wanted to win; after all, the Government had been sitting on a pretty reasonable majority, but fighting the seat would help establish his brand name and help him both socially and professionally. He’d spent several weeks on the front pages of the PR trade magazines. “The man with the social conscience” always made good copy in such an aggressively commercial industry.

   His majority of seventy-six, after three recounts, had come as an unpleasant shock. It meant a considerably reduced income and a creaking private life put under close scrutiny, and chances were he’d get thrown out at the next election anyway. So what was the point in caution? He had nothing to lose except his anonymity.

   Kendrick had spent a fractured night and frustrated morning wrestling with what O’Neill had said. Why cancel a publicity campaign promoting a vote-winning policy? It made no bloody sense unless…Unless it was the policy rather than the publicity campaign that was in trouble. That must surely be it. Wasn’t it? What else could it be? Or was he simply too wet behind the ears to understand what was going on? The more he grappled with the puzzle, the more it wriggled. Should he inquire or accuse? Question or condemn? He knew that if he got it wrong, the first and lasting impression he made would be that of the House fool.

   Doubts were still buzzing around his mind like hornets as he rose to his feet. His momentary uncertainty caused the general commotion of the House to die away as MPs sensed his indecision. Had the new Member frozen? Kendrick took a deep breath and decided there was no point trying to stand on his dignity. He jumped.

   “Will the Prime Minister explain to the House why he has canceled the promised hospital expansion program?”

   No criticism. No elaboration. No added phrase or rambling comment that would give time to the Prime Minister to dodge or duck. A murmur went up as the new backbencher resumed his seat. The hospital program? Canceled? The sport had taken an interesting new turn, and the three hundred-odd spectators turned as one to look toward Collingridge. He clambered to his feet, feeling as he did so that the blood supply to his brain had been left behind. He knew there was nothing in his red briefing folder from which to draw inspiration, no prop, no straw at which he might grasp. It had leaked, been stolen, was ruined, he was fucked. He smiled broadly. It’s what you had to do. Only those sitting very close to him could see the whites of his knuckles as he gripped the Dispatch Box.

   “I hope that the Honorable Gentleman will be careful to avoid being carried away by the summer silly season, at least before August arrives. As he is a new Member, it’s a good opportunity for me to remind him that in the last four years under this Government, the health service has enjoyed a substantial real increase in spending of some six to eight percent.” Collingridge knew he was being inexcusably patronizing but he couldn’t find the right words. What else could he do? “The health service has benefited more than any other Government service from our success in defeating inflation, which compares…”

   From his perch a little higher up on the bank of green leather benches, Kendrick stared. The Prime Minister wasn’t looking him in the eye, was casting around. He was lost. “Answer the bloody question,” he growled, in a Northern accent that somehow makes such indelicacy acceptable or at least expected. Several other Members echoed the suggestion.

   “I shall answer the question in my own way and in my own time,” the Prime Minister snapped. “It is a pathetic sham for the Opposition to whine when they know that electors have reached their own conclusions and only recently voted with their feet for this Government. They support us and I can repeat our determination to protect them and their hospital service.”

   Rude shouts of disapproval from the Opposition benches grew louder. Most of them would go unrecorded by Hansard, whose editors at times had a remarkably deaf ear, but they were clearly audible to the Prime Minister, every syllable. His own backbenchers began to stir uneasily, uncertain as to why Collingridge didn’t simply reaffirm the policy and shove it deep down Kendrick’s throat.

   Collingridge ploughed on against a backdrop of interruptions. “The House will be aware…that it is not the custom of governments…to discuss the specifics of new spending plans in advance…We shall make an announcement about our intentions at the appropriate time.”

   “You have. You’ve bloody dropped it, haven’t you?” the Honorable and usually disrespectful Member for Newcastle West erupted from his position below the gangway, so loudly that not even Hansard could claim to have missed it.

   The faces on the Opposition Front Bench broke into smiles, at last catching up with the game. Their Leader, not six feet from where Collingridge stood, turned to his nearest colleague and gave the loudest of Welsh whispers. “You know I think he’s fluffed it. He’s running away!” He began waving his Order Paper, as did all his colleagues. It seemed like the sails of ancient galleons sailing into battle.

   The pain of a thousand encounters in the House welled up inside Collingridge. He was unprepared for this. He couldn’t bring himself to admit the truth yet neither could he lie to the House, and he could find no form of words that would tread that delicate line between honesty and outright deceit. As he observed the smugness on the faces in front of him and listened to their jeers, he remembered all the many lies they had told about him over the years, the cruelty they had shown and the tears they had caused his wife to shed. As he gazed at contorted faces just a few feet in front of him, his patience vanished. He had to bring it to an end, and he no longer cared how. He threw his hands in the air.

   “I don’t have to take comments like that from a pack of dogs,” he snarled, and sat down. Like a bear backing out of the baiting ring.

   Even before the shout of triumph and rage had a chance to rise from the Opposition benches, Kendrick was back on his feet. “On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister’s remarks are an absolute disgrace. I asked a perfectly straightforward question about why the Prime Minister had reneged on his election promise and all I’ve got are insults and evasion. While I understand the Prime Minister’s reluctance to admit that he’s perpetrated a gigantic and disgraceful fraud on the electorate, is there nothing you can do to protect the right of Members of this House so that we get a straight answer to a straight question? I know I’m new in this place but there must be something in the Trade Descriptions Act that covers this.”

   Waves of approval washed across the Opposition benches as the Speaker struggled to be heard above the commotion. “The Honorable Member may be new, but he seems already to have developed a sharp eye for parliamentary procedure, in which case he will know that I am no more responsible for the content or tone of the Prime Minister’s replies than I am for the questions which are put to him. Next business!”

   As the Speaker tried to move matters on, a red-faced Collingridge rose and strode angrily out of the Chamber, gesticulating for the Chief Whip to follow him. The very unparliamentary taunt of “Coward!” rang after him across the floor. From the Government benches there was nothing but an uncertain silence.

* * *

“How in Christ’s name did he know? How did that son-of-a-bitch know?”

   The door had barely been slammed upon the Prime Minister’s office, which stood just off the rear of the Chamber before the tirade began. The normally suave exterior of Her Majesty’s First Minister had been cast aside to reveal a wild Warwickshire ferret. “Francis, it’s simply not good enough. It’s not bloody good enough I tell you. We get the Chancellor’s report in Cabinet Committee yesterday, the full Cabinet discusses it for the first time today, and by this afternoon it’s known to every sniveling little shit in the Opposition. Less than two dozen Cabinet ministers knew, only a handful of civil servants were in the loop. Who leaked it, Francis? Who? You’re Chief Whip. I want you to find the bastard and I want him hanged from the clock tower by his balls!”

   Urquhart breathed a huge sigh of relief. Until the Prime Minister’s outburst he’d had no idea if the finger of blame was already pointing at him. He smiled, but only on the inside. “It simply astonishes me, Henry, that one of our Cabinet colleagues would want deliberately to leak something like this,” he began, implicitly ruling out the possibility of a civil service leak, narrowing the circle of suspicion to include each and every one of his Cabinet colleagues.

   “Whoever is responsible has humiliated me. I want him out, Francis. I want—I insist—that you find the worm. And then I want him fed to the crows.”

“Henry, as a friend?”

“Of course!”

“I’m afraid there’s been too much bickering among our colleagues since the

election. Too many of them want someone else’s job.”

   “They all want my job, I know that, but who would be so—so cretinous, so calculating, such a cock-artist as to deliberately leak something like that?”

“I can’t say”—the smallest of hesitations—“for sure.”

Collingridge picked up on the inflection. “An educated guess, for Chrissake.”

“That would scarcely be fair.”

“Fair? You think what just happened was fair, having my arse used as a letterbox?”

“But…”

   “No ‘buts,’ Francis. If it’s happened once it can happen again and almost certainly will. Accuse, imply, whatever you damned well like. There are no minutes being taken here. But I want some names!” Collingridge’s fist came down on his desk so hard it made the reading lamp jump.

  “If you insist, I’ll speculate. I know nothing for sure, you understand…let’s work from deduction. Given the timescale involved, it seems more likely to have leaked from yesterday’s Cabinet Committee rather than from today’s full Cabinet. Agreed?”

Collingridge nodded his assent.

“And apart from you and me, who is on that Committee?”

   “Chancellor of the Exchequer, Financial Secretary, Health, Education, Environment, Trade, and Industry.” The Prime Minister reeled off those Cabinet ministers who had attended.

   Urquhart remained silent, forcing Collingridge to finish off the logic himself. “Well, the two Treasury Ministers were scarcely likely to leak the fact that they’d screwed it up. But Health bitterly opposed it, so Paul McKenzie had a reason to leak it. Harold Earle at Education has always had a loose lip. And Michael Samuel has a habit of enjoying the company of the media rather too much for my liking.”

   The suspicions and insecurities that lurk in the darker recesses of a Prime Minister’s mind were being dragged into the light.

   “There are other possibilities, Henry, but I think them unlikely,” Urquhart joined in. “As you know Michael is very close to Teddy Williams. They discuss everything together. It could have come out of Party Headquarters. Not from Teddy, I’m sure, he’d never…But one of the officials there might have leaked it. Some of them spend their lives pissing into paper pots.”

   Collingridge pondered for some moments in silence. “Could it really have been Teddy?” he mused. “He was never my greatest supporter—different generations—but I brought him in from the scrap heap, made him one of the team. And he repays me with this?”

“It is only a suspicion, Henry…”

   The Prime Minister threw himself into his chair, exhausted, no longer willing to fight the thought. “Perhaps I’ve relied on Teddy too much recently. I thought he had no ax to grind, no ambition left, not in the House of Lords. One of the old guard. Loyal. Was I wrong, Francis?”

“I don’t know. You asked me to speculate.”

“Make sure, Francis. Do whatever you need to do. I want him, whoever he is. I want his balls dragged out through his ears and I want the whole of Westminster to hear the screams.”

   Urquhart nodded and lowered his eyes, as a servant might, not wanting the Prime Minister to see the delight dancing within them. Collingridge had announced open season. Urquhart was back on the moors, his feet planted firmly in the heather, waiting for the birds to rise.






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