House of Cards [CHAPTER 11]


Christopher Columbus was a huge disappointment. When he set out he had no idea where he was going, and when he’d arrived he had no idea where he was. If you want to screw the natives, much better to stay at home.

Friday, July 16—Thursday, July 22

Life in the House of Commons can be exhilarating, occasionally historic, but that is not the norm. The norm is crap. Long hours, heavy workloads, too much entertaining and too little respite all ensure that the long summer break beckons to Members like an oasis in a desert. And while they wait, patience thins and tempers fray. During the days before the recess, Urquhart moved around the corridors and bars of the House, trying to bolster morale and calm the doubts of many Government backbenchers who were growing uneasy about Collingridge’s increasingly scratchy performance. Morale is easier to shatter than to rebuild and some old hands thought Urquhart was trying perhaps a little too hard, his strenuous efforts serving to remind many that the Prime Minister had gotten himself into surprisingly choppy waters, but if it were a fault on the part of the Chief Whip, it was one that was generally recognized as exceptional if occasionally aggressive loyalty. But what did it all matter? The breezes of the South of France beckoned and would soon be washing away many of the parliamentary cares.

   August was a safety valve, which was why governments had a knack of trying to bury difficult announcements in the final dog days of the session, often slipping out the details by means of a Written Answer published in Hansard, the voluminous official report of parliamentary proceedings. It meant that the matter had been placed openly and clearly on the public record, but at a time when most Members were packing up their desks and trying to remember where they had hidden their passports. Even if one or two did spot the detail, there was scarcely time or opportunity to make much of a fuss. It was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth—so long as you read the fine print.

   Which was why it was unfortunate that a photocopy of a draft Written Answer from the Secretary of State for Defense should have been found a full ten days before it was due to be published, lying under a chair in Annie’s Bar, where Members and journalists congregated to gossip. It was an added embarrassment that the Written Answer announced the intention to impose substantial cuts on the Territorial Army on the grounds that the TA was increasingly less relevant to government plans in the nuclear era. What made the matter all the more exquisitely awkward was that the draft was found by the lobby correspondent of the Independent. Everybody liked the man, respected him, he knew how to check out a story. So when it became the page one lead item in his newspaper four days later, at what was the start of the final full week before the summer recess, people knew it was reliable. Cock-up soon became chaos.

   Retribution arrived from an unusual source. The pay of the Territorial Army wasn’t large but its numbers were great and influential. Considerable prestige was involved. In constituency parties up and down the country there were senior members who proudly added the initials “TD” after their names—“Territorial Decoration”—someone who had served in and would defend the Terrors to their last drop of writing ink.

   So when the House gathered to wrap up some of the final business of the session with the Leader of the House, the air was heavy not simply with midsummer heat but with accusations of betrayal and emotional appeals for a change of course, almost all of which came from the Government benches. The Opposition scarcely had to break sweat, sitting back like contented Roman lions watching the Christians do all the work for them.

   Sir Jasper Grainger, OBE, JP, and very much TD, was on his feet. The old man proudly sported a carefully ironed regimental tie along with a heavy three-piece tweed suit, refusing to compromise his personal standards in spite of the inadequate air-conditioning. He was a senior backbencher and the elected Chairman of the Backbench Defense Committee. His words carried weight.

   “May I return to the point raised by several of my Honorable Friends about these unnecessary and deeply damaging cuts? Will the Leader of the House be in no doubt about the depth of feeling among his own supporters on this matter?” As his anger grew, white flecks of spittle gathered at the corners of his mouth. “Has he any idea of the damage that this will do to the Government over the coming months? Will he even now allow the House time to debate and reverse this decision, because if he doesn’t, he will leave the government defenseless to accusations of bad faith just as he will leave the country defenseless against bad friends?”

   Roars of manly support came from all sides, apart from the government Front Bench. The Leader of the House, Simon Lloyd, straightened and readied himself once again to come to the Dispatch Box; he was beginning to feel it should have been constructed with sandbags. He was a sound man, plenty of “bottom,” but it had been a torrid twenty minutes and he had grown tetchy as he found the response he had prepared earlier affording increasingly less protection from the grenades being thrown at him by his own side. He was glad his Prime Minister and the Defense Secretary were sitting beside him on the Front Bench. Why should he suffer on his own? He hopped from foot to foot, as did his argument.

   “My Honorable Friend misses the point. The document published in the newspapers was stolen Government property. Stolen! And that’s an issue which rises high above the details of the document itself. If there is to be a debate, it should be about such flagrant breaches of honesty. He’s a man of both honor and experience and frankly I would have expected him to join me in wholeheartedly condemning the theft of important Government documents. He must realize that by going on about its details he’s as good as condoning the activity of common theft.”

   It sounded good, for a moment, until Sir Jasper rose to seek permission to pursue the point. It would not normally be granted but these circumstances weren’t normal. Amidst waving of Order Papers throughout the Chamber, the Speaker consented. The old soldier gathered himself up to his full height, back straight, mustache bristling and face flushed with genuine anger.

   “It’s my Right Honorable Friend who is missing the point,” he thundered. “Doesn’t he understand that I would rather live alongside a common British thief than a common Russian soldier, which is precisely the fate his policy is threatening us with?”

   Uproar followed, which took the Speaker a full minute to quell. During that time the Leader of the House turned and offered a look of sheer desperation to the Prime Minister and the Defense Secretary. They huddled, heads locked, until Collingridge gave a curt nod to the Leader of the House. He rose slowly to his feet once more.

   “Mr. Speaker,” he began, and paused to clear his throat, which was by now parched. “Mr. Speaker, my Right Honorable Friends and I have listened carefully to the mood of the House. I have the permission of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defense to say that, in light of the representations put from all sides today, the Government will look once again at this important matter to see…”

   What he could see seemed of little interest to others; his words were lost amidst a huge outcry. He had run up the white flag. Colleagues slapped Sir Jasper’s back, the Opposition jeered, the parliamentary correspondents scribbled in their notebooks. Amidst the hubbub and confusion on all sides, the lonely figure of Henry Collingridge sat forlorn and shrunken, staring at his socks.

* * *

“Kebabed, wouldn’t you say? Done to a bloody crisp,” the PA’s Manny Goodchild announced as Mattie pushed her way through the crowd jostling in the lobby outside the Chamber. She didn’t stop. In every corner there was argument: Opposition Members gloating, claiming victory for themselves while Government supporters with considerably less conviction tried to claim victory for common sense. Yet no one was in any doubt that they had witnessed a Prime Minister on the rack.

   Mattie pursued her quarry. Above the mêlée she saw the tall figure of Urquhart, stony-faced, moving, avoiding the questions of several agitated backbenchers. He disappeared through a convenient door. Mattie charged after him. She found him striding two steps at a time up the marbled stairs that led to the upper galleries.

“Mr. Urquhart,” she shouted breathlessly after the fleeing minister. “Please! I need your view.”

“I’m not sure I have one today, Miss Storin.” Urquhart threw his reply over his shoulder; he didn’t stop.

“Oh, surely we’re not back on the ‘Chief Whip refuses to endorse Prime Minister’ game again?”

   Suddenly Urquhart stopped and turned, bringing him face to face with the panting Mattie. His eyes burned bright, there was no humor in them. “Yes, Mattie, I suppose you have a right to expect something. Well, what do you think?”

  “Skewered. That’s the official view. If Collingridge’s feet were in the fire before this, then the more sensitive parts of his anatomy seem about to follow.”

  “Yes, you might say that. It’s not unusual for a prime minister to have to discard his clothes, of course. But to have them stripped off him quite so publicly…”

  Mattie waited in vain for Urquhart to finish. He wasn’t about to condemn his Prime Minister, not openly on the stairs. But if there were no condemnation, neither was there any attempt at justification.

“But this is the second major leak in as many weeks. Where are they coming from?”

  He stared at her in his hawk-like manner that she found so compelling, and just a little scary. “As Chief Whip I am responsible only for discipline on the Government backbenches. You can scarcely expect me to play headmaster to my own Cabinet colleagues as well.”

Her lips trembled, she gasped. “It’s coming from Cabinet?”

He arched an eyebrow. “Did I say that?”

“But who? And why?”

  He drew closer. “Oh, you see right through me, so you do, Miss Mattie Storin.” He was laughing at her now, and so close she could feel the heat of his body. “In answer to your question, I simply don’t know,” he continued, “but doubtless the Prime Minister will instruct me to find out.”

“Formally or informally?”

“I think I’ve probably said enough already,” he said, and continued up the stairs.

But Mattie wasn’t to be thrown off. “Fascinating. Thank you. Lobby terms, of course.”

“But I have told you nothing.”

  “The Prime Minister is about to launch an inquiry into which of his own Cabinet colleagues is leaking sensitive information.”

  He stopped once more, turned. “Oh, Mattie, I couldn’t possibly comment. But you are so much more sensitive than most of your dull-witted colleagues. It seems to me that your logic rather than my words has led you to your conclusions.”

“I wouldn’t want to get you into any trouble.”

  “But, Mattie, I think that’s precisely what you would like to do.” He was playing with her, almost flirting.

  She stared back at him, her voice little more than a whisper. “You know far more about trouble than I do. You’d find me a willing pupil.”

  She wasn’t entirely sure why she had said that. She should have blushed, but didn’t. He should have deflected the innuendo, but held it, savored it with his eyes.

  Suddenly, she grasped his sleeve. “If we’re going to be wicked together we have to learn to trust each other, so just let me get one thing perfectly clear. You are not denying that the Prime Minister will order an investigation into his Cabinet members’ conduct. And by not denying it, you are confirming it.”

  It was his turn to lower his voice. “You might say that, Mattie. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

“That’s the story I’m going to write. If it’s wrong, I beg you, stop me now.”

Her grip on him had tightened. His hand was on top of hers.

“Stop you, Mattie? Why, we’ve only just started.”





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