House of Cards [CHAPTER 15]

 



Fifteen


Party conferences can be such fun. They resemble a nest of cuckoos. Sit back and enjoy watching everyone trying to push the others out.

The Opposition elected its new leader shortly before the Party’s annual conference in early October. The process of selecting a replacement front face seemed to galvanize them, gave them new hope, resurrection, and redemption wrapped in a bright red ribbon. The party that gathered together for its conference was unrecognizable as the rabble that had lost the election only a few months before. It celebrated beneath a banner that was as enormous as it was simple: VICTORY.

  What took place the following week, as Collingridge’s flock was gathered for its own conference, was in complete contrast. The conference center at Bournemouth could be uplifting when filled with four thousand enthusiastic supporters, but something was missing. Spirit. Ambition. Balls. The bare brick walls and chromium-plated fitments served only to emphasize the sullenness of those who gathered.

  Which posed a considerable challenge for O’Neill. As Publicity Director he was charged with the task of packaging the conference and raising spirits; instead, he could be seen talking with increasing agitation to individual members of the media scrum, apologizing, justifying, explaining—and blaming. In particular, and when in alcohol, he blamed Lord Williams. The Chairman had cut the budget, delayed decisions, not got a grip on things. Rumors were circulating that he wanted the conference to be low key because he expected that the Prime Minister was likely to get a rough ride. “PARTY DOUBTS COLLINGRIDGE LEADERSHIP” was the first Guardianreport to come out of Bournemouth.

  In the conference hall, the debates proceeded according to a rigid pre-set schedule. An enormous sign hung above the platform—“FINDING THE RIGHT WAY.” To many eyes it seemed ambivalent. The speeches struggled to obey its command and a distracting buzz took hold in margins of the hall that the stewards were quite incapable of quelling. Journalists and politicians gathered in little huddles in the coffee shops and rest areas, stirring tea and discontent. Everywhere they listened, the men from the media heard criticism. Former MPs who had recently lost their seats voiced their frustration, although most asked not to be quoted for fear of screwing up their chances of being selected for safer seats at the next election. However, their constituency chairmen showed no such caution. They’d not only lost their MPs but also faced several years of the Opposition in control of their local councils, nominating the mayor and committee chairmen, disposing of the fruits of local office.

  And, as a previous prime minister had wistfully acknowledged, there were “events, dear, events” to reduce the hardiest of men to tantrums and despair. One of the most compelling events of the week was to be a by-election, due on Thursday. The Member for Dorset East, Sir Anthony Jenkins, had suffered a stroke just four days before the general election. He had been elected while in intensive care and buried on the day he should have been taking the Oath of Allegiance. Dorset East would have to do battle all over again. His seat, just a few miles from those gathering at Bournemouth, had a government majority of nearly twenty thousand, so the Prime Minister had decided to hold the by-election during conference week. There were those who had advised against it but he argued that, on balance, it was worth the risk. The conference publicity would provide a good campaigning background, and there would be a strong sympathy vote for Sir Anthony (not by those who knew the old sod, his agent had muttered). Party workers at the conference could take a few hours off and get in some much-needed canvassing, and, when they had finished their task and success was won, the Prime Minister would enjoy the enormous satisfaction (and cheap publicity) of being able to welcome the victorious candidate during his own conference speech. It was a plan. Of sorts.

  Yet the busloads of conference-goers returning from their morning’s canvass were bringing back reports of a coolness and complaint on the doorstep. The seat would be held, of course, nobody doubted that, it had been in the Party since the war, but the thumping victory that Collingridge had demanded was beginning to look more distant with every day.

  Bugger. It was going to be a difficult week, not quite the victory celebration the Party managers had planned.


Wednesday, October 13

Mattie woke with a pounding headache. She looked out of the window at the sheet of grayness that had been pulled across the sky. A cold wet wind was blowing off the sea, tormenting seagulls and rattling her window. “Another day in paradise,” she muttered, throwing back the covers.

  She had little cause to be ungrateful. As the representative of a major national newspaper she was one of the few journalists fortunate enough to be offered accommodation in the headquarters hotel. Others fended for themselves in more distant venues and would get a damned good soaking by the time they made it to the conference center. Mattie, however, was one of the chosen few, accommodated in a hotel where she could mix freely with politicians and party officials. That was what accounted for her headache; she’d mixed a little too freely the previous evening. She’d been propositioned twice, once by a colleague and much later that evening by a Cabinet minister, who had gotten over Mattie’s rejection by turning his attention to a young woman from a PR company. They had last been seen wandering off in the direction of the car park.

  Mattie wasn’t prudish about such matters. She and her colleagues deliberately stoked politicians with alcohol and there was a price to pay when the furnace grew overheated. A politician in a bar usually had one of two objectives—sex or slander—and such encounters provided a wonderful opportunity for Mattie to pick up gossip. The biggest problem was how many of the pieces her befuddled mind could pull together in the morning. She stretched her legs, trying to force the blood around her system, and made a tentative start on some calisthenics. Every limb screamed that this was a rotten way to cure a hangover so she opted instead for an open window—a move that she immediately recognized as the second bad decision of the day. The small hotel was perched high on the cliff tops, ideal for catching the summer sun but exposed on an autumn morning of scudding clouds and sea storms. Her overheated room turned into an icebox in seconds, so Mattie decided she would make no more decisions until after a gentle breakfast.

  It was as she wandered out of the shower that she heard a scuffling noise outside in the corridor. A delivery. She pulled a towel around her and crossed to the door. Work, in the form of the morning newspapers, was piled outside on the hallway carpet. She gathered them up and threw them carelessly toward the bed. As they spread chaotically over the rumpled duvet, a sheet of paper fluttered free and fell to the floor. She rubbed her eyes when she picked it up, then rubbed them again. The morning mists were slow to disperse. When they did she read the words emblazoned across the top of the sheet: “Opinion Research Survey No. 40, October 6.” Even more prominent, in bold capital letters, was the word: “SECRET.”

  She sat down on the bed, rubbed her eyes once again to make sure. They’ve surely not started giving them away with the Mirror, she thought. She knew the Party conducted weekly surveys of public opinion but these had a highly restricted distribution, Cabinet ministers and a handful of top Party officials. She’d been shown copies on rare occasions, but only when they contained good news that the Party wanted to spread about a bit; otherwise they were kept under strictest security. Two questions immediately sprang into Mattie’s mind, which was quickly recovering its edge. What good news could possibly be found in the latest survey? And why had it been delivered wrapped up like a serving of cod and chips?

  As she read, her hand began to tremble in disbelief. The Party had won the election weeks ago with 43 percent of the vote. Now its popularity rating was down to 31 percent, a full 14 percent behind the Opposition. Avalanche and earthquake. Yet there was worse to come. The figures on the Prime Minister’s popularity were appalling. He was miles behind the new Leader of the Opposition. About as popular as an intestinal worm. Collingridge was more disliked than any prime minister since Anthony Eden in his mad phase.

  Mattie reknotted the towel around her and squatted on her bed. She no longer needed to ask why she had been sent the information. It was dynamite, and all she had to do was light the touch paper. The damage it would do if it exploded in the middle of the Party conference would be catastrophic. This was a deliberate act of sabotage and a brilliant story— her story, so long as she got it in first.

She grabbed for the telephone and dialed.

“What?” a sleepy woman’s voice yawned.

“Hello, Mrs. Preston? It’s Mattie Storin. Sorry, so sorry if I woke you. Is Grev there, please?”

There was some subdued muttering before her editor came on the phone.

“Who’s died?” he snapped.

“What?”

“Who’s bloody died? Why else would you call me at such a bloody stupid time?”

“Nobody died. I mean…I’m sorry. I forgot what time it was.”

“Shit.”

“But it doesn’t matter what time it is,” she bit back. “It’s a brilliant story.”

“What is?”

“I found it with my morning newspapers.”

“Well, that’s a relief. We’re now only a day behind the rest.”

“No, Grev. Listen will you? I’ve got hold of the Party’s latest polling figures.

They’re sensational!”

“How did you get them?”

“They were left outside my door.”

  “Gift wrapped, were they?” The editor never made much attempt to hide his sarcasm, and none at all at this hour of the morning.

“But they’re really unbelievable, Grev.”

“I bet they bloody are. So who left this little present outside the door, Santa Claus?”

  “Er, I don’t know.” For the first time a hint of doubt crept into her voice. Her towel had slipped and she was sitting there naked. She felt as if her boss were staring at her. She was waking up very rapidly now.

  “Well, I don’t suppose it was Henry Collingridge who left them there. So who do you think wanted to leak them to you?”

Mattie’s silence confessed her confusion.

  “I don’t suppose you were out on the town with any of your colleagues last night, were you?”

“Grev, what the hell’s that got to do with it?”

  “You’ve been set up, little girl. They’re probably sitting in the bar right now with the hair of the dog pissing themselves with laughter. Which is more than can be said for me.”

“But how do you know?”

“I don’t bloody know. But the point is, Wonder Woman, neither do you!”

  There was another embarrassed silence from Mattie as she tried in vain to retrieve her fallen towel and before she made a last, despairing attempt to persuade her editor. “Don’t you even want to know what they say?”

  “No. Not if you don’t know where they came from. And remember, the more sensational they look, the more certain it is you’re being set up. A bloody hoax!”

  The sound of the telephone being slammed down exploded in her ear. It would have hurt even had she not been hung over. The page one headlines she had conjured up in her mind dissolved back into the gray morning mists. Her hangover was a million times more malevolent. She needed a cup of black coffee. Badly. She’d made a fool of herself. Not for the first time. But normally she didn’t do it stark naked.





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