House of Cards [CHAPTER 17]

 


Seventeen


Political office is like life. Your attitude toward it is usually determined by whether you are arriving or departing.

“Patrick. Thanks for the time,” Urquhart greeted as the Foreign Secretary opened the door.

  “You sounded serious on the phone. When the Chief Whip says he want an urgent private word with you, it usually means he’s got the photographs under lock and key but unfortunately the News of the World has got the negatives!”

  Urquhart smiled and slipped through the open door into Woolton’s suite. It was late afternoon, the gale had stopped blowing but the umbrella standing in a puddle in Woolton’s hallway spoke of a tormenting day. Urquhart hadn’t come far, indeed only a few yards from his own suite in a series of luxury bungalows that stood in the hotel grounds. They had been set aside for Cabinet ministers, all of whom had a twenty-four-hour rotation of police guards running up huge bills. The local constabulary had christened it “Overtime Alley.”

“Drink?” the genial Lancastrian offered.

“Thanks, Patrick. Scotch.”

  The Right Honorable Patrick Woolton, Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and one of Merseyside’s many successful emigrés, busied himself at a small drinks cabinet that bore the signs of already having been put to use that afternoon, while Urquhart placed the ministerial red box he was carrying beside the four belonging to his overworked host, close to the edge of the puddle of rainwater. These brightly colored leather-clad boxes were the mark of any minister, their almost constant companions that guarded the official papers, speeches, and other confidential items. A Foreign Secretary requires several red boxes; the Chief Whip, with no conference speech to make and no foreign crises to handle, had arrived in Bournemouth with his box filled with three bottles of twelve-year-old malt whiskey. Hotel drink prices are always staggering, he explained to his wife, even when you can find the brand you want.

  Now he faced Woolton across a paper-strewn coffee table, and dispensed with the small talk. “Patrick, I need to get your opinion. In the strictest confidence. As far as I am concerned, this has to be one of those meetings which never took place.”

  “Christ, you do have some bloody photographs!” exclaimed Woolton, now only half joking. His eye for attractive young women had led him down a few perilous paths. Ten years earlier when he was just starting his ministerial career, he had spent several painful hours answering questions from the Louisiana State Police about a weekend he’d just spent in a New Orleans motel with a young American girl who looked twenty, acted as if she were thirty and turned out to be just a few days over sixteen. The incident had been brushed over but Woolton had never forgotten the tiny difference between a glittering political future and a charge of statutory rape.

  “Something which could be rather more serious,” Urquhart muttered. “I’ve been picking up some unhealthy vibrations in the last few weeks. About Henry. You’ve sensed the irritation with him around the Cabinet table, and the media seem to be falling out of love with him in a very big way.”

  “Well, there was no reason to expect an extended honeymoon after the election, I suppose, but the storm clouds have been remarkably quick to gather.”

  “Patrick, in confidence, I’ve been approached by two of the most influential grassroots party members. They say that feeling at local level is getting very bad. We lost two more important local council by-elections last week in what should have been very safe seats, and we’re going to lose quite a few more in the weeks ahead.”

  “Bloody East Dorset by-election tomorrow. We’re going to get kicked in the crotch on that one, too, you mark my words. We’d have trouble winning a vote for local dogcatcher at the moment.”

“There is a view, Patrick,” Urquhart continued in a tone of considerable

discomfort, “that Henry’s personal unpopularity is dragging the whole Party down.”

“It’s a view I share, frankly,” Woolton said, sipping his whiskey.

“The question is, how much time does he have to sort it out?”

  “With a majority of only twenty-four, not much.” Woolton was cupping his hands around his glass for comfort. “A few lost by-elections and we’d be facing an early election.” He stared into the peaty liquid, then up at his colleague. “So what’s your view, Francis?”

“As Chief Whip I don’t have a view.”

“You always were a canny bugger, Francis.”

  “But as Chief Whip I have been asked by one or two of our senior colleagues to take some gentle soundings about how deep the problem actually goes. In short, Patrick, and you will appreciate this isn’t easy…”

“You haven’t touched your bloody drink.”

  “Give me one more moment. I’ve been asked to find out how much trouble colleagues think we are in. Cards on the table. Is Henry any longer the right leader for us?” He raised his glass, stared hard at Woolton, then took a deep draught before settling back in his chair.

  The silence settled around the Foreign Secretary, impaling him on the point of the question. “Well, bugger me, it’s come to that already, has it?” A pipe appeared from his pocket, followed by a tobacco pouch and a box of matches. He made an elaborate ceremony of filling the bowl, tamping down the fresh tobacco with his thumb, before taking out a match. The striking of the match seemed very loud in the silence. Smoke began to rise from around Woolton as he drew on the pipe stem until the sweet smelling tobacco was well alight and his face was almost obscured from view by a clinging blue fog. He waved his hand to disperse it, coming out of hiding. “You’ll have to forgive me, Francis. Four years in the Foreign Office hasn’t prepared me particularly well for handling direct questions like that. Maybe I’m not used any more to people coming straight to the point. You’ve knocked me out of my stride.”

  This was nonsense, of course. Woolton was renowned for his direct, often combative political style, which had found an uneasy home in the Foreign Office. He was simply playing for time while he collected his thoughts.

  “Let’s try to put aside any subjective views”—he blew another enormous cloud of smoke to hide the patent insincerity of the remark—“and analyze the problem like a civil service position paper.”

  Urquhart nodded, and smiled inwardly. He knew Woolton’s personal views, he already knew the conclusion their hypothetical civil servant was going to arrive at.

  “First, have we got a problem? Yes, and it’s a serious one. My lads back in Lancashire are hopping mad. I think it’s right that you should be taking soundings. Second, is there a painless solution to the problem? Let’s not forget we did win the bloody election. But we didn’t win it like we should’ve. And that’s down to Henry. But”—he waved the stem of his pipe for emphasis—“if there was any move to replace him—which is essentially what we are discussing…”

Urquhart contrived to look pained at Woolton’s bluntness.

“It would raise hell inside the party and those bastards in the Opposition would have a field day. It could get very messy, Francis. There’s no guarantee Henry would go quietly. And it would look like an act of desperation. It would take a new leader at least a year to glue together the cracks. So we shouldn’t fool ourselves that getting rid of Henry represents an easy option. No, sir. But, third, when all is said and done, can Henry find the solution to the problem himself? Well, you know my views on that. I stood against him for the leadership when Margaret went, and I’ve not changed my mind that his selection was a mistake.”

  Urquhart lowered his head, stony faced, as though in gratitude for the candor, but in celebration. He had read his man well.

  Woolton was refilling their glasses while continuing his analysis. “Margaret managed an extraordinary balance of personal toughness and sense of direction. She was ruthless when she had to be and often when she didn’t have to be as well. She always seemed to be in such a bloody hurry to get where she was going that she had no time to take prisoners and didn’t mind trampling on a few friends, either. It didn’t matter so much because she led from in front. You’ve got to give that to the girl. But Henry doesn’t have a sense of direction, only a love of office. And, without that sense of direction, we’re lost. He tries to mimic Margaret but he hasn’t got the balls.” He banged a large glass down in front of his colleague. “So there we have it. If we try to get rid of him we’re in trouble. But if we keep him, we’re in shit.” He raised his glass. “Confusion to the enemy, Francis.” And he drank.

  Urquhart hadn’t spoken for nearly ten minutes. The tip of his middle finger was running slowly around the rim of his glass setting up a discordant wailing. His eyes came up, blue, penetrating. “But who is the enemy, Patrick?”

The stare was returned. “Whoever is most likely to bring us to defeat at the next election. The Leader of the sodding Opposition? Or Henry?”

“And your view? What precisely is it you are saying, Patrick?”

  Woolton roared with laughter. “I’m sorry, Francis. Too much diplomatic claptrap. You know I can’t even kiss the wife good morning without her wondering what my intentions are. You want a direct answer? OK. Our majority is too small. At the rate we’re going we’ll get wiped out next time around. We can’t go on as we are.”

“So what is the solution? We have to find one.”

  “We bide our time, that’s what we should do. A few months. Prepare the public perception, put pressure on Henry to stand down, so that when he does we’ll be seen to be bowing to what the public wants rather than indulging in private squabbles. Perceptions are crucial, Francis, and we’ll need time to get our ducks in a row.”

  And you need a little time to prepare your own pitch, thought Urquhart. You old fraud. You want the job just as badly as ever.

  He knew Woolton. The man was no fool, not in all things. He would already be planning to spend as many evenings as possible in the corridors and bars of the House of Commons, strengthening established relationships, making new friends, eating rubber chicken on the constituency circuit, chatting up newspaper editors and columnists, building up his credentials. His official diary would get cleared, he would spend less time traveling abroad and much, much more time dashing around Britain making speeches about the challenges facing the country in the next decade.

  “That’s your job, Francis, and a damned difficult one it is, too. To help us decide when the time is right. Too early and we’ll all look like assassins. Too late and the Party’ll be in pieces. You will have to keep your ear damned close to the ground. I assume you’re taking soundings elsewhere?”

  Urquhart nodded carefully in silent assent. He’s nominated me as Cassius, he thought, put the dagger in my hand. Urquhart was exhilarated to discover that he didn’t mind the sensation, not one bit.

  “Patrick, I’m honored that you’ve been so frank with me. Deeply grateful for the confidence you’ve shown in me. The next few months are going to be difficult for all of us, and I will need your continuing counsel. You will always find in me a firm friend.”

“I know I will, Francis.”

Urquhart rose. “And, of course, not a word of this will pass outside this room.”

“My Special Branch team are all going on at me about how walls have ears.

  I’m glad it’s you who’s got the bungalow next door!” Woolton exclaimed, thumping Urquhart playfully and a little patronizingly between the shoulder blades as his visitor strode over to retrieve his red box.

“I’m holding my conference reception this evening, Patrick. Everyone will be there, a most useful gathering. You won’t forget, will you?”

“Course not. Always enjoy your parties. Be rude of me to refuse your champagne!”

“I’ll see you in a few hours then,” replied Urquhart, picking up a red box.

  As Woolton closed the door behind his visitor, he poured himself another drink. He would skip the afternoon’s debates in the conference hall. Instead he’d have a bath and a short sleep to prepare himself for the evening’s heavy schedule. As he reflected on the conversation he’d just had he began to wonder whether the whiskey had dulled his senses. He was trying to remember how Urquhart had voiced his own opposition to Collingridge, but couldn’t. “Crafty sod. Let me do all the talking.” Still, that’s what was expected of a Chief Whip, and he could trust Francis Urquhart, couldn’t he? As he sat there wondering whether he had been just a little too frank, he failed to notice that Urquhart had walked off with the wrong red box.

* * *

Mattie had been in high spirits ever since sending through her copy shortly after lunch. Opinion poll shocker. A front page exclusive, at a moment when she was surrounded by every single one of her competitors. She had won bragging rights for this conference, that was for sure. She had spent much of the afternoon wistfully thinking about the new doors that were slowly beginning to open for her. She had just celebrated her first anniversary at the Chronicleand her abilities were getting recognition. Another year of this and maybe she’d be ready to make the next step, perhaps as an assistant editor or even as a columnist with room to write serious political analysis and not just daily potboilers. And with friends like Francis Urquhart she’d never be short of an inside story.

  There was a price to be paid, of course. Her mother was still under the impression that she had found someone in London, a partner to share her life, but it was a hard and often lonely life, once she had gotten back to her apartment late at night and scrabbled yet again through her laundry bin in the morning. She had needs, not just professional vanity, and they were becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

  Neither could she ignore the urgent message to call her office that she got shortly before five o’clock. She had just finished chatting over tea on the terrace with the Home Secretary—he was keen to get the chronicle to puff his speech the following day and in any event much preferred an hour chatting with a young blond than sitting through another interminable afternoon of his colleagues’ speeches—when a receptionist thrust the message into her hand. The hotel lobby was crowded but one of the public telephones was free and she decided to put up with the noise. When she got through, Preston’s secretary explained that he was engaged on the phone and connected her with the deputy editor, John Krajewski, a gentle giant of a man she had begun to spend a little time with during the long summer months, spurred on by a shared enjoyment of good wine and the fact that his father, like her grandfather, had been a wartime refugee from Europe. Nothing sexual, not yet, although he’d made it clear he wanted to swap more than office gossip. But his tone was suddenly awkward.

“Hi, Mattie. Look, er…Oh, fuck it, I’m not going to cover this in three yards of bullshit. We’re not—he’s not—running your story. I’m really sorry.”

  There was a stunned silence over the phone as she turned over the words to make sure she had understood correctly. But, whichever way she turned them, they still came out the same.

“What the hell do you mean you’re not running it?”

  “Just what I say, Mattie. It’s not going to happen.” Krajewski was clearly having grave difficulty with the conversation. “Look, I’m sorry I can’t give you all the details because Grev has been dealing with it personally—I haven’t touched it myself, please believe me on that—but apparently it’s such a hot story that our esteemed editor feels he can’t run it without being absolutely sure of our ground. He says we’ve always supported this Government and he’s not about to throw editorial policy out of the window on the basis of an anonymous piece of paper. We have to be absolutely certain before we move, and we can’t be if we don’t know where this information came from.”

  “For God’s sake, it doesn’t matter where the bloody paper came from. Whoever sent it to me wouldn’t have done it if he thought his identity was going to be spread all over our newsroom. All that matters is that it’s genuine, and I’ve confirmed that.”

  He sighed. “Trust me, I know how you must feel about this, Mattie. I wish I were a million miles away from this one. All I can tell you is that Grev is adamant. It’s not running.”

  Mattie wanted to scream long, hard, and very coarsely. Suddenly she regretted making the call from a crowded lobby. “Let me talk to Grev.”

“Sorry. I think he’s busy on the phone.”

“I’ll hold!”

  “In fact,” said the deputy editor in a voice heaped with embarrassment, “I know he’s going to be busy for a long time and insisted that I had to be the one to explain it to you. I know he wants to talk to you, Mattie—but tomorrow.

There’s no point in trying to beat him into submission tonight.”

“Tomorrow’s no bloody good! Since when do we risk losing an exclusive because Grev’s got his phone stuck up his arse?” Mattie spat out her contempt.

“What sort of newspaper are we running, Johnnie?”

  She could hear the deputy editor clearing his throat, unable to find suitable words. “Sorry, Mattie,” was the best he could do.

“And screw you, Johnnie!” was all she was able to hiss down the line before slamming the phone back into its cradle. He didn’t deserve it, but neither did she. She picked up the phone once again to see whether he was still on the end and was going to tell her it was all a stupid prank, but all she got was the disinterested buzzing of the dial tone. “Fuck!” she snapped, slamming the phone down once more. A conference steward on the next phone flashed her a tart look.

She glared at him. “Fuck!” she said again, deliberately, just to make sure he’d heard, before stalking across the foyer toward the bar.

  The steward was just raising the grille over the counter when Mattie arrived and slapped her bag and a five-pound note down on the bar. “I need a drink!” she declared, still in such a blind rage that she knocked the arm of another patron who was already lined up at the varnished counter and clearly intent on being served with the first drink of the night.

“Sorry,” she apologized huffily without sounding as if she meant it.

  The other drinker turned to face her. “Young lady, you say you need a drink. You look as if you need a drink. My doctor tells me there is no such thing as needing a drink, but what does he know? Would you mind if a man old enough to be your father joins you? By the way, the name’s Collingridge, Mr. Charles Collingridge. But please call me Charlie. Everyone calls me Charlie.”

  “Well, Charlie, so long as we don’t talk politics, it’ll be my pleasure. Allow my editor to do the first decent thing he’s managed today and buy you a very large one!”






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