House of Cards [CHAPTER 19]

 


Nineteen


Most by-election candidates are little more than legal necessities, required to make the victor feel he has done something worthwhile. Which he rarely has.


Thursday, October 14

“You’re not going to make a bloody habit of getting me out of bed every morning, are you?” Even down the telephone line, Preston made it clear that he saw this as an instruction rather than a question.

  Mattie was feeling even worse than she had managed the previous morning after several hours of alcoholic flagellation with Charles Collingridge. She was having considerable difficulty grasping the finer points of what was going on.

  “Hell, Grev. I go to bed thinking I want to kill you because you won’t run the opinion poll story. Then I wake up this morning and find a bastardized version of it all over the front page with a byline by someone called ‘Our Political Staff.’ I’m not thinking I want to kill you any more, I know I want to kill you. But first I want to find out why you’re screwing around with my story. Why did you change your mind? Who’s rewritten my copy? And who the hell is ‘Our Political Staff’ if it’s not me?”

“Steady on, Mattie. Take a breath before you pop your corsets.”

“I don’t do corsets, Grev!”

  “And you weren’t doing much last night, were you? What were you up to, flashing your eyes at some eligible peer or burning your bra at some feminist coven? But nada. I tried to call. No bloody answer. If only you’d hung around, you’d have heard all about it.”

  Mattie began to recall the events of last night. It was a considerable effort, through a haze. Her distraction gave Preston time to continue.

   “As I think Krajewski told you, last night some of the editorial staff here didn’t believe there was enough substantiation on your piece for it to run today.” He heard Mattie snort with indignation.

  “Frankly, I liked the piece, right from the start,” he added, trying to sound as if he meant it. “I wanted to make it work, but we needed more corroboration before we tore the country’s Prime Minister apart on the day of an important by-election. A single anonymous piece of paper wasn’t enough.”

I didn’t tear the Prime Minister apart, you did!” Mattie wanted to interject but Preston was already ahead of her.

“So I had a chat with some of my senior contacts in the Party, and late last night we got the backing we needed. Just before our deadline.”

“But my copy—”

“The copy needed to be adapted, the story was moving on. I tried to reach you but since I couldn’t, I rewrote it myself. Didn’t want anyone else touching it, the story’s too good. So ‘Our Political Staff’ in this instance is me.”

“I wrote a piece about an opinion poll. You’ve turned it into the crucifixion of Collingridge. These quotes from ‘leading party sources,’ these criticisms and condemnations. Who else do you have working in Bournemouth apart from me?”

“My sources are my own business, Mattie, you should know that.”

  “Bullshit, Grev. I’m supposed to be your political correspondent at this bloody conference. You can’t keep me in the dark like this. The paper’s done a complete somersault over my story and another somersault over Collingridge. A few weeks ago the sun shone out of his backside as far as you were concerned and now he’s—what does it say?—‘a catastrophe threatening to engulf the Government at any moment.’ I shall be about as popular as a witch’s armpit around here this morning. You’ve got to tell me what’s going on!”

  Preston had tried. He’d offered an explanation. It wasn’t the truth, but so what? Now he decided it was time to pull a little rank. “I’ll tell you what’s going on. A brilliant bloody exclusive, that’s what’s going on. And it may have passed your notice, Mattie, but I’m editor of this newspaper, which means I don’t have to spend my day justifying myself to every cub reporter stuck out in the provinces. You do as you’re told, I do as I’m told, and we both get on with the job. All right?”

  “So who the hell tells you what to do, Grev?” Mattie demanded. But all she got in return was a dial tone. The phone had gone dead. She pounded the arm of her chair in frustration. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—take much more of this. She’d thought new doors were opening up to her; instead, her editor kept slamming them shut on her fingers. It made no sense to her.

  It still made no sense a good thirty minutes later as she was trying to clear her thoughts with yet another cup of coffee in the breakfast room. She was relieved there was no sign of Kevin Spence. A pile of the morning’s newspapers lay on the floor at her feet and she had to admit that Preston was right—it was a fine exclusive, the best front page of the lot. Great figures, great quotes. Too good for Greville Preston to have done it on a phone from London. As she scratched away at the puzzle she felt a shadow stretching across the room and looked up to see the vast bulk of Benjamin Landless lumbering across to a window table for a chat with Lord Peterson, the Party Treasurer. The proprietor settled his girth into a completely inadequate chair and leaned across as far as his belly would allow him. He smiled at Peterson, shook his hand, ignored Mattie completely. Suddenly she thought things were beginning to make a little more sense.

* * *

The Prime Minister’s political secretary winced. For the third time the press secretary had thrust the morning newspaper across the table at him, and for the third time he had tried to thrust it back. He knew how St. Peter must have felt.

  “For God’s sake, Grahame,” the press secretary snapped, raising his voice, “we can’t hide every damned copy of the Chronicle in Bournemouth. He’s got to know, and you’ve got to show it to him. Now!”

  “Why did it have to be today?” the political secretary groaned. “A by-election just down the road and we’ve been up all night finishing his speech for tomorrow. Now he’ll want to rewrite the entire bloody thing, and where are we going to find the time? He’ll blow a gasket.” He slammed his briefcase shut in uncharacteristic frustration. “All the pressure of the last few weeks, and now this. There just doesn’t seem to be any break, does there?”

  His companion chose not to answer, preferring to study the view out of the hotel window across the bay. It was raining again.

  The political secretary picked up the newspaper, rolled it up tight and threw it across the room. It landed with a crash in the waste bin, overturning it and strewing the contents across the carpet. The discarded pages of speech draft mixed with cigarette ash and several empty cans of beer and tomato juice. “He deserves his bloody breakfast, for pity’s sake. I’ll tell him after that,” he said.

  It was not to be his best decision.

* * *

Henry Collingridge was enjoying his eggs. He had finished his conference speech in the early hours of the morning and had left his staff to tidy it up and have it typed while he went to bed. He had slept soundly if briefly; it seemed for the first time in weeks.

  The end-of-conference speech always hung over his head like a dark cloud. He disliked conferences and the small talk, the week away from home, the over-indulgence around the dinner tables—and the speech. Most of all the speech. Long hours of anguished discussion in a smoke-filled hotel room, breaking off just when progress seemed in sight in order to attend some ball-breaking function or reception, resuming a considerable time later and trying to pick up where they had left off, only more tired and less inspired. If the speech went well, it was only what they expected and required. If it was poor, they would still applaud but go away muttering about how the strain of office was beginning to show. Sod’s Law.

  Still, almost over, bar the delivery. The Prime Minister was relaxed enough to have suggested a stroll along the promenade with his wife before breakfast, blow the cobwebs away, to hell with the patchy rain. His Special Branch detectives followed a few paces behind. As they strolled, Collingridge was discussing the merits of a winter holiday in Antigua or Sri Lanka. “I think Sri Lanka this year,” he said. “You can stay on the beach if you want, Sarah, but I’d rather like to take a couple of trips into the mountains. They’ve got some ancient Buddhist monasteries there, and the wildlife reserves are supposed to be quite spectacular. The Sri Lankan President was telling me about them last year and they sounded really…Darling, you’re not listening!”

“Sorry, Henry. I was…just looking at that gentleman’s newspaper.” She nodded at a man, another conference-goer, who was struggling to hold his newspaper in the sea breeze.

“More interesting than me, is it?”

  Yet his light-heartedness died on the wind as he began to feel ill at ease, remembering that no one had yet given him his daily press cuttings. Someone would surely have told him had there been anything that important, but… He’d made a mistake, a few months back, when his staff had persuaded him that he didn’t need to spend his time reading the daily newspapers, that an edited summary would be more efficient. But civil servants had their own narrow views on what was important for a Prime Minister’s day and he’d found increasingly that their summaries had holes in them, particularly when it came to political matters, even more so when there was bad news. They were trying to protect him, of course, but he’d always feared the cocoon they spun around him would eventually stifle him.

  He remembered the first time he’d stepped inside 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister after the drive back from the Palace. He had left the crowds and the television crews outside and, as the great black door closed behind him, he had discovered an extraordinary sight. On one side of the large hallway leading away from the door had gathered some two hundred civil servants, who were applauding him loudly—just as they had done Thatcher, Callaghan, Wilson, and Heath, and just as they would his successor. On the other side of the hallway facing the host of civil servants stood his political staff, the team of loyal supporters he had hurriedly assembled around him as his campaign to succeed Margaret Thatcher had begun to take off, and whom he had invited to Downing Street to enjoy this historic moment. There were just seven of them, dwarfed in their new surroundings. An impossibly unequal struggle. He’d scarcely seen his party advisers for the next six months as they were effectively squeezed out by the official machine, and none of the original band was still left. No, it wasn’t a good idea to rely so completely on officials, he’d decided. He had also decided to do away with the press summaries and go back to reading real news, but he hadn’t yet got round to it. Next week, for sure.

  His attention returned to the newspaper being shaken back into shape by its owner. It was several yards away and at such a distance he had great difficulty in bringing it fully into focus. He tried hard not to stare too hard. Slowly the words came into some form of focus.

“POLL CRISIS HITS GOVERNMENT,” it screamed.

He walked the five paces and snatched the newspaper from the startled man.

“PM’S FUTURE IN DOUBT AS PERSONAL SLUMP HITS PARTY,” he read. “BY-ELECTION DISASTER FEARED.”

“Henry!” his wife shouted in alarm.

“What the bloody—” the man spluttered before his words froze as he recognized his assailant.

“Are you all right, Prime Minister?” one of the detectives asked, putting his body protectively between them.

Collingridge’s head sank. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean…I’m so sorry,” he muttered in apology.

“No, Prime Minister, I’m the one who’s sorry,” the man said, recovering his wits. “You deserve better than this.”

“I do, don’t I?” Collingridge muttered before turning and striding back to the hotel.

* * *

It did nothing to improve the Prime Minister’s temper when he had to retrieve the copy of the Chronicle from among the cigarette ash in the waste bin.

“From a complete bloody stranger, Grahame. May I, just occasionally, not be the last to know?”

“I am sorry, Prime Minister. We were going to show it to you just as soon as you’d finished breakfast,” came the meek response.

“You think I have any appetite left after this? Look at this rubbish! It’s not good enough, Grahame, it’s just not bloody—”

  He stopped. He had arrived at the point in the chronicles report when the hard news had been superseded by speculation and hype.

  The latest slump revealed in the Party’s private polls is bound to put intense pressure on the Prime Minister. He makes his conference speech tomorrow in Bournemouth, and it will be seen as of still greater importance, perhaps even decisive. Rumblings about the style and effectiveness of Collingridge’s leadership have grown since the election, when his performance disappointed many of his colleagues. These doubts are certain to be fueled by the latest poll, which gives him the lowest personal rating any Prime Minister has achieved since these polls began nearly forty years ago.

“Oh, shit,” Collingridge mouthed silently as he read on.

  Last night, a leading Minister commented, “There is a lack of grip around the Cabinet table and in the House of Commons. The Party is restive. Our basically excellent position is being undermined by the leader’s lack of appeal.” Harsher views were being expressed in some Government quarters. Senior party sources were speculating that the Party was fast coming to a crossroad. “We have to decide between making a new start or sliding gently into decline and defeat,” one senior source said. “We have had too many unnecessary setbacks since the election. We cannot afford any more.” A less sanguine view was that Collingridge is “like a catastrophe threatening to engulf the Government at any moment.”

“Shit!” Collingridge exclaimed out loud, no longer bothering to whisper.

  Today’s parliamentary by-election in Dorset East, reckoned to be a safe Government seat, is now being seen as crucial to the Prime Minister’s future.

* * *

A man can spend half a lifetime at the top of the political ladder learning how to cope with his fear of heights, but sometimes he grows dizzy and it can all get too much for him.

  “Find the sewer scum behind this, Grahame!” Collingridge snarled, throttling the newspaper in two hands like a Christmas chicken. “I want to know who wrote it. Who spoke to them. Who leaked the poll. And for breakfast tomorrow I want their balls on toast!”

“Shall I give Lord Williams a call?” the political secretary offered.

  “Williams!” Collingridge exploded. “It’s his fucking poll that’s leaked! I don’t want apologies, I want answers. Get me the Chief Whip. Find him, and whatever he is doing get him here. Right now.”

  The secretary summoned up his courage for the next hurdle. “Before he arrives, Prime Minister, could I suggest that we have another look at your speech? There may be various things you want to change—as a result of the morning press—and we don’t have too much time…”

  “The speech stays, just as it is. Every word. I’m not ripping up a perfectly good speech just because those half-wits of the press have gone out shit spreading. So find Urquhart. And find him now!”

* * *

When the phone rang for Urquhart, who was sitting in his bungalow, it wasn’t the Prime Minister but the Foreign Secretary on the end of the line. Much to Urquhart’s relief, Woolton was chuckling.

“Francis, you’re a damned fool!”

“My dear Patrick, I can’t—”

  “I’m going to have to put more water in your whiskey next time. You walked off with one of my boxes yesterday and left yours behind. I’ve got your sandwiches and you’ve got a copy of the latest secret plans to invade Papua New Guinea or whatever damn fool nonsense they’re trying to get me to sign up to this week. I suggest we swap before I get myself arrested for losing confidential Government property. I’ll be round in twenty seconds.”

  Soon Urquhart was smiling his way through an apology to his Ministerial colleague but Woolton brushed it aside.

  “No matter, Francis. Truth is, I wouldn’t have gotten round to reading the bloody stuff, not last night. Fact is, I’ve got to thank you. Turned out to be an exceptionally stimulating evening.”

“I’m so glad, Patrick. These conferences can be such fun.”

  Yet as soon as Woolton had left, still chuckling, Urquhart’s mood changed. He became serious, his brow furrowed with concern as he locked the door from the inside, testing the handle to make absolutely certain it was closed. He wasted no time in pulling the blinds down over the windows and, only when he was certain that there was no chance of his being observed, did he place the red box gingerly on the desk. He examined the box carefully for any signs of tampering, then selected a key from the large bunch he produced from his pocket, sliding it carefully into the lock. As the lid came up, it exposed neither papers nor sandwiches but a thick slab of polystyrene packing that entirely filled the box. He extracted the polystyrene and laid it to one side before turning the box on its end. Delicately he eased up the corner of the red leather, peeling a strip of it back until it revealed a small hole that had been carved right through the wall of the box. The recess measured no more than two inches square, and snuggling neatly in its middle was a radio transmitter complete with its own miniaturized mercury power pack, compliments of its Japanese manufacturer.

  The manager of the security shop just off the Tottenham Court Road he had visited two weeks earlier had displayed a mask of utter indifference as Urquhart had explained his need to check up on a dishonest employee. “Happens,” was all he said. He’d shown considerably more enthusiasm in describing the full capabilities of the equipment he could supply. This was one of the simplest yet most sensitive transmitters on the market, he’d explained, which was guaranteed to pick up almost any unobstructed sound within a distance of fifty meters and relay it back to the custom-built receiver and voice-activated tape recorder. “Just make sure the microphone is pointing generally toward the source of the sound, and I guarantee it’ll sound like a Mahler symphony.”

  Urquhart went over to his wardrobe and pulled out yet another ministerial red box. Inside, nestling in another protective wrapping of polystyrene, sat a modified FM portable radio with built-in cassette recorder that was tuned to the wavelength of the transmitter. Urquhart noticed with satisfaction that the long-playing tape he had installed was all but exhausted. Plenty of noise to activate the recorder, then.

“I trust it’s not simply because you snore, Patrick,” Urquhart joked with himself. As he did so, the equipment clicked once more into action, ran for ten seconds, and stopped.

  He pressed the rewind button and was watching the twin reels spin round when the telephone rang again, summoning him to the Prime Minister. Urgently.

Another plumbing lesson.

“Never mind,” he said, running his fingers over both red leather boxes,

“you’ll wait.”

He was laughing as he went out the door.






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