House of Cards [CHAPTER 2]

 


Two


It’s a very good idea for a politician to have vision. Yes, the Vision Thing, just the ticket. Really useful, don’t you think? Why, on a clear day most politicians can see as far as—well, I know some who can see almost as far as Battersea.

Francis Ewan Urquhart was a man of many parts, a Member of Parliament, a Privy Councilor that gave him the prefix of Right Honorable, a Minister of the Crown, and a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. He was all these things and this was his night, yet still he wasn’t enjoying himself. He was squashed into the corner of a small and stuffy living room, pressed hard up against a hideous 1960s standard lamp that showed every sign of toppling over. He was hemmed in by a posse of matrons who doubled as his constituency workers and who had cut off his means of escape as they chattered proudly about their last-minute mail drops and pinched shoes. He wondered why they bothered. This was suburban Surrey, the land of the A and B social classes in the terminology of pollsters, where passports lay at the ready and Range Rovers stood in the driveway. Range Rovers? The only time they ever encountered mud was when being driven carelessly over front lawns late on a Friday night or when dropping off their little Johnnies and Emmas at their private schools. Canvassing in these parts was held to be almost vulgar. They didn’t count votes here, they weighed them.

   “Another vol-au-vent, Mr. Urquhart?” A plate of sagging pastry was thrust in front of him by an overweight woman whose bosom was clad in large floral print and seemed to be hiding two fractious cats.

   “No, thank you, Mrs. Morecombe. I fear I shall explode!”

   With impatience. It was a fault, one that stretched back many generations. The Urquharts were a proud warrior family from the Highlands of Scotland, their castle on the banks of Loch Ness, but the MacDonalds had arrived and the castle now lay in ruins. Urquhart’s childhood memories were of the bracing, crystal air of the moors, in the company of an old gillie, lying for hours in the damp peat and sweetly scented bracken waiting for the right buck to appear, just as he had imagined his older brother Alastair was doing, waiting for the Germans in the hedgerows outside Dunkirk. His brother had called him FU, a nickname that had often got them both a clout from their father, even though it was years before Francis understood why. He didn’t mind, happy to tag along behind his big brother. But Alastair hadn’t come home. His mother had crumbled, never recovered, lived in memory of her lost son and neglect of Francis, so FU had eventually come south, to London. To Westminster. To Surrey. Abandoned his duties. His mother had never spoken to him again. To have sold his heritage for the whole of Scotland would have been unforgivable, but for Surrey?

   He sighed, even as he smiled. This was the eighteenth committee room of the day, and the enthusiasm that had knitted together the early morning humor had long since unraveled and turned to thread. It was still forty minutes before the polling booths closed and the last vote was cast. Urquhart’s shirt was wringing wet. He was tired, uncomfortable, penned in by the posse of women who pursued him with spaniel-like persistence.

   Yet still he kept his smile afloat, because his life was about to change, whatever the result. Urquhart had spent years climbing the political ladder, from backbencher through Junior Ministerial jobs and now attending Cabinet as Chief Whip, one of the two dozen most powerful posts in the Government. It provided him with splendid offices at 12 Downing Street, just yards from the Prime Minister’s own. It was behind the door of Number 12 that two of the most celebrated Britons of all time, Wellington and Nelson, had met for the first and only time. The walls echoed with history and with an authority that was now his.

   Yet Urquhart’s power didn’t stem directly from his public office. The role of Chief Whip didn’t carry full Cabinet rank. Urquhart had no great Department of State or massive civil service machine to command; his was a faceless task, toiling ceaselessly behind the scenes, making no public speeches and giving no television interviews. A man of the shadows.

   And also a man of discipline. He was the Enforcer, the one whose job it was to put a bit of stick about. That meant he was not simply respected but also a little feared. He was the minister with the most acute political antennae in government. In order to deliver the vote, day after day, night after night, he needed to know where his Members of Parliament were likely to be found, which meant he needed to know their secrets—with whom they were conspiring, with whom they might be sleeping, whether they would be sober enough to vote, whether they had their hands in someone else’s pocket or on someone else’s wife. All these secrets with their sharp little edges were gathered together and kept in a black book, locked inside a safe, and not even the Prime Minister had access to the keys.

   In Westminster, such information is power. Many in Urquhart’s Parliamentary Party owed their continuing position to the ability of the Whips’ Office to sort out and occasionally cover up their personal problems. Backbenchers intent on rebellion or frontbenchers distracted by ambition found themselves changing their minds when reminded of some earlier indiscretion that had been forgiven by the Party, but never forgotten. It was astonishing how pliable politicians became when confronted by the possibility of a collision between their public and private lives. Why, even that dyspeptic Staffordshire soul, the Transport Secretary, a man who had planned to make a conference speech way outside his remit and far too close to the Prime Minister’s home turf, had come to his senses. All it had taken was a phone call to his mistress’s mews house rather than the marital home.

   “Francis, how the fuck did you find me here?”

   “Oh, Keith, have I made some terrible mistake? I’m so sorry, I wanted to have a quick chat with you about your little speech, but it seems I looked for your number in the wrong set of accounts.”

   “What the bloody hell do you mean?”

“Oh, don’t you know? We keep two sets of books. One is the official tally, the other…Well, don’t worry, we keep our little black book under very careful control. It won’t happen again.” A pause before: “Will it?”

   The Transport Secretary had sighed, a sound full of melancholy and guilt. “No, Francis, it bloody well won’t.” Another sinner came to rapid repentance.

   The Party owed Francis Urquhart, everyone knew that. And, after this election, it would be time for the debt to be called in.

   Suddenly Urquhart was brought back to the moment by one of his devoted ladies. Her eyes were excited, her cheeks flushed, her breath heavy with the sour afterlife of egg and watercress sandwiches, her sense of coyness and discretion overcome by the heat and excitement of the day.

   “Tell us, Mr. Urquhart, what are your plans? Will you still stand at the next election?” she inquired brashly.

   “What do you mean?” he replied, taken aback, his eyes flaring in affront.

   “Are you thinking of retiring? You’re sixty-one, aren’t you? Sixty-five or more at the next election,” she persisted.

    He bent his tall and angular figure low in order to look her directly in the face. “Mrs. Bailey, I still have my wits about me and in many societies I would just be entering my political prime,” he responded through lips that no longer carried any trace of good nature. “I still have a lot of work to do. Things I want to achieve.”

   He turned away from her, not bothering to hide his impatience, even while deep down he knew she was right. The strong red hues of his youth had long since vanished, gold turned to silver, as he liked to joke. He wore his hair over-long, as if to compensate. His spare frame no longer filled the traditionally cut suits as amply as in earlier years, and his blue eyes had grown colder with the passing of so many winters. His height and upright bearing presented a distinguished image in the crowded room, but one minister, a man he had crossed, had once told him he had a smile like the handle on an urn of cold ashes. “And may those ashes soon be yours, you old bastard,” the man had snapped. Urquhart was no longer in the first flush of middle age and he couldn’t hide it, even from himself. Experience was no longer an ally.

   How many years had he watched younger and less gifted men finding more rapid advancement? How many times had he dried their eyes, wiped their arses, buried their secrets deep from view in order to clear their way? Yes, they owed him! He still had time to make his mark, but both he and Mrs. Bailey knew he hadn’t so much of it.

   Yet even as he turned from her she pursued him, haranguing him about the proposed one-way system for the High Street shopping center. He raised his eyes in supplication and managed to catch the attention of his wife, Mortima, busily engaged in platitudes on the far side of the room. One glance told her that his rescue was long overdue and she hurried to his side.

“Ladies, you will have to excuse us, we have to go back to the hotel and change before the count. I can’t thank you enough for all your help. You know how indispensable you are to Francis.”

Urquhart even managed a smile for Mrs. Bailey; it was like a mayfly, so brief it almost died before it could be seen but enough to repair relations. He made quickly for the door. He was saying good-bye to the hostess when he was waved to a halt by his election agent who was busily scribbling down notes while talking into the telephone.

   “Just getting the final canvass returns together, Francis,” she explained.

   “And there was me wondering why that hadn’t been done an hour ago.” Again the faintest of amused expressions that died long before it reached the eyes.

   “It doesn’t look quite as cheerful as last time,” she said, blushing from the rebuke. “A lot of our supporters seem to be staying at home. It’s difficult to read but I suspect the majority will be down. I can’t tell how much.”

   “Damn them. They deserve a dose of the Opposition for a few years. Maybe that would get them off their rumps.”

   “Darling,” his wife soothed as she had done on countless previous occasions, “that’s scarcely generous. With a majority of nearly twenty-two thousand we could allow for just the tiniest of little dips, couldn’t we?”

   “Mortima, I’m not feeling generous. I’m feeling hot, I am tired, and I’ve had about as much chatter about doorstep opinion as I can take. For God’s sake get me out of here.”

   He strode on as she turned round to wave thanks and farewell to the packed room. She was just in time to see the standard lamp go crashing to the floor.

* * *

The air of controlled menace that usually filled the editor’s office had vanished, replaced by a brooding sense of panic that was threatening to get out of hand. The first edition had long since gone to press, complete with a bold front page headline proclaiming: “Home and dry!” But that had been at 6:00 p.m., four hours before the polls closed. The editor of the Daily Chronicle had taken his chance on the election result in order to make his first edition of even marginal interest by the time it hit the streets. If he was right, he would be first with the news. If he got it wrong, he’d be up to his neck in it with the alligators circling.

   This was Greville Preston’s first election as an editor and he wasn’t feeling comfortable. His nervousness showed in his constant change of headlines, his insatiable demand for updates from his political staff, and his increasingly lurid language. He’d been brought in just a few months earlier by the new owner of Chronicle Newspapers with one simple and irreducible instruction: “Succeed.” Failure wasn’t an option in his contract, and he knew he wouldn’t be given a second chance—any more than he showed any hint of remorse for the others who worked at the Chronicle. The demands of the accountants for instant financial gratification had required ruthless pruning, and a large number of senior personnel had found themselves being “rationalized” and replaced by less experienced and considerably less expensive substitutes. It was great for the bottom line but had kicked the crap out of morale. The purge left the remaining staff insecure, the loyal readers confused and Preston with a perpetual sense of impending doom, a condition that his proprietor was determined to do nothing to dispel.

   Preston’s strategy for increasing the circulation had taken the paper down-market, but it had yet to reap the promised harvest. He was a small man who had arrived at the paper with the air of a new Napoleon but who had lost weight until he required braces to haul up his trousers and a tide of coffee to keep open his eyes. The once smooth and dapper appearance had begun to be washed away by countless beads of perspiration that collected on his brow and made his heavy rimmed glasses slip down his nose. Fingers that had once drummed in thought now snapped in impatience. The carefully manufactured attempt at outward authority had been eaten away by the insecurity within, and he was no longer certain he could rise to the occasion, any occasion. He’d even stopped screwing his secretary.

   Now he turned away from the bank of flickering television monitors piled against one wall of his office to face the member of staff who had been giving him such a hard time. “How the hell do you know it’s going wrong?” he shouted.

   Mattie Storin refused to flinch. At twenty-eight she was the youngest recruit to the paper’s political staff, replacing one of the senior correspondents who had fallen foul of the accountants for his habit of conducting interviews over extended lunches at the Savoy. Yet despite her relative youth and recent arrival, Mattie had a confidence about her judgment that inadequate men mistook for stubbornness. She was used to being shouted at and no stranger at yelling back. Anyway, she was as tall as Preston, “and almost as beautiful” as she often quipped at his expense. What did it matter if he spent most of his time staring at her breasts? It had gotten her the job and occasionally won her a few of their arguments. She didn’t find him a sexual threat. She knew his secretary too well for that, and being harassed by short men in lurid red braces was the price she had chosen to pay by coming south. Survive here and she could make her career anywhere.

   She turned to face him with her hands thrust defensively into the pockets of her fashionably baggy trousers. She spoke slowly, hoping her voice wouldn’t betray her nervousness. “Grev, every single Government MP I’ve been able to talk to in the past two hours is downgrading their forecast. I’ve telephoned the returning officer in the Prime Minister’s constituency who says the poll looks like it’s down by five percent. That’s scarcely an overwhelming vote of confidence. Something is going on out there, you can feel it. The Government aren’t home and certainly not bloody dry.”

   “So?”

   “So our story’s too strong.”

   “Crap. Every poll during the election has talked of the Government getting home by a sodding mile, yet you want me to change the front page on the basis of—what? Feminine instinct?”

   Mattie knew his hostility was built on nerves. All editors live on the edge; the secret is not to show it. Preston showed it.

   “OK,” he demanded, “they had a majority of over a hundred at the last election. So you tell me what your feminine instinct suggests it’s going to be tomorrow. The opinion polls are predicting around seventy seats. What does little Mattie Storin think?”

   She went up on tiptoes, just so she could look down on him. “You trust the polls if you want, Grev, but it’s not what’s going on in the streets. There’s no enthusiasm among Government supporters. They won’t turn out. It’ll drag the majority down.”

   “Come on,” he bullied. “How much?”

   She couldn’t stand on tiptoe forever. She shook her head slowly to emphasize her caution, her blond hair brushing around her shoulders. “A week ago I’d have said about fifty. Now—I reckon less,” she responded. “Perhaps much less.”

   “Jesus, it can’t be less. We’ve backed those bastards all the way. They’ve got to deliver.”

   And you’ve got to deliver, too, she mused. They all knew where their editor stood, in the middle of one of the largest swamps in Fleet Street. Preston’s only firm political view was that his newspaper couldn’t afford to be on the losing side, and that wasn’t even his own view but one thrust on him by the paper’s new cockney proprietor, Benjamin Landless. It was one of his few attractive aspects that he didn’t bother being coy and trying to hide his true opinions, he wore them in full public view. As he constantly reminded his already insecure staff, thanks to the Government’s competition policy it was easier to buy ten new editors than one new newspaper, “so we don’t piss off the Government by supporting the other fucking side.”

   Landless had been as good as his word. He had delivered his growing army of newspapers into the Government camp, and all he expected in return was for the Government to deliver the proper election result. It wasn’t reasonable, of course, but Landless had never found being reasonable helped get the best out of his employees.

   Preston had gone over to stare at the bank of television screens, hoping for better news. Mattie tried again. She sat herself on the corner of the editor’s vast desk, obliterating the pile of opinion polls on which he so blindly relied, and marshaled her case. “Look, Grev, put it in perspective. When Margaret Thatcher at last ran out of handbag time and was forced to retire, they were desperate for a change of style. They wanted a new fashion. Something less abrasive, less domineering; they’d had enough of trial by ordeal and being shown up by a bloody woman.” You of all people should understand that, she thought. “So in their wisdom they chose Collingridge, for no better reason than he was confident on TV, smooth with little old ladies, and likely to be uncontroversial.” She shrugged her shoulders dismissively. “But they’ve lost their cutting edge. It’s rice pudding politics and there’s no energy or enthusiasm left. He’s campaigned with as much vigor as a Sunday school teacher. Another seven days of listening to him mouthing platitudes and I think even his wife would have voted for the other lot. Anything for a change.”

   Preston had turned from the television screens and was stroking his chin. At last he seemed to be paying attention. For the tenth time that evening Mattie wondered if he used lacquer to keep his carefully coiffured hair so immaculate. She suspected a bald patch was developing. She was certain he used eyebrow tweezers.

   He returned to the charge. “OK, let’s dispense with the mysticism and stick to hard numbers, shall we? What’s the majority going to be? Are they going to get back in, or not?”

   “It would be a rash man who said they wouldn’t,” she replied.

   “And I have no goddamned intention of being rash, Mattie. Any sort of majority will be good enough for me. Hell, in the circumstances it would be quite an achievement. Historic, in fact. Four straight wins, never been done before. So the front page stays.”

   Preston quickly brought his instructions to an end by pouring out a glass of champagne from a bottle that was standing on his bookcase. He didn’t offer her any. He started scrabbling through papers in dismissal but Mattie was not to be so easily put off. Her grandfather had been a modern Viking who in the stormy early months of 1941 had sailed across the North Sea in a waterlogged fishing boat to escape from Nazi-occupied Norway and join the RAF. Mattie had inherited from him not only her natural Scandinavian looks but also a stubbornness of spirit that didn’t always commend itself to inadequate men, but what the hell.

   “Just stop for a moment and ask yourself what we could expect from another four years of Collingridge,” Maddie challenged. “Maybe he’s too nice to be Prime Minister. His manifesto was so lightweight it got blown away in the first week of the campaign. He’s developed no new ideas. His only plan is to cross his fingers and hope that neither the Russians nor the trade unions break wind too loudly. Is that what you think the country really wants?”

   “Daintily put, as always, Mattie,” he taunted, patronizing once more. “But you’re wrong. The punters want consolidation, not upheaval. They don’t want the toys being thrown out of the pram every time the baby’s taken for a walk.” He wagged his finger in the air like a conductor bringing an errant player back to the score. “So a couple of years of warm beer and cricket will be no bad thing. And our chum Collingridge back in Downing Street will be a marvelous thing!”

   “It’ll be bloody murder,” she muttered, turning to leave.





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