House of Cards [CHAPTER 20]

 



Twenty


Some politicians think of high office like a sailor thinks of the sea, as a great adventure, full of unpredictability and excitement. They see it as the way to their destiny. I see it as something they will probably drown in.


Saturday, October 16

It wasn’t just the Chronicle that, the day after the Prime Minister’s speech, declared it to be a disaster. Almost all the other newspapers joined in, as did several Government backbenchers and the Leader of the Opposition.

  The loss of the Dorset East by-election, when the news had burst upon the conference in the early hours of Friday morning, had at first numbed the Party faithful, but the feeling had worn off by breakfast. Over their muesli or full English they began to vent their frustration, and there could be only one target. Henry Collingridge.

  By lunchtime, correspondents in Bournemouth seemed to have been inundated with nameless senior Party officials, each of whom claimed to have warned the Prime Minister not to hold the by-election in conference week and who were now absolving themselves of responsibility for defeat. In turn, and in desperation, the Prime Minister’s office retaliated—off the record, of course. They said the blame was down to Party Headquarters for which, of course, Lord Williams was responsible. The explanation, however, fell largely on deaf ears. The pack instinct had taken hold.

  As one traditionally pro-government newspaper put it:

  The Prime Minister failed yet again yesterday. He should have used his speech to quell growing doubts about his leadership, yet one Cabinet colleague described the speech as “inept and inappropriate.” Following the disastrous opinion poll and the humiliating by-election defeat in one of its safest seats, the party was looking for a realistic analysis and reassurance. Instead, in the words of one representative, “we got a stale rehash of an old election speech.”

  The criticism of Collingridge has become more open. Peter Bearstead, MP for marginal seat of Leicester North, said last night: “The electorate gave us a warning slap across the knuckles at the election. It’s not going to be satisfied with clichés and suffocating complacency. It may be time for the Prime Minister to think about handing over.”

  In an office tower on the South Bank of the Thames, the editor of Weekend Watch, the leading current affairs program, studied the newspapers and called a hurried conference of his staff. Twenty minutes later, the program planned for the following day on racketeering landlords had been shelved and the entire sixty-minute slot had been recast. Bearstead was invited to participate, as were several opinion pollsters and pundits. The new program was entitled “Time To Go?”

  From his home in the leafy suburbs near Epsom, the senior manager of market makers Barclays de Zoete Wedd telephoned two colleagues. They agreed to be in the office particularly early on Monday. “All this political bollocks is going to upset the markets. Time to shift a little stock before the other bastards start selling.”

  The defeated candidate in the East Dorset by-election was contacted by the Mail on Sunday. The paper had deliberately waited until after he’d finished a lunch spent drowning his sorrows. The candidate’s animus about his party leader was intense. “HE COST ME MY SEAT. CAN HE FEEL SAFE IN HIS?” Great headline.

  In his magnificent Palladian country home in the New Forest of Hampshire, Urquhart was telephoned by several Cabinet colleagues and senior backbenchers expressing their concerns. The chairman of the Party’s grassroots executive committee also called him from Yorkshire reporting similar worries. “You know I’d normally pass these on to the Party Chairman, Francis,” the bluff Yorkshireman explained, “but it looks like open warfare between Party Headquarters and Downing Street. Damned if I’m going to get caught in the middle of that.”

  Meanwhile, at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country residence set amidst rolling lawns and massive security in rural Buckinghamshire, Collingridge just sat, ignoring his official papers and devoid of inspiration. The rock had begun to roll downhill, and he hadn’t the slightest idea how to stop it.

* * *

The next blow, when it fell later that afternoon, caught almost everyone by surprise. Even Urquhart. He’d expected the Observer to take at least a couple more weeks checking the bundle of papers and photostats he had sent them, entirely anonymously. A bit of due diligence with the lawyers was the least he’d expected but it seemed the Observer feared that a competitor might also be on the trail. “Damned if we don’t publish, damned if we do. So let’s go!” the editor had shouted at his newsroom.

  Urquhart was in his garage where he kept his 1933 Rover Speed Pilot when the call came. The Rover was a car he used for hurtling carelessly through the lanes of the New Forest “like a pink-skinned version of Mr. Toad,” as his wife would say, safe in the knowledge that no policeman was going to be petty enough to book such a beautiful British classic, and in any event the chief constable was a member of the same golf club. Urquhart was adjusting the triple carburetors when Mortima called from inside the house. “Francis! Chequers on the phone!” He picked up the extension on the garage wall, wiping his hands carefully on a greasy rag. “Francis Urquhart here.”

“Chief Whip, please hold. I have the Prime Minister for you,” a female voice instructed.

  The voice that stumbled down the phone was almost unrecognizable. It was faded, uncertain, drained. “Francis, I am afraid I’ve had some bad news. The Observer has been in touch. Bastards. They say they’re running a story tomorrow. Can’t explain it, but they say my brother Charles has been buying shares in companies with inside information—government information. Making a killing on them. They say they’ve got documentary evidence—bank statements, brokers’ receipts, the lot. He bought nearly £50,000 worth of Renox, they say, a couple of days before we approved a new drug of theirs. Sold them a day later for a substantial profit. Did it all from a false address in Paddington, they say. It’s going to be the lead story.” There was an exhausted pause, as if he no longer had the energy to continue. “Francis, everyone’s going to assume he got the information from me. What on earth do I do?”

  Urquhart settled himself comfortably in the old leather seat of the car before replying. It was a seat from which he was used to taking risks. “Have you said anything to the Observer, Henry?”

“No. I don’t think they were expecting a comment from me. They were really trying to find Charlie.”

“Where is he?”

“Gone to ground, I hope. I managed to get hold of him. He…was drunk. I just told him to take the phone off the hook and not to answer the door.”

  Urquhart gripped the steering wheel, staring ahead. He felt strangely detached. He had set in motion a machine that was far more powerful than his ability to control it. He could no longer be certain what lay around the next bend, only that he was speeding much faster than could ever be considered safe. He couldn’t stop, didn’t want to. It was already too late for second thoughts.

“Where is Charlie?”

“At home in London.”

  “You must get someone down there to take care of him. He can’t be trusted on his own, Henry. Look, I know it must be painful but there’s a drying-out clinic outside Dover which the Whips’ Office has used for the occasional backbencher. Very confidential, very kind. Dr. Christian, the head of the clinic, is excellent. I’ll give him a call and get him to come to Charlie. I’m afraid you’ll have to arrange for someone else from the family to be there, too, in case Charlie cuts up rough. Who do you think? Your wife, perhaps? We’ve got to move fast, Henry, because in a few hours the observer will hit the streets and your brother’s home is going to be under siege. We have to beat those bastards to the punch. With Charlie in his present state there’s no knowing what he might say or do.”

“But what do we do then? I can’t hide Charlie forever. He’s got to face up to it sooner or later, hasn’t he?”

“Forgive me for asking, Henry, but did he do it? The shares?”

  The sigh that came down the phone was like old air escaping from a long-buried coffin. “I don’t know. I simply don’t know. But…” The hesitation stank of doubt and defeat. “Apparently we did license a new Renox drug. Anyone holding any of their shares would have made a handsome profit. But Charlie hasn’t got any money to pay his basic bills, let alone to splash around on shares.

And how would he know about Renox?”

  Urquhart came back in a tone that brooked no argument. “We worry about that when we’ve taken care of him. He needs help, whether he wants it or not, and we’ve got to get him some breathing space. You and I, Henry, we’ve got to take care of him. And you in particular will have to be very careful, Henry.” There was a short pause for the words to sink in. “You can’t afford to get this one wrong.”

  Collingridge’s wearied assent was mumbled down the phone. He had neither the will nor the capacity to argue, and he was glad for his Chief Whip’s authoritativeness, even if it stripped away both his family pride and the dignity of his office.

“What else do I do, Francis?”

  “Nothing. Not once we’ve got Charlie away. We keep our powder dry. Let’s see precisely what the Observer says, then we can come out to do battle. In the meantime, we say nothing.”

“Thank you, Francis. Please, call your Dr. Christian, ask if he will help. Sarah can be at my brother’s home in just under two hours if she leaves right now.

Take care of things. Oh…damn.”

Urquhart could hear the emotion ripping through the Prime Minister’s voice.

“Don’t worry, Henry. Everything will work out,” he encouraged. “Trust me.”

* * *

Charles Collingridge didn’t object at first when his sister-in-law let herself into the flat with the spare key. She found him snoring in an armchair, the clutter of an afternoon’s heavy indulgence spread around him. She spent five frustrating minutes trying to shake him awake, to little effect, until she resorted to ice wrapped in a tea towel. That was when he started to object. His protests grew louder when he began to understand what Sarah was saying, persuading him to “come away for a few days,” but the dialogue became totally incoherent when she began to question him about shares. She could get no sense out of him, and neither could she persuade him to move.

  It took the arrival of Dr. Christian and a junior Whip almost an hour later before the situation made progress. An overnight bag was packed and the three of them bundled the still-protesting brother into the back of Dr. Christian’s car, which was parked out of sight at the back of the building.

  It was fortunate for them that Charlie had lost the physical coordination to offer much resistance. Unfortunately, however, the whole matter had taken time, too much time, so that when the doctor’s black Ford Granada swept out from behind the building into the high street with Sarah and Charles in the back, the whole scene was witnessed by an ITN camera crew that had just arrived on the scene.

  The videotape of a fleeing Charles cowering in the back seat of the car, accompanied by the Prime Minister’s distressed wife, was the lead item of the late evening news.






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