House of Cards [CHAPTER 31]



 Thirty-One


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Truth lies in the hands of its editor.


Monday, November 8—Friday, November 12

The weekend newspapers hadn’t even tried to hide their irritation. Samuel and Earle, and the Cabinet ministers who were expected to run, had all behaved themselves, no outright personal attacks on their rivals, so the press did it for them.

  The Observer declared that it had been “a disappointing and uninspiring campaign so far, still waiting for one of the candidates to breathe life back into the Party.” The Sunday Mirror dismissed it as “irrelevant and irritating” while the News of the World, not to be outdone, described it in characteristic style as “flatulent, a passing breeze in the night.” “Samuel and Earle?” the People said. “If that’s the answer, it was a damned fool question.”

  These criticisms kicked the campaign to life early on Monday morning. Encouraged by the media view that the right contender still hadn’t emerged, two further Cabinet Ministers threw their hats into the ring—Patrick Woolton, and Paul McKenzie, the Secretary of State for Health. Both were reckoned to have a reasonable chance of success. McKenzie had made a name for himself selling the popular hospital scheme and had managed to duck the blame for its postponement by pointing the finger at the Treasury and Downing Street. “I’m in!” he announced.

  Ever since his conversation with Urquhart at the Party conference, Woolton had been running hard behind the scenes. He had lunched almost every editor in Fleet Street, taken drinks with leading backbenchers and slept with no one but his wife. He also thought he had an advantage, or at least a uniqueness, in his Northern roots, which he hoped would establish him as the “One Nation” candidate in contrast to the avocado and olive oil backgrounds of most of the other major contenders. Not that this was likely to impress the Scots, of course, who tended to view the whole affair as if it were an entirely foreign escapade. Woolton had been hoping to delay his formal entry into the race, wanting to see how his rivals’ campaigns developed, but the weekend press had been like a call to arms and he decided he should delay no longer. He summoned a press conference at Manchester Airport to make the announcement on what he termed his “home ground,” trusting that no one would notice he had flown up from London in order to be there.

  The press criticism incited everyone to sharpen their edges. Earle repeated his environmentalist criticisms but this time chose to attack the record of Michael Samuel by name; no more coded messages. Samuel retorted that Earle’s conduct was reprehensible and incompatible with his status as a Cabinet colleague, as well as being a rotten example for an Education Secretary to set for young people. Meanwhile, Woolton’s loose language at Manchester concerning the need to “restore English values with an English candidate” was vigorously attacked by McKenzie, who was desperately trying to rediscover his lost Gaelic roots and claiming it was an insult to five million Scots. The Sun went further, interpreting Woolton’s words as a vicious anti-Semitic attack on Samuel; Jewish activists swamped the air waves and letter columns with complaints while a rabbi in Samuel’s home town called on the Race Relations Board to investigate what he called “the most atrocious outburst by a senior political figure since Mosley.” Woolton wasn’t entirely unhappy with this overreaction, declaring, but only in private, that “for the next two weeks everyone will be looking at the shape of Samuel’s ears rather than listening to what he’s saying.”

  By Wednesday afternoon Urquhart felt the situation had developed sufficiently well for him to issue a public call for “a return to the good manners and standards of personal conduct for which our Party is renowned.” It was echoed loudly in the editorial columns, even as the front pages of the same newspapers were splashing the latest outburst of bad behavior.

  When, therefore, on Friday afternoon Mattie walked into Preston’s office telling him she had more, he shook his head in weariness. “It had better be different,” he said, throwing Earle’s latest press release into a corner.

“This is different,” she warned.

He appeared to take little interest.

“Front page different,” she said.

“So make my knees tremble.”

She closed the door behind her, making sure they couldn’t be overheard. “Collingridge resigned because of allegations that he or his brother had been fiddling share deals through a Paddington tobacconist and a Turkish secondary bank. I think we can prove that he was almost certainly set up every step of the way.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He was framed.”

“Can you prove it?”

“I think so.”

His secretary put her head round the door but was brusquely waved away.

“Here’s what we have, Grev.” Patiently she explained that she had checked the computer files at Party Headquarters which revealed that the distribution file had been tampered with.

“Why would anyone do that?’

“So that the false address in Paddington could be tied directly to Charles Collingridge.”

“Why do you think it was false?”

“Anyone could have opened that accommodation address. I don’t believe Charles Collingridge ever went anywhere near Paddington. Somebody else did it in his name.”

The door opened yet again; another interruption. “Fuck off!” Preston growled and the intruder scuttled away.

“So why would anyone open a false address in Charlie Collingridge’s name?”

“Because they were trying to frame him. And his brother.”

“Too complicated,” Preston remarked, but was still listening.

“I went to Paddington myself this morning. I opened up an accommodation address at the same tobacconist shop in an entirely fictional name. I then got a taxi to Seven Sisters Road and the Union Bank of Turkey, where I opened up an account in the same fictional name—not with £50,000 but with just £100. The whole thing took less than three hours start to finish.”

“Jesus…”

“So I can now start ordering pornographic magazines, paid for out of the new bank account and delivered to the Paddington address, which could do a hell of a lot of damage to the reputation of one completely innocent politician.”

“Who?”

In response she placed a bank book and the tobacconist’s receipt onto the editor’s desk. He looked at them eagerly, then exploded.

“The Leader of the Opposition!” he shouted in alarm. “What the fuck have you done?”

“Nothing,” she said with a smile suggesting victory. “Except to show that Charles Collingridge was almost certainly framed; that he probably never went near the tobacconist shop or the Union Bank of Turkey, and therefore he couldn’t have bought those shares.”

Preston was holding the documents at arm’s length as if they might catch fire.

“Which means Henry Collingridge didn’t tell his brother about Renox Chemicals…” Her inflexion suggested there was more.

“And? And?” Preston demanded.

“He’s innocent. Didn’t have to resign.”

  Preston sagged back in his chair. A bead of perspiration had begun to gather on his brow. He felt as if he were being torn in two. With one eye he could detect the makings of a superb story, yet that was the problem, for with his other eye he couldn’t fail to see the enormous impact that such a story would make on the world of Westminster. It would turn everything upside down, perhaps even save Collingridge. Is that what they wanted? Landless had just instructed him that he had fresh fish to fry and that all major pieces affecting the leadership race were to be cleared with him before publication. Hard news was little more than a commodity for Landless. What he yearned for was influence, power. Preston didn’t know which way his boss would jump, he needed to play for time.

“You’ve been very busy, young lady.”

“It’s a tremendous story, Grev.”

“I don’t recall you running this by me or asking permission to spend my money opening accommodation addresses.”

His reticence took her by surprise. “It’s called initiative, Grev.”

“I don’t deny you’ve done well…” His mind was charging through his Thesaurus of flannel, trying not to commit himself. It was a well-thumbed volume. Then he knew what he had to do and the book closed shut with a snap.

“But what have we got here, Mattie? You’ve shown it’s possible to go charging round London opening accounts in Collingridge’s name, but that’s not enough. You haven’t proved it wasn’t Charlie Collingridge himself. That’s still the easiest explanation to accept.”

“But the computer file, Grev. It was tampered with.”

“Haven’t you considered the possibility that the computer file was altered, not to incriminate Collingridge, but by him, or one of his friends, to provide him with an alibi. A hook to catch a little fish like you.”

“You’re kidding…”

“For all we know it wasn’t the distribution file but the accounts file which was altered. Might have happened only minutes before you saw it.”

“But only a handful of people have access to the accounts file,” Mattie protested. “And how could Charlie Collingridge have done that when he’s drying out in a treatment center?”

“His brother.”

Mattie was incredulous. “You can’t seriously believe that the Prime Minister took the incredible risk of ordering the Party Headquarters’ computer file to be altered just to falsify the evidence—after he had already announced his resignation.”

“Mattie, think back. Or are you too wet behind the ears to remember?

Watergate. Files were burned and tapes erased—by the President. During the Irangate scandal, a secretary smuggled incriminating material out of the White House in her knickers.”

“This isn’t the Wild West…”

“OK, Jeremy Thorpe. Leader of the Liberal Party. Put on trial at the Old Bailey for attempted murder. John Stonehouse went to jail after faking his own suicide. Lloyd George sold peerages out of the back door of Downing Street while he was screwing his secretary on the Cabinet table. It’s what happens in politics, Mattie, all the time.” Preston was warming to his theme now. “Power is a drug, like a candle to a moth. They are drawn toward it, take no heed of the dangers. They’d rather risk everything, marriages, careers, reputations, even their lives. So it’s still easier to believe the Collingridges got caught with their hands in the till and were trying to cover it up.”

“You can’t tell me you won’t run it!” she accused sharply.

“Calm down, for God’s sake. What I’m saying is you haven’t got enough for the story to stand up. There’s a lot of shit here and you need a much bigger shovel. You need to do more work on it.”

If he had meant it as a dismissal and a return to a quiet life, he was going to be disappointed. Her hands thumped onto his desk, and she was leaning across it to look him in his shifty eyes.

“Grev. I know I’m a stupid bloody woman but just explain it to me so I can understand. Either somebody set the Collingridges up, or the Prime Minister is guilty by falsifying evidence. One way or the other, it’s a huge story and we have enough to lead the paper for a week.”

“But which is it? We have to be sure. Particularly in the middle of a leadership contest.”

“It’s because there’s a leadership contest that we have to do it! What’s the bloody point of waiting until after it’s over and the damage has been done?”

Preston had struggled hard but had run out of logic. He took badly to being lectured by one of his most junior members of staff, particularly a woman. He had had enough.

“Look, get your tits off my table and your tanks off my lawn. You burst into my office with a story so fantastic but without a shred of concrete evidence. You haven’t written a word of copy. How the devil can I tell whether you’ve got a great story or simply had a good lunch?”

Much to her own surprise, she didn’t scream at him but lowered her voice, like a threat. “Fine, Grev. If that’s what you want you’ll have your copy in thirty minutes.” She turned and walked out, barely able to resist the temptation to slam the door off its hinges.

It was nearer forty minutes when she walked back in, without knocking, six pages of double-spaced copy clutched in her hand. Without comment she dropped them on the desk, standing directly in front of Preston to make it clear she wouldn’t budge until she had her answer.

He left her standing as he read slowly through the pages, trying to look as if he were struggling with an important decision. But it was a sham. The decision had already been made in a phone call he’d made moments after Mattie had left his office.

“She’s determined, Ben. She knows she’s got the makings of a great story and she won’t take no for an answer.”

“Who cares? We don’t run it,” Landless had told him. “That’s not my agenda right now.”

“What the hell do you want me to do?”

“Act like an editor, Grev. Persuade her she’s wrong. Put her on the cookery page. Send her on holiday. Promote her. But keep her quiet!”

“It’s not that simple. She’s not only stubborn as hell, she’s also one of the best political brains we’ve got.”

“I’m really surprised I have to remind you but you’ve already got the best political brains in the business. Mine!”

“I didn’t mean—”

“Look, we’ve only got a couple of weeks before this bloody leadership race is over. There are big things at stake here, not just the future of the country but my business—and your job. Do you understand me?”

He was about to say of course he understood him but already the phone had been slammed down. Now she was back in his office, the cause of all his woes. He continued to shuffle the pages of her copy, no longer reading them, concentrating instead on what he was about to say, unsure how he should handle her. Finally he put Mattie’s story down and stretched back in his chair.

“We can’t run it. Too risky. I’m not willing to blow the leadership contest apart on the basis of speculation.”

It was what she had expected. She replied in a whisper that hit Preston like a boxing glove.

“I will not take no for an answer.”

Dammit. Why didn’t she just accept it, shrug it off, put it down to experience or just burst into tears like the others? The quiet insolence behind her words made him all the more determined.

“I’m not running your story. I’m your editor, that’s my decision. You will accept it or…”

“Or what, Grev?”

“Or realize that you have no future on our political staff.”

“You’re firing me?” This did surprise her. How could he afford to let her go, particularly in the middle of the leadership contest?

“No, I’m moving you to women’s features, starting right now. Frankly, I don’t think you’ve developed the judgment for our political columns, not yet, maybe in a couple—”

She flew straight across him. “Who’s nobbled you, Grev?”

“What the hell do you mean?”

“You normally have trouble making up your mind whether you wear Y-fronts or boxers. Deciding to fire me from this story is somebody else’s decision, isn’t it?”

“I’m not firing you! You’re being transferred…”

He was beginning to lose much of his carefully maintained control. His complexion looked as if he had been holding his breath.

“You’re not firing me?”

“No!”

“Then I quit.”

His cheeks looked like a cherry farm. He had to keep her at the Chronicle, at least for a while; it was the only way to control her. But what the hell was he to do? He forced a smile and spread his hands wide in an attempt to imitate a gesture of generosity. “Look, Mattie, let’s not be hasty. You’re among friends here.”

Her nostrils flared in contempt.

“I want you to get wider experience on the paper. You’ve got talent, no denying that, even if I think you haven’t quite fitted in on the political side. We want to keep you here, so spend the weekend thinking over what other part of the paper you might like to work on.”

He saw her eyes and knew it wasn’t working.

“But if you really feel you must go, don’t rush into anything. Sort out what you want to do, let me know, we’ll try to support you and give you six months’ salary to help you on your way. I don’t want any hard feelings. Think about it.”

“I’ve thought about it. And if you are not printing my story, I’m resigning.

Here and now.”

The soft words turned to steel. “In which case I remind you that you have a contract of employment, and that stipulates you have to give me three months’ notice. It also stipulates that until that time has elapsed we retain exclusive rights over all your journalistic work. If you insist, we shall rigidly enforce that provision, in the courts if necessary, which would ruin your career once and for all. Face it, Mattie, your copy isn’t going to get printed here or anywhere else. Wise up, accept the offer. It’s the best one you are going to get.”

Suddenly she saw the face of her grandfather, smiling down at her as she curled up at his feet in front of a winter fire. “You are a pest, my little Mattie, always asking questions, questions, questions.”

“But I want to know, Farfar.”

So her granddad had told her about how he had set out from his fishing village on the Norwegian fjord, on his dash for freedom, leaving everything behind, knowing that once he started he could never turn back. “I knew what was waiting out there for me,” he said. “Terrifying things. There were German patrol boats, mine fields, and nearly a thousand miles of stormy seas.”

“So why did you do it?”

“Because also waiting for me was the most terrifying and wonderful thing of all. The future.” And he had laughed and kissed her curls. Now she gathered up the papers on Preston’s desk, sorted them into a neat pile, then ripped them slowly in half before letting them flutter back into his lap.

“You can keep the words, Grev. But you don’t own the truth. I’m not sure you would even recognize it.”

  This time she slammed the door.





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