House of Cards [CHAPTER 32]

 


Thirty-Two


Politicians are much like aging authors and older women. The dangerous phase in their lives is when they are no longer content with the respect of friends but demand the adulation of an audience.


Sunday, November 14—Monday, November 15

In the immediate aftermath of the Chronicle’s devastating opinion poll and Collingridge’s resignation, Urquhart had written to all his parliamentary colleagues in his capacity as Chief Whip.

  During the course of the leadership election, you will undoubtedly be approached by newspapers and pollsters trying to obtain your view about which candidate you are likely to support. I would encourage you not to respond. At best these surveys can only serve to disrupt the proper conduct of what is supposed to be a confidential ballot. At worst they will be used to make mischief. We can do without lurid headlines and outlandish comment. The best interests of the Party are best served by refusing to cooperate with such activity.

  The majority was more than happy to accept his advice, but at least a third of MPs are generally reckoned to be constitutionally incapable of keeping anything quiet, even state secrets. As a result, less than 40 percent of the 337 Government MPs with votes in the ballot responded to the pollsters’ pestering telephone calls on behalf of two Sunday newspapers. It left the impression that the Parliamentary Party was still a long way from making up its collective mind. Moreover, the views of those who did respond weren’t much help, either. Samuel was ahead, but only narrowly and to a degree that the pollsters emphasized was “not statistically significant.” Woolton, McKenzie, and Earle followed in close order, with four other candidates who had put their heads above the parapet considerably further behind.

  The conclusions to be drawn from such evidence, just four days before the close of nominations, were flimsy, but that didn’t seem to bother those who wrote the headlines.

“SAMUEL SLIPPING—EARLY LEAD LOST,” roared the Mail on Sunday, while the Observer was scarcely less restrained in declaring “PARTY IN TURMOIL AS POLL REVEALS UNCERTAINTY.”

  The inevitable consequence was a flurry of editorials criticizing both the quality of the candidates and their campaigns. “This country has a right to expect more of the governing Party than this ferrets-in-a-sack routine,” the Sunday Express intoned. “We may be witnessing a governing Party which is finally running out of ideas and leadership after too long in power.”

  The following morning’s edition of the Chronicle was intended to resolve all that. Just three days before the close of nominations, it put aside convention and for the first time in its history ran its editorial on the front page. Its print run was increased and a copy was hand delivered to the London addresses of all Government MPs. No punches were pulled in its determination to make its views heard throughout the corridors of Westminster.

  This paper has consistently supported the Government, not through blind prejudice but because we felt they served the interests of the nation better than the alternatives. Throughout the Thatcher years our convictions were well supported by the progress which was made, but in recent months we began to feel that Henry Collingridge was not the best leader to write the next chapter. That was why we supported his decision to resign.

  But the lack of judgment being shown by the present contenders for his job threatens a return to the bad old ways of weakness and indecisiveness which we hoped had been left behind for good.

Instead of the steadying hand which we need to consolidate the economic and social advances of recent years, we have been offered a choice between youthful inexperience, environmental upheaval, and injudicious outbursts bordering on racial intolerance. This choice isn’t good enough. We need a leader who has maturity, a sense of discretion, and a proven capacity for working with all his colleagues.

There is at least one senior figure in the Party who enjoys all of these attributes and who in recent weeks has been almost unique in upholding the dignity of Government, showing himself capable of putting aside his own personal ambition for the wider interests of his Party.

He has announced that it is not his intention to seek election as Leader of the Party, but he still has time to reconsider before nominations close on Thursday. We believe it would be in the best interests of the Party if the Chief Whip, Francis Urquhart, were to stand. We believe it would be in the wider interests of the entire country if he were to be elected.

Such an endorsement was like a lifeboat cutting through troubled seas. By the time Urquhart emerged from his home in Cambridge Street at 8:10 that morning, there was wriggling media scrum waiting to greet him. He had been waiting inside to ensure that the timing of his exit enabled BBC radio’sToday program and all breakfast television channels to take it live. Attracted by the scramble of newsmen, a host of passers-by and commuters from nearby Victoria Station had gathered to discover the cause for the commotion and the television images suggested a crowd of ordinary folk, “real people” as one commentator described them, who were showing considerable interest in the man who now emerged onto the doorstep.

The journalists shouted; he waved a hand to quiet them. The hand also contained a copy of that morning’s Chronicle. He smiled, an expression that contained both intrigue and assurance.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as Chief Whip I would like to think you had gathered here because of your interest in the details of the Government’s forthcoming legislative program. But I suspect you have other things on your mind.”

A gentle quip, an appreciative chuckle from the journalists; Urquhart was now firmly in control.

“I have read with considerable surprise and obvious interest this morning’s edition of the Chronicle.” He held it up again so that the cameras could get a clear shot. “I’m honored they should hold such a high opinion of my capabilities—one which goes far beyond my own judgment of the matter, I can assure you. As you know, I had made it clear that I had no intention of standing, that I thought it was in the Party’s best interest that the Chief Whip should stand above this particular contest.”

He cleared his throat; they waited, in silence, pencils poised, microphones thrust still further forward, straining at the leash.

“And generally that’s still my view. However, the chronicle raises important points which should be considered carefully. I know you’ll forgive me if I don’t come to an instant or snap judgment out here on the pavement, not even for you, ladies and gentlemen. I want to spend a little time consulting a few colleagues, weighing their opinions. I also intend to have a long and serious discussion with my wife, whose views will be most important of all. I shall then sleep upon it all and let you know tomorrow what decision I have reached. Nothing more till then, I’m afraid. Tomorrow!”

With one final wave of his hand, still clutching the newspaper and held for many seconds to satisfy the screaming photographers, Urquhart withdrew into his house and shut the door firmly behind him.

* * *

Mattie was beginning to wonder whether she had been hasty in storming out of Preston’s office. She had spent a lonely weekend trying to identify newspapers for which she would like to work, but as she did so she quickly realized that none of them had any obvious gaps in their political reporting teams. She had made many telephone calls but they had led to few appointments. She also began to discover that a rumor was spreading a story that she had stormed out in tears after Preston had questioned her judgment, and sensitive feminine outbursts don’t generally commend themselves to the alpha males of the newspaper club. It didn’t help her mood when the Bank of England pushed up interest rates to protect sterling from speculators during the period of uncertainty. Mortgage rates followed within hours. Mattie had a mortgage, a hefty one. Paying for it was difficult enough even with a salary. Without one, the hyenas would be soon at her door.

That afternoon she went to the Commons in search of Urquhart. His name was everywhere, the main dish of the day, but he proved elusive and he wasn’t returning her calls. It was by chance that she almost bumped into him as she was walking down one of the finely carved circular staircases off the Central Lobby. He was striding up the marble steps with the vigor of a far younger man and she was caught so by surprise that she almost slipped. He reached out, grabbed her arm, steadied her, pulled her to one side.

“Why, Mattie, what a delight.”

“I’ve been trying to get hold of you.”

“I know. I’ve been avoiding you.” He laughed at his own appalling honesty.

“Don’t be offended, I’m hiding from everyone. Keeping a low profile. For the moment.”

“But will you stand? I think you ought to.”

“I really couldn’t possibly comment, Mattie, you know that, not even to you.”

“Tonight? Can I come round?”

Their eyes met. They both knew the request wasn’t entirely professional.

Only at that point did he let go of her arm.

“Mrs. Urquhart will be there. I will need to spend some time with her.”

“Of course.”

“And I suspect you’ll find dozens of photographers waiting to photograph every little coming and going.”

“Sorry, silly of me.”

“I’d better go, Mattie.”

“I hope…” She bit her tongue.

“Yes, what do you hope, Mattie?”

“I hope you win.”

“But I’m not even a candidate yet.”

“You will be, Francis.”

“How can you possibly tell?”

“Let’s call it feminine intuition.”

That long, penetrating look again, the one that wasn’t entirely professional.

“I’m a great admirer of such qualities, Mattie.”

She held his stare.

“But I must rush. I look forward to our next encounter.”

And he was gone.

* * *

The tide was coming in at a rush and the wooden platform that formed part of Charing Cross pier bobbed in the current. It was early evening but already densely dark, with a chill breeze that had started its journey somewhere out in the North Sea beyond the estuary coming off the water and wrapping itself around her ankles. Mattie pulled her coat tight and stuffed her hands back into her pockets. She was relieved to see the Chronicle’s private river taxi coming into view. It shuttled employees between the newspaper’s Docklands plant downstream and the more central reaches of the capital. It was the shuttle that Mattie had used to ferry her between the newspaper and Westminster. Now Krajewski had asked to meet her, with a message.

“Grev says you’ve got to come back,” Krajewski said as he walked down the short gangway from the boat.

“I quit.”

“He knows that. The whole bloody newsroom heard you. Didn’t know you could slam a door that hard without the wall falling down.” His tone was light, trying to humor her. “Anyway, he says he wants you back, even if it’s only to work out your three months’ notice.”

“I’d rather freeze out here,” she said, turning away.

“You will freeze if you’re not working, Mattie.” He took her sleeve to slow her down. “Work your notice out.”

“On women’s features!” she snorted in contempt.

“Use the paper as a base for finding something else. Grev says that’s OK with him.”

“He wants to control me.”

“I want to see you.”

His words sat between them, staring.

“Whatever way you want, Mattie. Take it slowly, let’s see what happens.

Unless you can’t stand me, that is.”

“No, Johnnie, that’s not it.”

“Then what is it…?”

She set off again, but not at speed. They strolled along the Embankment, tracing the twisted, confusing curves of the river with the floodlit vistas of the Festival Hall and the Houses of Parliament beyond.

“So what do you make of all the Urquhart stuff?” he asked eventually, trying to find some ground they could share.

“It’s extraordinary. And exciting.”

“Like a Messiah on a white charger galloping to the rescue.”

“Messiahs don’t ride chargers, stupid; they do donkeys.”

They both laughed, felt easier. He moved closer, she slipped her arm though his as they kicked a path through the windswept piles of leaves gathered beneath the plane trees.

“Why did the paper do it?” she asked.

“Don’t know. Grev just came in late yesterday, not a word to anyone, turned the paper inside out and produced his front page editorial from out of his pocket. No warning; no explanation. Still, it seems to have caused quite a stir. Perhaps he got it right after all.”

Mattie shook her head. “I don’t think it was Grev. It takes balls to position the paper in that way and he’s such a shrivel dick. No, it could only have come from one place: the desk of our—your!—beloved proprietor. Last time he stepped in he was dethroning Collingridge, now he’s trying to hand the crown to someone else.”

“But why? Why Urquhart? He comes across as something of a loner, aristocratic, patrician, old school tie, don’t you think?”

“The strong, silent type.”

“Not one of the boys, no great fan club.”

“But maybe that’s it, Johnnie. Low profile. No one hates him enough to campaign against him, not like they’re doing with Samuel.” She turned to face him, her breath forming swirls of mist in the evening air. “You know, he might just slip through the middle while the others are all killing themselves. Landless could have picked a winner.”

“You think he’ll stand, then?”

“Certain of it.”

“How can you be?”

“I’m a political correspondent. The best. But…”

“Gets cold on the outside of the tent, doesn’t it?”

“I’ve lost my job, Johnnie, not my curiosity. I think there’s something bigger going on here than anyone can imagine. Bigger than Landless, much bigger than Shrivel Dick. And too big even for the Chronicle.”

“What do you mean?”

“Woodward and Bernstein?”

“They had a newspaper to print their stuff, Mattie.”

“They also wrote a book.”

“You’re going to write a book?”

“Maybe.”

“You want me to tell Grev that?”

“Only if it really upsets him.”





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