House of Cards [CHAPTER 34]


Every politician has his principles. It’s simply that some are on a wavelength so rare you would require a telescope at Jodrell Bank to locate them.

Tuesday, November 16—Wednesday, November 17

Urquhart declared his intention to run for the leadership at a press conference held in the House of Commons timed to catch the early evening news and the following day’s first editions. This was no pavement scramble but an announcement backed by the historic atmosphere of the Palace of Westminster with its noble stone fireplaces, its dark oak paneling, and its atmosphere of ageless authority. It was dignified, restrained, almost humble. No one had accused Samuel, Woolton, and the others of such things. Mortima was by his side and he emphasized that this was a family decision. He gave the impression of a man who was being dragged reluctantly toward the seat of power, placing his duty to his colleagues and his country above his own personal interests. It was political theater, of course, from a carefully rehearsed script, but he did it so well.

  The following day, on Wednesday morning, Landless also held a press conference, another piece of theater but with an entirely different atmosphere. He sat in one of the palatial reception rooms of the Ritz Hotel at a long table covered with microphones, facing the cameras and questions of the financial press. Alongside him and almost dwarfed by his bulging girth sat Marcus Frobisher, the Chairman of the United Newspapers Group who, although an industrial magnate in his own right, was clearly cast in a secondary role for this occasion. To one side a large video screen played some of the Chronicle’s better advertising material interspersed with cuts of Landless being greeted by workers, pulling levers to start the printing presses, and generally running his empire in a warm and personal manner. And there was the man himself, smiling for the cameras.

  “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” Landless called the throng to order in a voice which was considerably less common cockney than the one he adopted on private occasions. “Thank you for coming at such short notice. We have invited you here to tell you about one of the most exciting steps forward for the British communications industry since Julius Reuter established his telegraph service in London more than a hundred years ago.” He shifted one of the microphones a little closer to allow a few moments for the sense of excitement to take hold. “Today we wish to make an historic announcement. We have decided to create the largest newspaper group in the United Kingdom, which will provide a platform for making this country once again the worldwide leader in information services.” He smiled around the room, then at Frobisher. “Chronicle Newspapers has made an offer to purchase the full issued share capital of the United Newspapers Group at a price which values them at £1.4 billion. That’s a premium of 40 percent above the current market price. And I am delighted to say that the board of the United Newspapers Group has unanimously accepted the bid.” More smiles. Frobisher was smiling, too, but Landless had a magnetism and physical presence that dragged all attention in upon him, leaving others struggling in shade. “We have also agreed the terms for the future management of the combined group. I shall become Chairman and Chief Executive of the new company, and my good friend and former competitor, now colleague”—he stretched a huge paw to grasp the shoulder of Frobisher, stopping just short of his neck—“is to be our President.”

  Several wise heads around the room were nodding in understanding. They knew Landless, had no doubts he would be in sole charge of the new operation. Frobisher had been kicked upstairs so high that the only view anyone would get of him was his arse. He sat there trying hard to put on a good face.

  “This is a huge step for the British newspaper industry, and for the country as a whole. The combined operation will control more national and major regional titles than any other newspaper group. The amalgamation of our international subsidiaries will make us the third largest newspaper group in the world. It will be a springboard for our ambition, which very simply is to become the biggest newspaper group on the planet. And based right here in Britain.” He beamed, his huge face split with a vast predatory smile. “Now ain’t that exciting!” he declared, reverting to his east London accent, and cameras flashed as though on his command. He let them have their few moments before once more taking the reins.

“Now I know you’ll all be bursting with questions—so let’s start!”

A hum of excitement swept around the room and a forest of hands shot up to catch his eye.

“I suppose to be fair I ought to take the first question from someone who won’t be working for the group,” Landless jested. “Can we find anyone unlucky enough to fit that description?” With theatrical exaggeration he shielded his eyes from the bright lights and searched the gathering for a suitable victim and they all laughed at his cheek.

“Mr. Landless,” shouted the business editor of theSunday Times. “The Government have made it very clear in recent years that in their view the ownership of British newspapers is already concentrated in too few hands. They’ve made it clear they would consider using their monopolies and mergers powers to prevent any further consolidation. How on earth do you expect to get the necessary Government approval?”

Many heads around the room nodded in agreement. Good question. Landless appeared to agree.

“An excellent point,” he said, spreading his arms wide as if to hug the question to his chest and slowly throttle it to death. “You’re right, of course, the Government will need to make its mind up. Newspapers are part of the worldwide information industry. It’s growing and changing every day. You all know that. Five years ago you lot worked in Fleet Street with old typewriters and printing presses that should’ve been scrapped when the Kaiser surrendered. Today the industry is modernized, it’s decentralized, it’s computerized.”

“Shame!” cried a voice and the room burst into nostalgic laughter for the days of long liquid lunches at El Vino’s wine bar and prolonged printers’ strikes which allowed them weeks or sometimes months off, a time when they could write books or build boats and dream dreams, and all of it while still on full pay.

“You know that had to change. And we’ve got to keep on changing, we can’t stand still. We have to face competition not just from each other but from satellite television, local radio, breakfast TV, and the rest. More people will be demanding information twenty-four hours a day, from all parts of the world. They won’t be buying newspapers which arrive hours after the news has occurred and then covers them in filthy printing ink. If we are going to survive we’ve got to move from being parochial newspapers to being suppliers of information on a worldwide basis. And for that we need clout.” He lifted his shoulders in an enormous shrug that subsided with the deftness of an avalanche. “So the Government has got to decide. Does it play the ostrich, bury its head while the British newspaper industry goes bust like the British car industry, dead inside ten years as the Americans, Japanese, and even Australians take over? Or will it be visionary and back the best of British? Simple proposition. Do we duck and decline? Or take on the rest of the world and beat it?”

A blitz of flash guns greeted him as he sat back in his chair while the journalists who still took shorthand scribbled furiously to catch up with him. The questioner turned to his neighbor. “What do you think? Will the old bastard get away with it?”

“The industrial logic is compelling, that’s for sure, and there’s something rather charming about a working class kid on the make, don’t you think? But if I know our Ben, he won’t be relying just on persuasive logic or passion. He’s the sort of guy who’s already prepared the ground, every inch of it, even the cracks. I think we’ll soon see just how many politicians owe him favors.”

* * *

The answer seemed to be that a whole host of politicians owed Landless. With nominations closing the following day and the first ballot due in just a week, no one seemed keen to take him on and risk antagonizing the combined might of the Chronicle and United groups. There was a rush to endorse his idea that within hours had grown into a stampede among contenders as they struggled not to be left behind. Why, the man was surely not only enlightened but deeply patriotic. Once again, it seemed that Landless had discovered the way to tickle a politician’s fancy. By teatime he was able to sit back with his usual mug of Bovril and snap his red braces in delight.

  Not everyone was taken in, of course. The Independent couldn’t resist the temptation to have a dig.

  The Landless announcement burst like a grenade in the middle of the leadership race—which presumably was his intention. Not since the Profumo scandal have so many politicians been caught pulling their trousers down. It is not only undignified but a dangerous state for a politician to be caught in.

  Not all the aspirants joined the stampede. Samuel was cautious, noncommittal—he had too many knife wounds in his back to stick his head above the parapet yet again. He said he wanted to consult the workforce of the two groups before reaching his decision and, even before Landless’s Bovril had gone cold, union representatives were denouncing the plan. They noted there were no guarantees about job security and hadn’t forgotten or forgiven a tactless Landless quip that he’d had to fire ten thousand people for every million he had made. In the face of opposition from the unions, Samuel realized it would be absurd for him now to endorse the deal, so sought refuge in silence.

  Urquhart also stood out from the crowd. Within an hour of the announcement he was in front of cameras giving a thoroughly polished analysis of the global information market and its likely trends. His technical expertise far outshone his rivals’, yet he was cautious. “While I have the highest respect for Benjamin Landless I think it would be wrong of me to jump to conclusions before I’ve had an opportunity to consider all the details. I think politicians should be careful; it gives politics a bad name if we all look as if we’re dashing around trying to buy the support of the editorial columns. So to avoid any possible misinterpretation, I shan’t be announcing my own views until the leadership contest is over. By which time, of course,” he added modestly, “they may be of no interest anyway.”

“If only all his colleagues could have taken the dignified and principled stand of the Chief Whip,” the Independent commented, raining down on him in praise. “Urquhart is establishing a statesmanlike tone for his campaign which marks him out from the pack. It will do nothing to harm his chances.”

Other editorials echoed the line, not least the Chronicle.

We encouraged Francis Urquhart to stand for the leadership because of our respect for his independence of mind and his integrity. We were delighted when he accepted the challenge and we are still convinced that our recommendation was correct. His refusal to rush to judgment over the Chronicle–United newspaper merger is no less than we would expect.

  We still hope that after due deliberation he will wholeheartedly endorse the merger plans, but our view of Urquhart is based on much more than commercial interest. He is the only candidate who so far has demonstrated that he has that vital characteristic missing in so many—the quality of leadership.

From around the corridors of Westminster it was possible to detect the sound of doors being slammed in frustration as ambitious politicians realized that, once again, Urquhart had stolen a march on them. A penthouse suite overlooking Hyde Park offered a different perspective. Landless gazed out across the treetops and the world he hoped would soon be his. “To you, Frankie boy,” he muttered into his glass. “To us.”





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