House of Cards [CHAPTER 4]


The crowd is vulgar. Always play to the crowd, praise the common man, and let him think he is a prince.

Without waiting for the first result, celebrations were already well under way at the Party’s advertising agency. With the confidence shown by all positive thinkers, the staff of Merrill Grant & Jones Company PLC had been squashed for nearly three hours in the agency’s reception area to witness history in the making and every wrinkle of it projected on two vast TV screens. A river of champagne was flowing, washing down an endless supply of deep pan pizzas and Big Macs, and predictions of a drastically reduced majority only served to spur the party-goers on to more feverish efforts. Even at this early hour it was clear that two ornamental fig trees that had graced the reception area for several years wouldn’t survive the night; it seemed probable that several young secretaries wouldn’t either. Most of the wiser heads were pacing themselves, but there seemed little reason to exercise excessive restraint. Ad men don’t do restraint. Anyway, the client was setting a fearsome example.

   Like many expatriate Dublin adventurers, Roger O’Neill was renowned for his quick wit, his irresistible capacity for exaggeration and his unquenchable determination to be involved in everything. So overwhelming were his energies and so varied his enthusiasms that no one could be entirely certain what he had done before he joined the Party—it was something in public relations or television, they thought, and there were rumors about a problem with the Inland Revenue, or was it the Irish Garda—but he had been available when the post of Publicity Director became vacant and he’d filled it with both charm and ability, fueled by a ceaseless supply of Gauloises and vodka tonics.

   As a young man he had shown great promise as a fly-half on the rugby field but it was a talent that was never to be fulfilled, his highly individualistic style making him ill-suited for team games. “With him on the field,” complained his coach, “I’ve got two teams out there, Roger and fourteen others. Screw him.” And so Roger had been duly screwed, in many areas of his life, until Fortune had smiled and brought him to Smith Square. At the age of forty he sported an unruly shock of dark hair that was now perceptibly graying and his muscle tone had long since gone, but O’Neill refused to acknowledge the evidence of his middle age, hiding it beneath a carefully selected wardrobe worn with a deliberate casualness that displayed the designers’ labels to their best advantage. His non-conformist approach and the lingering traces of an Irish accent hadn’t always endeared him to the Party’s grandees—“All bullshit and no bottom,” one of them had loudly observed—but others were simply overwhelmed by his unusual vigor.

   His path through the thicket had been made much easier by his secretary. Penelope—“Hi, I’m Penny”—Guy. Five foot ten, an exciting choice of clothes and a devastating figure on which to hang them. There was that other aspect that made her stand out from the Westminster crowd. She was black. Not just dusky or dark but a polished hue of midnight that made her eyes twinkle and her smile fill the entire room. She had a university degree in the History of Art and 120 wpm shorthand and was ruthlessly practical. Inevitably there had been a riptide of gossip when she’d first arrived with O’Neill, but her sheer efficiency had silenced, if not won over, the Doubting Thomases, of which there were still many.

   She was also totally discreet. “I have a private life,” she explained when asked. “And that’s just how it’s going to stay.”

   Right now at Merrill Grant & Jones—Grunt & Groans, as Penny preferred to call them—she was effortlessly providing the center of attention for several red-blooded media buyers plus the deputy creative director while at the same time managing to ensure that O’Neill’s glass and cigarettes were always available but closely rationed. She didn’t want him going over the top, not tonight of all nights. For the moment he was dug in deep with the agency’s managing director.

   “The future starts right here, Jeremy. Let’s not lose sight of that. We need that marketing analysis as soon as possible. It’s got to show just how effective our efforts have been, how brilliant the ads, how much impact they’ve had, how we hit our target voters. If we win, I want everyone to know they owe it to us. If we lose, God help us…” Suddenly he sneezed with great violence. “Shit! Excuse me. Damned hay fever. But if we lose I want to be able to show the entire bloody world that we beat the other side hands down at our communications game and it was only the politics which blew it.” He drew close so they were almost touching foreheads. “You know what’s needed, Jeremy. It’s our reputations on the line, not just the politicians’, so don’t screw it up. Make sure it’s ready by Saturday morning at the latest. I want it in the Sunday papers and I want it as prominent as an actress’s arse.”

   “And I thought I was supposed to be the creative one,” Jeremy reflected, sipping more champagne. “But that doesn’t give us much time.”

   O’Neill lowered his voice, drew closer still so that the ad man could smell the sourness of French tobacco on his breath. “If you can’t get the figures, make the bloody things up. They’ll all be too exhausted to look at them closely, and if we get in there first and loudest we’ll be fine.” He paused only to blow his nose, which did nothing to ease the other man’s visible discomfort. “And don’t forget the flowers. I want you to send the most enormous bouquet around to the PM’s wife in Downing Street first thing in the morning. In the shape of a gigantic letter ‘C.’ Make sure she gets them as soon as she wakes up.”

   “From you, of course.”

   “She’ll get in a twist if they don’t arrive because I’ve already told her they’re coming. I want the TV cameras to film them going in.”

   “And to know who’s sent them,” the other man added.

   “We’re all in this together, Jeremy.”

   Yet with only your name on the card, Jeremy almost added, but didn’t. It was possible to take sincerity too far. He was used to his client’s breathless monologues by now, and to the irregular instructions and accounting procedures demanded by O’Neill. A political party wasn’t like any other client; it played by different and sometimes dangerous rules. But the last two years working on the account had given Jeremy and his youthful agency more than enough publicity to stifle the lingering doubts. Yet, as they waited nervously for the results, a silent fear struck him as he thought of what would happen if they lost. Despite O’Neill’s assurances that they were all in this together, he had no doubts the agency would be made the scapegoat. It had all looked rather different when they’d started their work, with the opinion polls predicting a comfortable win, but his confidence had begun to evaporate with the exit polls. His was an industry of images where reputations withered like yesterday’s flowers.

   O’Neill rattled on, effervescent, irrepressible, until their attention was grabbed by the six-foot image of Sir Alastair, who was now holding his ear with his head cocked to one side. Something was coming through his earpiece.

   “And now I believe we are ready for the first result of the evening. Torbay once again, I’m told. Breaking all records. Just forty-three minutes after the polls have closed and already I see the candidates are gathering behind the returning officer. It’s time to go over live…”

* * *

The Assembly Room, Torbay. Victorian, crowded, humid, desperately hot, crackling with tension. Bundles of counted votes stretched out along trestle tables, empty black tin ballot boxes stacked to one side. On the stage at one end, amid the banks of hyacinths and spider plants, the rosettes and mayoral regalia, the candidates were gathered. The first result was about to be announced, yet the scene resembled more a village pantomime than an election; the promise of nationwide media coverage had attracted more than the usual number of crank candidates who were now doing their best to capture the moment by waving balloons and brightly colored hats to attract the cameras’ attention.

   The Sunshine Candidate, dressed from head to toe in a searing yellow leotard and waving a plastic sunflower as ludicrous as it was large, was standing directly and deliberately in front of the sober-suited Tory. The Tory, his suit pressed and hair cut for the occasion, tried to move to his left to escape from the embarrassment but succeeded only in bumping into the man from the National Front, who was inciting a minor riot in the crowd by displaying a clenched fist and an armful of tattoos. The Tory, desperate to do the right thing and uncertain what his candidate’s manual prescribed in such circumstances, retreated with reluctance back behind the sunflower. Meanwhile, a young woman representing the Keep Our Seas Clean party and who was clad in blue and green chiffon, walked back and forth in front of everyone, trailing yards of cloth that billowed like an incoming tide.

   The mayor coughed into his microphone. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I, as returning officer for the constituency of Torbay, hereby declare that the votes cast in the election were as follows…”

* * *

“So there we have it from colorful Torbay,” Sir Alastair’s sepulchral tones intervened. “The Government hold the first seat of the night but with a reduced majority and a swing against them of, the computer says, nearly eight percent. What does that mean, Peter?” the newscaster asked as the screen cut to the channel’s academic commentator. A bespectacled, rather tussled figure in Oxford tweeds was given on the screen.

   “It means the exit poll is just about right, Alastair.” 





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