House of Cards [CHAPTER 5]

 


Five


Politics requires sacrifice. The sacrifice of others, of course. Whatever a man can achieve by sacrificing himself for his country, there’s always more to be gained by allowing others to do it first. Timing, as my wife always says, is everything.

“Great show, Roger, isn’t it? Another majority. I can’t tell you how absolutely thrilled I am. Relieved. Delighted. All of that. Well done. Well done, indeed!” The breathless enthusiasm of the chairman of one of Grunt & Groans’s major retail clients poured into O’Neill’s face without any visible effect. The thick-waisted industrialist was enjoying himself, sweating, smiling; the evening was turning into a full-fledged victory party irrespective of the fact that the Government had just lost its first two seats of the night.

   “That’s very kind of you, Harold. Yes, I think a thirty- or forty-seat majority will be enough. But you must take some of the credit,” O’Neill replied. “I was reminding the Prime Minister just the other day how your support goes way beyond the corporate donation. I remember the speech you gave at the Industrial Society lunch last March. By God it was good, so it was, if you’ll forgive a touch of blasphemy, you really banged the message home. Surely you’ve had professional training?” Without waiting for an answer, O’Neill rushed on. “I told Henry—I’m sorry, the PM!—told him how good you were, that we need to find more platforms for captains of industry like you. Giving us the view from the coal face.”

   “There was no need for that, I’m sure,” replied the captain without the slightest trace of sincerity. The champagne had already overcome his natural caution and images of ermine and the House of Lords began to materialize in front of his eyes. “Look, when this is all over perhaps you and I could do lunch together. Somewhere a little quieter, eh? I’ve several other ideas he might find interesting, on which I’d very much welcome your views.” The eyes bulged expectantly. He took another huge mouthful of wine. “And talking of banging home the message, Roger, tell me, that little secretary of yours—”

   Before the thought could be pursued any further, O’Neill burst into a series of volcanic sneezes that bent him almost double, leaving his eyes bloodshot and rendering any hope of continued conversation impossible. “Sorry,” he spluttered, struggling to recover. “Hay fever. Always seem to get it early.” As if to emphasize the point he blew his nose with the sound of many trumpets and what seemed like a few bass drums. The moment gone, the industrialist backed off.

   The Government lost another seat, a junior minister with responsibility for transport, a callow man who’d spent the last four years rushing to every major motorway crash scene in the country, dragging the media behind him. He had developed an almost religious conviction that the human race’s capacity for violent self-sacrifice was unquenchable; it didn’t seem to be helping him very much to accept his own. His chin jutted forward to meet adversity while his wife dissolved in tears.

   “More bad news for the Government,” commented Sir Alastair, “and we’ll see how the Prime Minister is taking it when we go over live for his result in just a few minutes. In the meantime, what is the computer predicting now?” He punched a button and turned to look at a large computer screen behind his shoulder. “Nearer thirty than forty, by the look of it.”

   A studio discussion began as to whether a majority of thirty was enough to see a government through a full term of office, but the commentators were constantly interrupted as more results began to pour in. Back at the agency, O’Neill excused himself from the group of overheated businessmen and fought his way through a growing and steadily more voluble group of admirers that was pressing in on Penny. In spite of their protests he drew her quickly to one side and whispered briefly in her ear. Meanwhile the ruddy face of Sir Alastair intruded once more to announce that the Prime Minister’s own result would soon be declared. A respectful silence took hold of the revelers. O’Neill returned to the industrial captains. All eyes were fixed on the screen. No one noticed Penny gathering her bag and slipping quietly out.

   In the studio an Opposition gain from the Government was announced. A less than splendid night. Then it was Collingridge’s turn. His appearance brought forth a roar of loyal approval from the Grunt & Groans staff, most of whom had by now lost whatever political convictions they’d brought with them beneath the tidal wave of celebration. Hell, it was only an election.

   As they stared, Henry Collingridge waved back from the screen, his stretched smile suggesting he was taking the result rather more seriously than was his audience. His speech of thanks was formal rather than polemical, his face gray with exhaustion beneath the makeup. For a moment they watched somberly, almost soberly, as he hurried from the platform to begin his long drive back to London. Then they set to celebrating once more.

   It was a few minutes later that a shout pierced the party atmosphere. “Mr. O’Neill! Mr. O’Neill! There’s a call for you.” The security guard who was presiding over the reception desk held the telephone up in the air and gesticulated dramatically at the mouthpiece.

   “Who is it?” mouthed O’Neill back across the room.

   “What?” queried the guard, looking nervous.

   “Who is it?” O’Neill mouthed again.

   “Can’t hear you,” the guard yelled above the hubbub.

   O’Neill cupped his hands to his mouth and once more demanded to know who it was in a voice and with a volume that would have done justice to a winning try at Lansdowne Road.

   “It’s the Prime Minister’s Office!” screamed the frustrated guard, unable to restrain himself and not quite sure whether he should be standing to attention.

   His words had an immediate effect. The room fell an expectant hush. An avenue to the telephone suddenly opened up in front of O’Neill. Obediently he stepped forward, trying to look modest and matter-of-fact.

   “It’s one of his secretaries. She’ll put you through,” the guard said, in awe, grateful to hand over the awesome responsibility.

   “Hello. Hello. Yes, this is Roger.” A brief pause. “Prime Minister! How very good to hear from you. Many, many congratulations. The result is really excellent in the circumstances. My old father used to say that a victory is sweet whether you win 5–0 or 5–4…” His eyes darted around the room; every face was turned to him. “What did you say? Oh, yes. Yes! That’s so kind. I’m at the advertising agency right this moment as it happens.”

   The room was now hushed to a point where they could hear the fig trees weeping.

   “I think they’ve performed marvelously, and I certainly couldn’t have done it without their support…May I tell them that?”

   O’Neill placed his hand over the mouthpiece and turned to the audience, which was held in total rapture. “The Prime Minister just wants me to thank you all on his behalf for helping run such a fantastic campaign. He says it made all the difference.” He went back to the phone and listened for a few seconds more. “And he’s not going to demand the money back!”

   The room erupted into a great roar of applause and cheers. O’Neill held the phone aloft to catch every last sound.

   “Yes, Prime Minister. I want to tell you that I’m totally thrilled, overwhelmed to receive your first telephone call after your own election…I look forward to seeing you, too. Yes, I shall be at Smith Square later…Of course, of course. See you then. And congratulations once again.”

   He replaced the telephone gently in its cradle, his expression heavy with the honor that had been done him. He turned to face the room. Suddenly his face burst into a broad smile and the gathering broke into a series of resounding cheers and everyone attempted to shake his hand at once.

   They were still saluting him with a chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” as, in the next street, Penny replaced the car phone in its cradle and began to adjust her lipstick in the mirror.






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