House of Cards [CHAPTER 6]

 


Six


It was my old gillie who taught me a lesson, upon the moor, one I’ve always remembered. I was a child—what, eight years old? But cast your own mind back; it’s at that sort of age the lessons sink in, take hold.

   He said this to me: “If you must inflict pain, make sure it is irresistible and overwhelming, so that he knows you will always do him more harm than he can ever do to you.” The gillie was talking about wild dogs, of course. But it’s been a good lesson in politics, too.

Friday, June 11

The crowd in Smith Square had increased dramatically in size as supporters, opponents, and the merely curious waited for the Prime Minister’s arrival. Midnight had long since tolled but this was a night when biological clocks would be stretched to the limit. The onlookers could see from the TV technicians’ monitors that his convoy, escorted by police outriders and pursued by camera cars, had long since left the M1 and was now approaching Marble Arch. It would be less than ten minutes before they arrived, and three youthful cheerleaders employed by the Party were encouraging the crowd to warm up with a mixture of patriotic songs and shouts.

   They were having to work harder than at previous elections. While people appeared more than happy to wave enormous Union Jacks there seemed to be less enthusiasm to brandish the large mounted photographs of Henry Collingridge that had just appeared through the doorway of Party Headquarters. Several members of the crowd were wearing personal radios and informing those around them of the results. It didn’t seem to lift spirits. Even the cheerleaders would stop occasionally to form a huddle and discuss the latest news. There was also an element of competition because several Opposition supporters, emboldened by what they’d heard, had decided to infiltrate and were now proceeding to wave their own banners and chant slogans. Half a dozen policemen moved in to ensure that emotions on both sides didn’t bubble over. A coach with a dozen more was parked around the corner in Tufton Street. Appear, don’t interfere, was the instruction.

   The computers were now forecasting a majority of twenty-eight. Two of the cheerleaders broke away from their work to engage in an earnest discussion as to whether this constituted an adequate working majority. They concluded that it probably was and returned to their task, but spirits were flagging, the early enthusiasm increasingly deflated with concern, and they decided to save their effort until Henry Collingridge arrived.

   Inside the building, Charles Collingridge was getting increasingly drunk. One of the senior members of the Party had put him in the Chairman’s office with a comfortable chair where he could sit beneath a portrait of his brother, and somehow Charlie had found a bottle. His capillaried face was covered in perspiration, his eyes were liquid and bloodshot. “A good man, brother Hal. A great Prime Minister,” he was babbling. There was no denying the alcoholic lisp that had begun to take control of his voice as he repeated the familiar family history. “Could have taken over the family business, you know, made it one of the country’s truly great companies, but he always preferred politics. Mind you, manufacturing bath fittings was never my cup of tea, either, but it kept Father happy. D’you know they even import the ruddy stuff from Poland nowadays? Or is it Romania…?”

   He interrupted his own monologue by knocking what was left of his glass of whiskey over his trousers. Amidst the fluster of apologies the Party Chairman, Lord Williams, took the opportunity to move well out of range. His wise old eyes revealed none of it but he resented having to extend hospitality to the Prime Minister’s brother. Charlie Collingridge wasn’t a bad man, never that, but he was a weak man who was becoming a bloody nuisance on a regular basis, and Williams liked to run a tight ship. Yet the aging apparatchik was an experienced navigator and knew there was little point in trying to throw the admiral’s brother overboard. He had once raised the problem directly with the Prime Minister, tried to discuss the increasing rumors and the growing number of snide references to his brother in the gossip columns. As one of the few men left who had been a prominent sailor even in the pre-Thatcher days, he had the seniority, and some would argue even the responsibility, to do so. But it had been to no avail.

   “I spend half my time spilling blood, that’s the job I do,” the Prime Minister had pleaded. “Please don’t ask me to spill my own brother’s.”

   The Prime Minister had vowed he would get Charlie to watch his behavior, or rather that he would watch Charlie’s behavior himself, but of course he never had the time, not to babysit. And he knew Charlie would promise anything even while he became increasingly incapable of delivering. Henry wouldn’t moralize or be angry, he knew it was always the other members of the family who suffered most from the pressures of politics. In part it was his fault. Williams understood that, too, for hadn’t he gone through three marriages since he’d first arrived in Westminster nearly forty years ago? There was always plenty of collateral damage; politics left a trail of pain and tortured families in its wake. Williams watched Collingridge stumble from the room and felt a twinge of sorrow, but quickly stifled it. Emotion was no basis on which to run a Party.

   Michael Samuel, the Secretary of State for the Environment and one of the newest and most telegenic members of the Cabinet, came over to greet the old statesman. He was young enough to be the Chairman’s son and he was something of a protégé; he’d been given his first major step up the greasy ministerial pole by Williams when, as a young Member of Parliament and on Williams’s recommendation, he’d been made a Parliamentary Private Secretary. It was the most meager of parliamentary accolades, an unpaid job as skivvy to a senior minister, to fetch, to carry, to do so without complaint and without question—qualities designed to impress prime ministers when selecting candidates for promotion. Williams’s help had ignited a spectacular rise through ministerial ranks for Samuel and the two men remained firm friends.

   “Problem, Teddy?” Samuel inquired.

   “A prime minister can choose his friends and his Cabinet,” the old man sighed, “but not his relatives.”

   “Any more than we get to choose our bedfellows.”

   Samuel nodded toward the door. Urquhart had just entered with his wife after driving up from his constituency. Samuel’s glance was cold. He didn’t care for Urquhart, who hadn’t supported his promotion to Cabinet and who on more than one occasion had been heard to describe Samuel as “a latter-day Disraeli, too good looking and too clever for his own good.”

   The veneer over the traditional and still lingering anti-Semitism wore very thin at times, but Williams had offered the brilliant young lawyer good counsel. “Francis is right,” he had said. “Don’t be too intellectual, don’t look too successful. Don’t be too liberal on social matters or too prominent on financial matters.”

   “You mean I should stop being Jewish.”

   “And for God’s sake watch your back.”

   “Don’t worry, we’ve been doing that for two thousand years.”

   Now Samuel watched unenthusiastically as Urquhart and his wife were forced by the crush of people toward him. “Good evening, Francis. Hello, Mortima.” Samuel forced a smile. “Congratulations. A seventeen thousand majority. I know about six hundred MPs who are going to be very jealous of you in the morning with a victory like that.”

   “Michael! Well, I’m delighted you managed to hypnotize the female voters of Surbiton once more. Why, if only you could pick up their husbands’ votes as well, you too could have a majority like mine!”

   They laughed gently at the banter, accustomed to hiding the fact that they did not enjoy each other’s company, but it quickly passed to silence as neither of them could think of a suitable means for disengaging from the conversation.

   They were rescued by Williams, who had just put down the phone. “Don’t let me interrupt, but Henry will be here any minute.”

   “I’ll come down with you,” Urquhart volunteered immediately.

   “And you, Michael?” asked Williams.

   “I’ll wait here. There will be a rush when he arrives. I don’t want to get trampled, from behind.”

   Urquhart wondered whether Samuel was having a gentle dig at him but chose to ignore it and accompanied Williams down the stairs, which had become crowded with excited office staff. Word of the Prime Minister’s imminent arrival had spread and the appearance of the Party Chairman and Chief Whip outside on the pavement galvanized the crowd. An organized cheer went up as the armored black Daimler with its battalion of escorts swung around the square, appearing from behind the skirts of St. John’s to be greeted by the brilliance of television lights and a thousand flaring flashguns as cameramen, both professional and amateur, tried to capture the scene.

   As the car drew to a halt, Collingridge emerged from the rear seat and turned to wave to the crowd and the cameras. Urquhart pushed forward, tried just a little too hard to shake his hand and instead managed to get in the way. He retreated apologetically. On the other side of the car Lord Williams, with the chivalry and familiarity that comes of many years, carefully assisted the Prime Minister’s wife out of the car and planted an avuncular kiss on her cheek. A bouquet appeared from somewhere along with two dozen party officials and dignitaries, all of whom were struggling to get in on the act. It seemed a minor miracle that the heaving throng managed to squeeze through the swing doors and into the building without casualties.

   Similar scenes of confusion and congestion were repeated inside as the Prime Minister’s party pushed its way upstairs, pausing only for a traditional word of thanks to the staff. It had to be repeated because the press photographers hadn’t been assembled quickly enough. Through it all, the delay, the gentle pushing, the noise, the Prime Minister smiled.

   Yet once upstairs in the relative safety of Lord Williams’s suite, the signs of strain that had been so well hidden all evening began to appear. The television set in the corner was just announcing that the computer was predicting a still lower majority, and Collingridge let out a long, low sigh. “Turn the bloody thing off,” he whispered. Then his eyes wandered slowly round the room.

   “Has Charlie been around this evening?” he asked.

   “Yes, he’s been here, but…”

   “But what?”

   “We seem to have lost him.”

 The Prime Minister’s eyes met those of the Chairman.

“I’m sorry,” the older man added, so softly that it almost required the Prime

Minister to lip read.

   Sorry for what? The fact that my brother’s a drunk? Sorry that I’ve almost thrown away this election, put so many of our colleagues to the sword, done more damage than Goering? Sorry that you’ll have to wade through the sewage that’s about to hit us along with me? But anyway, thanks for caring, old friend.

   The adrenalin had ceased flowing and suddenly he was desperately tired. After weeks of being hemmed in on all sides and without a single private moment to himself, he felt an overwhelming need to be on his own. He turned away to find somewhere a little quieter and more private but he found his way blocked by Urquhart who was standing right by his shoulder. The Chief Whip was thrusting an envelope at him.

   “I’ve been giving some thought to the reshuffle,” Urquhart said, his eyes lowered, his voice betraying a mixture of discomfiture and hesitation. “While this is hardly the time, I know you will be giving it some thought over the weekend, so I’ve prepared a few suggestions. I know you prefer positive ideas rather than a blank sheet of paper, so…” He held out his handwritten note. “I hope you find this of use.” He was demanding his place at the top table, and by right rather than invitation.

   Collingridge looked at the envelope and something inside him broke, the little wall that keeps politeness and honesty well apart. He raised his exhausted eyes to his colleague. “You’re right, Francis. This is scarcely the time. Perhaps we should be thinking about securing our majority before we start sacking our colleagues.”

   Urquhart froze in embarrassment. The sarcasm had cut deep, deeper than the Prime Minister had intended, and he realized he had gone too far.

   “I’m sorry, Francis. I’m afraid I am a little tired. Of course you’re quite right to think ahead. Look, I’d like you and Teddy to come round on Sunday afternoon to discuss it. Perhaps you’d be kind enough to let Teddy have a copy of your letter now, and send one round to me at Downing Street tomorrow—or, rather, later this morning.”

   Urquhart’s face refused to betray the turmoil that was growing within. He had been too anxious about the reshuffle and cursed himself for his folly. Somehow his natural assurance deserted him when it came to Collingridge, the product of a grammar school who in social terms would have had trouble gaining membership to any of Urquhart’s clubs. The role reversal in Government unnerved him, unsettled him; he found himself acting out of character when he was in the other man’s presence. He had made a mistake and he blamed Collingridge for that more than he blamed himself, but now was not the time to reclaim the ground he had lost. Instead, he retreated into affability, bowing his head in acceptance. “Of course, Prime Minister. I will let Teddy have a copy straight away.”

   “Better copy it yourself. Wouldn’t do to have that list getting around here tonight.” Collingridge smiled as he tried to bring Urquhart back into the conspiracy of power that always hovers around Downing Street. “In any event, I think it’s time for me to depart. The BBC will want me bright and sparkling in four hours’ time, so I shall wait for the rest of the results in Downing Street.”

   He turned to Williams. “By the way, what is the wretched computer predicting now?”

   “It’s been stuck on twenty-four for about half an hour now. I think that’s it.” There was no sense of victory in his voice. He had just presided over the Party’s worst election result in nearly two decades.

   “Never mind, Teddy. A majority is a majority. And it will give the Chief Whip something to do instead of sitting idly around with a majority of over a hundred. Eh, Francis?” And with that he strode out of the room, leaving Urquhart forlornly clutching his envelope.

* * *

Within minutes of the Prime Minister’s departure the crowds both inside and outside the building began perceptibly to melt. Urquhart, still feeling bruised and not in a mood either to celebrate or to sympathize, made his way to the back of the first floor where he knew the photocopying office could be found. Except that Room 132A was scarcely an office at all, little more than a windowless closet barely six feet across and kept for supplies and confidential photocopying. Urquhart opened the door and the smell hit him before he had time to find the light switch. Slumped on the floor by the narrow metal storage shelves was Charles Collingridge. He had soiled his clothes even as he slept. There was no glass or bottle anywhere to be seen but the smell of whiskey was heavy in the air. Charlie, it seemed, had crawled away to find the least embarrassing place to collapse.

   Urquhart reached for his handkerchief and held it to his face, trying to ward off the stench. He stepped over to the body and turned it on its back. A shake of the shoulders did little other than disrupt the fitful heavy breathing for a moment. A firmer shake gave nothing more, and a gentle slap across the cheeks produced equally little result.

   He gazed with disgust at what he saw. Suddenly Urquhart’s body stiffened, his contempt mingled with the lingering humiliation he had suffered at the Prime Minister’s hands. And here, surely, was an opportunity for repayment of the slight. He grabbed at the lapels of Charlie’s jacket, hauled him up, drew back his arm, ready to strike, to lash the back of his hand across this pathetic wretch’s face, to release his humiliation and anger at all the Collingridges. Urquhart was trembling now, poised.

   Then an envelope fell from Charlie’s jacket pocket, an unpaid electricity bill by the look of it, a final demand, covered in red, and suddenly Urquhart realized there was another way to even up the scales of injustice, to tilt them back and over to his side. He wouldn’t hit Charlie after all, not out of any particular sense of fastidiousness, nor any feeling that Charlie was entirely innocent of any offense against him, apart from the smell. Urquhart knew he could hurt Henry Collingridge by inflicting pain upon his brother, of that there was no doubt, but the hurt wouldn’t be enough, wouldn’t last. Anyway, this wasn’t the way, not in some noisome cupboard, nor was it the time. Francis Urquhart was better than this, much better. Better than them all.

   He allowed the sleeping form of Charles Collingridge to fall back gently to the floor, straightened the lapels, left him to rest. “You and I, Charlie, we’re going to become very close. Great friends. Not right this moment, of course. After you’ve cleaned yourself up a bit, eh?”

   He turned to the photocopier, took the letter from his pocket, made one copy, after which he took the bill from Charlie’s pocket and made a copy of that, too. Then he left the drunken form of his new friend to sleep it off.






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