House of Cards [CHAPTER 7]

 


Seven


Wasn’t it that fellow Clausewitz who once said that war is the continuation of politics by other means? He was wrong, of course, ridiculously wrong. Politics? War? As my dear wife Mortima constantly reminds me, there is no distinction.

Sunday, June 13

Urquhart’s official car turned from Whitehall into Downing Street to be greeted by a policeman’s starched salute and a hundred exploding flashguns. It was Sunday, shortly before four. He had left Mortima at home in Pimlico with their guests, eight of them, more than usual for a Sunday but this was the anniversary of his father’s death and he was in the habit of filling it with distraction. The men and handful of women of the press were gathered behind the barriers on the far side of the street from the world’s most famous front door, which stood wide open as the car drew up—like a political black hole, Urquhart had often thought, into which new prime ministers disappeared and rarely if ever emerged without being surrounded by protective hordes of civil servants, and only after they had sucked the life out of them.

   Urquhart had made sure to travel on the left-hand side of the car’s rear seat so that as he climbed out in front of Number Ten, he would provide an unimpeded view of himself for the TV and press cameras. He stretched himself to his full height and was greeted by a chorus of shouted questions from the press huddle, providing him with an excuse to walk over for a few words. He spotted Manny Goodchild, the legendary Press Association figure, firmly planted under his battered trilby and conveniently wedged between ITN and BBC news camera crews.

   “Well, Manny, did you have any money on the result?” he inquired.

   “Mr. Urquhart, you know my editor would frown on putting his money where my mouth is.”

   “Nevertheless.” Urquhart raised an eyebrow.

   The old press man’s lips wriggled like two unrelated caterpillars. “Put it this way, Mrs. Goodchild has already booked her holiday in Majorca, and thanks to Mr. Collingridge I’m going with her, too.”

   Urquhart sighed theatrically. “’Tis an ill wind.”

   “And talking of ill winds, Mr. Urquhart”—his colleagues pressed closer as Manny got into his stride—“are you here to advise the Prime Minister about the reshuffle? Won’t there have to be a pretty good clear out after a disappointing result like that? And does it all mean a new job for you?”

   “Well, I’m here to discuss a number of things, but I suppose the reshuffle might come into it,” Urquhart responded coyly. “And we won, remember. Don’t be so downbeat, Manny.”

   “It’s rumored that you’re expecting a major new post.”

   Urquhart smiled. “Can’t comment on rumors, Manny, and anyway you know that’s one for the PM to decide. I’m here simply to give him some moral support.”

   “You’ll be going to advise the PM along with Lord Williams, will you then?”

   The smile struggled to survive. “Lord Williams, has he arrived yet?”

   “More than an hour ago. We were wondering when someone else was going to turn up.”

   It took every ounce of experience gathered through Urquhart’s many years in politics not to let his surprise show. “Then I must go,” he announced. “Can’t keep them waiting.” He gave a courteous nod of his head, turned on his heel, and strode back across the road, ditching his plan to wave at the cameras from the doorstep of Number Ten, just in case it looked presumptuous. 

   On the other side of the black-and-white tiled hallway, a carpeted corridor led toward the Cabinet Room. The Prime Minister’s youthful political secretary was waiting for him at the end. As Urquhart approached, he sensed that the young man was uneasy.

   “The Prime Minister is expecting you, Chief Whip.”

   “Yes, that’s why I’m here.”

   The secretary flinched. “He’s in the study upstairs. I’ll let him know you’ve arrived.” Duty done, and not waiting for any further hint of sarcasm, he bounded off up the stairs.

   It was twelve knuckle-cracking, watch-tapping minutes before he reappeared, leaving Urquhart to stare distractedly at the portraits of previous prime ministers that adorned the famous staircase. He could never get over the feeling of how inconsequential so many of the recent holders of the office had been. Uninspiring, unfitted for the task. By contrast, the likes of Lloyd George and Churchill had been magnificent natural leaders, but would they be allowed to rise to the top nowadays? One had been promiscuous and had sold peerages, the other had spent far too much time in drink, debt, and hot temper; both were giants, yet neither man would have made it past the modern media. Instead the world had been left to the pygmies, men of small stature and still less ambition, men chosen not because they were exceptional but because they didn’t offend, men who followed the rules rather than making their own, men…Well, men like Henry Collingridge.

   The return of the political secretary interrupted his thoughts. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Chief Whip. He’s ready for you now.”

   The room used by Collingridge as his study was on the first floor, overlooking the Downing Street garden to St. James’s Park. A modest room, as so much else in this jumble of spaces that made up the second most important address in the country. As Urquhart entered he could see that, in spite of efforts to tidy up the large desk, there had been much shuffling of paper and scribbling of notes in the previous hour or so. An empty bottle of claret stared out of the waste bin and plates covered with crumbs and a withered leaf of lettuce lurked on the windowsill. The Party Chairman sat to the right of the Prime Minister, his notes spilling over the green leather top. Beside them stood a large pile of manila folders containing MPs’ biographies.

   Urquhart brought up a chair, one without arms, and sat in front of the other two, feeling rather like a schoolboy in the headmaster’s study. Collingridge and Williams were silhouetted against the windows. Urquhart squinted into the light, balancing his own folder of notes uneasily on his knee.

   “Francis, you were kind enough to let me have some thoughts on the reshuffle,” the Prime Minister began. No ceremony, straight down to business. “I am very grateful; you know how useful such suggestions are in stimulating my own thoughts.”

   Urquhart inclined his head in silent gratitude.

   “You’ve obviously put a lot of work into them. But before we get down to specifics I thought we should chat about the broad objectives first. You’ve suggested—well, what shall I call it?—a rather radical reshuffle.” Collingridge peered at the sheet of paper in front of him, through reading glasses he kept only for private occasions. His finger ran down the list. “Six new members for the Cabinet, some extensive swapping of portfolios among the rest.” He sighed, sat back in his chair, as though distancing himself from it all. “Tell me why. Why such a heavy hand? What do you think it would achieve?”

   Urquhart’s senses were on alert. He didn’t care for this. He had hoped to be brought in at the earliest stage but the other two were already well ahead of him and he didn’t know where. He’d found no chance to sniff out the Prime Minister’s own views, to read his mind; it was an unhealthy place for a Chief Whip to be in. He wondered whether he was being set up.

   As he blinked against the sunlight that was streaming in from behind the Prime Minister’s head, he could read nothing of the expression. He wished now that he hadn’t committed his thoughts to paper—it left him no wriggle room, no escape route—but it was too late for regrets. Williams was staring at him like a hawk. He spoke slowly, so as not to raise alarm, searching for words that might cover his tracks.

   “Of course, Prime Minister, they are only suggestions, indications really, of what you might be able to do. I thought, in general, in the round, that it might be better to err on the side of action, as it were, to undertake more rather than fewer changes, simply to indicate that you are firmly in charge. That you are expecting a lot of new ideas and new thinking from your ministers. And a chance to retire just a few of our older colleagues; regrettable, but necessary if you are to bring in some new blood.”

   Damn, he thought suddenly, what a bloody inept thing to say with that ancient bastard Williams sitting on the PM’s right hand. But it had been said, there was no means of retreat.

   “We’ve been in power for longer than any Party since the war, which presents a new challenge,” he continued. “Boredom. We need to ensure we have a fresh image for the Government team. We must guard against going stale.”

   The room fell silent. Then, slowly, the Prime Minister began tapping his pencil on the desk.

   “That’s very interesting, Francis, and I agree with you—to a large extent.”

   Oh, that hesitation, that little pause, what might that denote? Urquhart found that his hands were clasped, the nails digging into the flesh.

   “Teddy and I have been discussing just that sort of problem,” the Prime Minister continued. “Bring on a new generation of talent, find new impetus, put new men in new places. And I find many of your suggestions for changes at the lower ministerial levels below Cabinet very persuasive.”

   But they were not the ones that mattered, they all knew that. And the Prime Minister’s tone had changed, grown more somber.

   “The trouble is that too much change at the top can be very disruptive. It takes most cabinet ministers a year to find their feet in a new Department, and right now a year is a long time without being able to show positive signs of progress. Rather than your Cabinet changes helping to implement our new program, Teddy’s view is that on balance it would more likely delay the program.”

   What new program? Urquhart was screaming inside his skull. The manifesto had about as much backbone as a sack of seaweed.

   “But, with respect, Prime Minister, don’t you think that by cutting our majority the electorate was telling us of its desire for some degree of change?”

   “An interesting point. But as you yourself said, no government in our lifetimes has been in office as long as we have. Without in any way being complacent, Francis, I don’t think we could have rewritten the history books if the voters believed we’d run out of steam. On balance, I think it suggests they are content with what we offer.”

   It was time to change tack. “You may very well be right, Prime Minister.”

   “There’s another point, pretty damned vital in the circumstances,” Collingridge continued. “We have to avoid giving the impression that we’re panicking. That would send entirely the wrong signal. Remember that Macmillan destroyed his own Government by sacking a third of his Cabinet. They took it as a sign of weakness. He was out of office inside a year. I’m not anxious for a repeat performance.” He gave one final beat with the pencil, then put it aside. “I’m thinking of a much more controlled approach myself.”

   Collingridge slipped a piece of paper across the desk toward his Chief Whip. On it was printed a list of Cabinet positions, twenty-two in all, with names alongside them.

   “As you see, Francis, I am suggesting no Cabinet changes at all. I hope it will be seen as a sign of strength. We have a job to do, I think we should show we want to get straight on with it.”

   Urquhart quickly returned the paper to the desk, anxious that the tremble in his hand might betray his inner feelings. “If that is what you want, Prime Minister.”

   “It is.” There was the slightest pause. “And of course I assume I have your full support?”

   “Of course, Prime Minister.”

   Urquhart scarcely recognized his own voice, it sounded as though it came from an entirely different part of the room. Not his words. But he had no choice: it was either support or suicide through instant resignation. Yet he couldn’t leave it there. “I have to say that I…was rather looking for a change myself. A bit of new experience…a new challenge.” His words faltered as he found his mouth suddenly dry. “You may remember, Prime Minister, we had discussed the possibility…”

   “Francis,” the Prime Minister interrupted, but not unkindly, “if I move you, I have to move others. The whole pile of dominoes begins to tumble. And I need you where you are. You are an excellent Chief Whip. You have devoted yourself to burrowing right into the heart and soul of the Parliamentary Party. You know them so well. We have to face up to the fact that with such a small majority there are bound to be one or two sticky patches over the next few years. I need to have a Chief Whip who is strong enough to handle them. I need you, Francis. You’re so good behind the scenes. We can leave it to others to do the job out front.”

   Urquhart lowered his eyes, not wanting them to see the turmoil of betrayal that flushed through them. Collingridge took it as an expression of acceptance.

   “I am truly grateful for your understanding and support, Francis.”

   Urquhart felt the cell door slam shut. He thanked them both, took his farewell. Williams hadn’t uttered a single word.

   He left by the back route through the basement of Number Ten. It took him past the ruins of the old Tudor tennis court where Henry VIII had played, then to the Cabinet Office that fronted onto Whitehall, along the road from the entrance to Downing Street and well out of sight of the waiting press. He couldn’t face them. He had been with the Prime Minister less than half an hour and he couldn’t trust his face to back up the lies he would have to tell them. He got a security guard at the Cabinet Office to telephone for his car to be brought round.

   He didn’t bother with small talk.






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