House of Cards [CHAPTER 8]



 Eight


The truth is like a good wine. You often find it tucked away in the darkest corner of a cellar. It needs turning occasionally. And given a gentle dusting, too, before you bring it out into the light and start using it.

The battered BMW had been standing outside the house in Cambridge Street, Pimlico for almost a quarter of an hour. The vacant seats were smothered in a chaos of discarded newspapers and granola bar wrappers that only a truly busy single woman could produce, and in the middle of it all Mattie Storin sat biting her lip. The announcement of the reshuffle late that afternoon had led to febrile discussion as to whether the Prime Minister had been brilliant and audacious, or simply lost his nerve. She needed the views of the men who had helped shape the decisions. Williams had been persuasive and supportive as usual, but Urquhart’s phone had rung and rung, unanswered.

   Without fully understanding why, after her shift at theChronicle had finished Mattie had decided to drive past Urquhart’s London home, just ten minutes from the House of Commons in one of the elegant side streets that adorn the better parts of Pimlico. She expected to find it dark and empty but instead she discovered the lights were burning and there were signs of movement. She telephoned once more, yet still there was no answer.

   The world of Westminster is a club of many unwritten rules and is guarded jealously by both politicians and press—and particularly the press, the so-called “lobby” of correspondents that quietly and discretely regulates media activity in the Palace of Westminster. It allows, for instance, briefings and interviews to take place on the strict understanding that the source will never be identified, not even a hint, everything in the shadows. This encourages politicians to be wildly indiscreet and to break confidences; in turn it allows the lobby correspondents to meet their deadlines and create the most remarkable headlines. The code of omertà is the lobby correspondent’s passport; without it he—or she—would find all doors closed and mouths firmly shut. Revealing sources is a hanging offense, banging on a minister’s private door only slightly lower down the list of contemptible behavior designed to cut off all forms of useful contact. Political correspondents don’t pursue their quarry back to their homes; it’s bad form, black marks and bollockings all round.

   Mattie gave the inside of her cheek another bite. She was nervous. She didn’t lightly bend the rules but why was the bloody man not answering his phone? What on earth was he up to?

   A thick Northern voice whispered in her ear, the voice she had so often missed since leaving the YorkshirePost and the wise old editor who had given Mattie her first proper job. What had he said? “Rules, my girl, are nothing more than a comfort blanket for old men, something to wrap themselves up in against the cold. They exist for the guidance of the wise and the emasculation of the foolish. Don’t you ever dare come into my office and tell me you missed out on a good story because of somebody else’s sodding rules.”

   “OK, OK, you miserable bugger, get off my back,” Mattie said out loud. She checked her hair in the mirror, running a hand through it to restore some life, opened the car door, stepped out onto the pavement and instantly wished she were somewhere else. Twenty seconds later the house echoed to the sound of the front door’s ornate brass knocker.

   Urquhart answered the door. He was alone, casually dressed, not expecting visitors. His wife had returned to the country and the maid didn’t work weekends. As his eyes fell on Mattie they were filled with impatience; in the darkness of the street he didn’t immediately recognize the caller.

    “Mr. Urquhart, I’ve been trying to contact you all afternoon. I hope it’s not inconvenient.”

   “Ten thirty at night? Not inconvenient?” The impatience had turned to exasperation.

   “Forgive me, but I need some help. No Cabinet changes, not one. It’s extraordinary. I’m trying to understand the thinking behind it.”

   “The thinking behind it?” Urquhart’s voice dipped deeper into sarcasm. “I’m sorry but I have nothing to say.” He began to close the door only to see his unwanted visitor take a stubborn step forward. Surely the silly girl wasn’t going to put her foot in the door, it would be too comic for words. But Mattie spoke calmly and quietly.

   “Mr. Urquhart. That’s a great story. But I don’t think you’d want me to print it.”

   Urquhart paused, intrigued. What on earth did she mean? Mattie saw the hesitation, and threw a little more bait in the water.

   “The story would read, ‘There were signs last night of deep Cabinet divisions over the non-shuffle. The Chief Whip, long believed to have harbored ambitions for a move to a new post, refused to defend the Prime Minister’s decision.’ How would you care for that?”

   Only now, as his eyes adjusted to the shadows beyond his doorstep, did Urquhart recognize the Chronicle’s new correspondent. He knew her only slightly but had seen and read enough of her in action to suspect she was no fool. It made him all the more astonished that she was now camped on his doorstep trying to intimidate him. “You cannot be serious,” Urquhart said slowly.

   Mattie broke into a broad smile. “Of course I’m not. But what’s a girl supposed to do? You won’t answer your telephone or talk face-to-face.”

   Her honesty disarmed him. And, as she stood beneath the light from the lamp above his door, highlights glinting in her short, blond hair, he had to admit that he’d come across less attractive sights in the lobby.

   “I’d really like your help, Mr. Urquhart. I need something of substance, something I can get my teeth into, otherwise all I’ve got is thin air. And that’s all you’re leaving me at the moment. Please—help me.”

   Urquhart sniffed, stared. “I ought to be bloody furious. On the phone to that editor of yours demanding an apology for such blatant harassment.”

    “But you won’t. Will you?” She was being deliberately coquettish. While their previous encounters had been minimal, she remembered the glance he had thrown at her one day as they’d passed in the Central Lobby, the discreet male glint in the eye that had taken in all of her without for a moment appearing to deviate from the direct. 

   “Perhaps you had better come in after all—Miss Storin, isn’t it?”

   “Please, call me Mattie.”

   “The sitting room is upstairs,” he said. He made it sound like a small confession. He led the way to a tasteful if very traditionally decorated room, its mustard walls covered in oil paintings of horses and country scenes, the furniture inlaid and elegant. There were tall shelves of books, family photos in frames, a white marble fireplace. The shades were silk, the lighting sparse, the atmosphere intense. He poured himself a large single malt, an old Glenfiddich, and without asking did the same for her before settling into a dark leather armchair. A book with a cracked spine was balanced on the arm, plays by Molière. Mattie sat opposite, nervously perching on the edge of the sofa. She retrieved a small notebook from her shoulder bag but Urquhart waved it away.

   “I’m tired, Miss Storin—Mattie. It’s been a long campaign and I’m not sure I would express myself particularly well. So no notes, if you don’t mind.”

   “Of course. Lobby terms. I can use what you tell me but I can’t attribute it to you in any way. No fingerprints.” 

   “Precisely.”

   He put away Molière, she her notebook and settled back on the sofa. She was wearing a white cotton blouse; it was tight. He noticed, but not in a predatory fashion. He seemed to have eyes that absorbed things, penetrated deeper than most. They both knew they were playing a game.

   He took a cigarette from a silver cigarette box, lit it and inhaled deeply, then he began. “What would you say if I told you, Mattie, that the Prime Minister sees this as the best way of getting on with the job? Not letting ministers get confused with new responsibilities? Full steam ahead?”

   “I would say, Mr. Urquhart, that we would scarcely have to go off the record for that!”

   Urquhart chuckled at the young journalist’s bluntness. Drew deep on the nicotine. The combination seemed to satisfy him.

    “I would also say,” Mattie continued, “that in many people’s eyes the election showed the need for some new blood and some new thinking. You lost a lot of seats. Your endorsement by the voters wasn’t exactly gushing, was it?”

   “We have a clear majority and won many more seats than the main opposition party. Not too bad after so many years in office…Wouldn’t you say?”

“I’m here for your views, not mine.”

“Indulge me.”

“But not really full of promise for the next election, is it? More of the same.

Steady as she sinks.”

“I think that’s a little harsh,” Urquhart said, knowing he should be protesting more.

“I came to one of your election rallies.”

“Did you, Mattie? I’m flattered.”

   “You spoke about new energy, new ideas, new enterprise. The whole thrust of what you were saying was that there would be change—and some new players.” She paused but Urquhart didn’t seem keen to respond. “Your own election address—I have it here…” She fished a glossy leaflet from a wad of papers that were stuffed into her shoulder bag. “It speaks about ‘the exciting challenges ahead.’ All this is about as exciting as last week’s newspapers. And I’m doing too much of the talking.”

   He smiled, sipped. Stayed silent.

“Let me ask you bluntly, Mr. Urquhart. Do you really think this is the best the Prime Minister could do?”

   Urquhart didn’t answer directly but raised his glass slowly once more to his lips, staring at her across the crystal rim.

“Do you think Henry Collingridge is the best this country can do?” she persisted, more softly.

   “Mattie, how on earth do you expect me to reply to a question like that? I am the Chief Whip, I am totally loyal to the Prime Minister—and his shuffle. Or rather non-shuffle.” The edge of sarcasm was back in his voice.

   “Yes, but what about Francis Urquhart, a man who is very ambitious for his party and is desperately anxious for its success. Does he support it?”

There was no reply.

   “Mr. Urquhart, in my piece tomorrow I shall faithfully record your public loyalty to the reshuffle and your justification of it. But…”

“But?”

   “We’re speaking on lobby terms. All my instincts suggest you don’t care for what’s happening. I want to know. You want to ensure that your private thoughts don’t get back to my colleagues, or your colleagues, or become common Westminster gossip. I give you my word on that. This is just for me, because all this might be important in the months ahead. And by the way, no one else knows I came to see you tonight.”

“You are offering me a deal?” he muttered softly.

“Yes. I think you want one. Someone like me. A mouthpiece.”

“And why do you think I would want that?”

“Because you let me in.”

He stared with blue eyes that seemed to dig deep inside her, stirring excitement.

“You want to be a player, not simply a pawn,” she said.

“Better a man of any reputation than a forgotten one, eh?”

“I think so,” she said, returning the stare, holding his eyes, smiling.

   “Let us try this, Mattie. A simple tale. Of a Prime Minister surrounded by ambition, not his own but the ambition of others. Those ambitions have grown since the election. He needs to keep them in check, to stifle them, otherwise they might escape and completely obliterate him.”

“Are you telling me that there’s a lot of rivalry and dissent within the Cabinet?”

   He paused to consider his words carefully before continuing in a slow, deliberate voice. “A great elm waiting to rot. And once that rot has taken hold it is only a matter of time. So there are some who, you might suppose, are wondering what life might be like in another eighteen months, or two years, what position they want to be in if—when—the tree comes crashing down. As they all do in the end.”

“So why doesn’t he get rid of the troublesome ones?”

   “Because he can’t risk having disgruntled former Cabinet ministers rampaging all over the backbenches when he’s got a majority of only twenty-four which could disappear at the first parliamentary cock-up. He has to keep everything as quiet, as low key as possible. He can’t even move the Awkward Brigade to new Cabinet posts because every time you send a new minister to a new Department they get a rush of enthusiasm and want to make their mark. They become of renewed interest to important people in the media, like you. Suddenly we find that ministers aren’t simply doing their jobs but also promoting themselves for a leadership race that must inevitably come. It’s a cancer. Government thrown into chaos, everyone looking over their shoulders, confusion, disharmony, accusations of lack of grip—and suddenly we have a leadership crisis.”

“So everyone has to remain where they are. Do you think that’s a sound strategy?”

   He took a deep mouthful of whiskey. “If I were the captain of the Titanic and I saw a bloody great iceberg dead ahead, I think I’d want a change of course.”

“Did you tell this to the Prime Minister this afternoon?”

   “Mattie,” he scolded, “you take me too far. I am thoroughly enjoying our conversation but I fear I would be going too far if I started divulging the details of private discussions. That’s a shooting offense.”

   “Then let me ask you about Lord Williams. He was with the PM an extraordinarily long time this afternoon if all they were deciding was to do nothing.”

“A man grown gray in the service of his party. Have you heard the phrase,

‘Beware of an old man in a hurry’?”

“He surely can’t think he could become Party Leader. Not from the Lords!”

   “No, of course not. Even dear Teddy isn’t that egotistical. But he’s an elder statesman, he would like to make sure the leadership found its way into suitable hands.”

“Whose hands?”

“If not him, then one of his young acolytes.”

“Like who?”

“Don’t you have thoughts of your own?”

“Samuel. You mean Michael Samuel,” she said excitedly, pursing her lips.

“You might think that, Mattie.”

“How do you know that?”

   “I couldn’t possibly comment.” Urquhart smiled, finished his whiskey. “I think I have allowed you to speculate enough. We should call this conversation

to a halt.”

Mattie nodded reluctantly. “Thank you, Mr. Urquhart.”

“For what? I have said nothing,” he said, rising.

   Her mind was buzzing with theories as she tried to place the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. They were shaking hands by the front door before she spoke again.

“Mrs. Urquhart?”

“Isn’t here. She is in the country.”

Their hands were still linked.

“Please give her my best wishes.”

“I shall, Mattie. I shall.”

   She let go of his hand and turned to leave, before hesitating. “One last question. A leadership election. If there were to be one, would you be part of it?”

“Good night, Mattie,” Urquhart said, closing the front door.

* * *

Daily Chronicle. Monday, June 14. Page 1.

• • •

The Prime Minister shocked many observers yesterday by announcing there were to be no Cabinet changes. After conferring for several hours with his Party Chairman, Lord Williams, and also with the Chief Whip Francis Urquhart, Henry Collingridge issued a “steady as she goes” message to his party.

   However, senior Westminster sources last night expressed astonishment at the decision. It was seen in some quarters as revealing the weakness of the Prime Minister’s position after what was seen as a lackluster campaign.

   There was growing speculation that Collingridge is unlikely to fight another election, and some senior ministers already appear to be maneuvering for position in the event of an early leadership contest. One Cabinet minister compared the Prime Minister to “the captain of the Titanic as it was entering the ice pack.”

   The decision not to make any Cabinet changes, the first time since the war that an election has not been followed by some senior reshuffle, was interpreted as being the most effective way for Collingridge to keep the simmering rivalries of his Cabinet colleagues under control. Last night the Chief Whip defended the decision as being “the best means of getting on with the job” but speculation is already beginning about likely contenders in a leadership race.

   Contacted late last night, Lord Williams described any suggestion of an imminent leadership election as “nonsense.” He said, “The Prime Minister has gained for the Party an historic fourth election victory. We are in excellent shape.” Williams’s position of the Party Chairman would be crucial during a leadership race and he is known to be close to Michael Samuel, the Environment Secretary, who could be one of the contenders.

   Opponents were quick to pounce on what they saw as the Prime Minister’s indecisiveness. The Opposition Leader said: “The fires of discontent are glowing within the Government. I don’t think Mr. Collingridge has the strength or the support to put them out. I am already looking forward to the next election.”

   A senior source within the Government described the situation as being like “a great elm waiting to rot.”





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