House of Cards [CHAPTER 35]

 


Thirty-Five


For some it is the end of the rope. For others it is only the beginning.


Thursday, November 18

When nominations closed at noon on Thursday, the only surprise was the last-minute withdrawal of Peter Bearstead. He’d been the first to announce his intention to stand but already his race was run. “I’ve done what I set out to do, which was to get a proper election going,” he announced punchily. “I know I haven’t got a chance of winning, so let the others get on with it. I’ll be there to help drag the bodies out of the arena.”

  He had meant to say he would “be there to help bind the wounds” but not for the first time his love of a sharp phrase had run away with his judgment. He immediately signed up with the Daily Express to write personal and indiscreet profiles of the candidates for the duration.

  So now there were nine, an unprecedentedly large field, but the prevailing view was that only five of them were in with a serious chance—Samuel, Woolton, Earle, McKenzie, and Urquhart. With the list of combatants complete, pollsters redoubled their efforts to contact Government MPs and sniff which way the tide was running.

  Paul McKenzie was determined to show the sharpest edge of his sword. The Secretary of State for Health was a frustrated man. He’d been in charge of the health service for more than five years and had hoped as ardently as Urquhart for a new challenge in a post-election reshuffle. The long years in charge of an unresponsive bureaucracy had left him feeling diminished. A few years previously he had been regarded as one of the rising stars of the Party, a man who could combine a tough intellect with a deep sense of caring. Many predicted he would go all the way. But the health service had proved to be a bureaucratic beast he was incapable of breaking let alone training, and his encounters with picket lines of protesting nurses and ambulance men had left his image deeply frayed. The postponement of the hospital expansion plan had been the last straw. He’d grown dispirited, had talked with his wife about quitting politics at the next election, so had greeted Collingridge’s downfall like a drowning man discovers dry land. He entered the final five days before the first ballot overflowing with enthusiasm and energy, anxious to make an immediate impact, determined to get his head above the crowd. He had asked his staff to find a suitable photo-opportunity, some excuse to revive his tarnished image—but no bloody hospitals, he instructed. His fingers had been chewed off all too often. He’d spent the first three years of his time in the Ministry conscientiously visiting hospitals and trying to learn about patient care, only to be met on bad days by picket lines of nurses complaining about “slave wages,” and on worse days by violent demonstrations from ancillary staff protesting about “savage cuts.” He’d been nicknamed “Dr. Cut,” although the unions had often painted an additional consonant onto their banners. Even the doctors’ unions seemed to take the view that health budgets should be set by the level of noise rather than the level of need. At times, but only in private, it had reduced McKenzie to tears of frustration.

  He almost never got to see the patients. Even when he tried to sneak into a hospital by a back entrance the demonstrators always seemed to know beforehand precisely where he would be, ready to throw their abuse at him just when the television camera crews had arrived. Being beaten up in public by an angel of mercy was never great for the image or his self-esteem. So McKenzie had simply stopped visiting hospitals. Rather than running a gauntlet of abuse, he opted out and stuck to safer venues. It was a matter of self-preservation.

  So his plan was as simple as it was safe. Instead of a hospital—“it would be entirely wrong to use sick patients for my own political purposes”—his office had arranged for him to visit the Humanifit Laboratories at their headquarters just off the M4. Humanifit made a wide range of equipment for handicapped people and had just developed a revolutionary wheelchair operated by voice commands. Even paraplegics unable to move their limbs could use it. The combination of new British technology and enhanced care for the disabled was just what McKenzie was looking for and so, barely a couple of hours after nominations closed, the Secretary of State’s car was hastening down the motorway in search of his salvation.

  McKenzie had been careful. He didn’t take the success of the visit for granted. Factories were all well and good but a spirited demo was a thousand times more attractive to the cameras. He had been ambushed too many times, so he was careful to ensure that his office informed the media only three hours before his impending arrival, soon enough to scramble their camera crews but not enough to get rent-a-mob out and active. As he approached the Humanifit facility, he nestled back in his leather seat, practiced his smile, and congratulated himself on his caution. It was all going to work very well.

  Unfortunately for McKenzie, his staff had been too efficient. Governments need to know where their Ministers are at all times; like all other MPs they have to be available if at all possible in the event of an emergency or in case of a sudden vote in the House of Commons. So, on the previous Friday, following her standing instructions to the letter, McKenzie’s diary secretary had sent a full list of his forthcoming engagements to the office of the government’s coordinating authority—otherwise known as the Chief Whip.

  As he was driven the final few hundred yards down the country road to the factory’s green-field site, McKenzie combed his hair and prepared himself. The ministerial car passed alongside the red brick wall that curved around the site and, as the Minister in the rear seat made sure his tie was straight, it swept in through the front gates.

  No sooner was it through than the driver jammed on the brakes, throwing McKenzie against the front seat, spilling papers on the floor and ruining his careful preparations. Before he had a chance to curse the driver and demand an explanation, the cause of the problem confronted and swirled around him. It was a sight beyond his wildest nightmare.

  The tiny car park in front of the factory’s reception office was jammed with a throng of seething protesters, all dressed in nurse’s uniform and hurling abuse, with every angry word and action recorded by the three television cameras that had been dutifully summoned by McKenzie’s press officer and placed in an ideal viewing position on top of the administration block. No sooner was the official car inside the gates than the crowd surged around, kicking the bodywork and banging placards on the roof. In a couple of seconds the aerial had gone and the windscreen wipers had also been wrenched off. The driver had the sense to press the panic button fitted to all Ministerial cars which automatically closed the windows and locked the doors, but not before someone had managed to spit directly into McKenzie’s face. Fists and contorted faces were pressed hard up against the glass, all threatening violence on him; the car rocked as the crowd surged against it, smothering it, suffocating him, until he could see no sky, no trees, no help, nothing but hatred at close quarters.

“Get out! Get out!” he screamed, but the driver raised his hands in helplessness. The crowd had surrounded the car, blocking off any hope of retreat.

“Get out!” he continued to scream, overcome by claustrophobia, but to no avail. It wasn’t a matter of judgment, more of fallible instinct as McKenzie, in despair and desperation, leaned forward and grabbed the automatic gear stick, throwing it into reverse. The car gave a judder and moved back barely a foot before the driver’s foot hit the brake but too late. It had driven into the crowd. A wheelchair had been knocked over, a woman in nurse’s uniform struck. She appeared to be in great pain.

  The crowd parted and, seizing his opportunity, the driver reversed his vehicle out of the gates and onto the road, pulling off a spectacular hand-brake turn to bring the nose of the car round and effect a rapid escape. He sped away leaving large black rubber scars on the road surface.

  McKenzie’s political career was left on the road alongside the ugly burnt tire marks. It didn’t matter that the wheelchair had been empty or the woman was not badly injured, or that she wasn’t in fact a nurse but a full time union convener and an experienced hand at turning a picket line drama into a newsworthy crisis. No one bothered to inquire and why should they? They already had their story. The tide had turned against the drowning man and swept poor McKenzie once more out to sea.





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