Party Games - the first two chapters!
Party Games is relevant and modern, echoing today's political power struggles in all the major parties. It delves into the murky workings of party politics with the aim of leaving the reader feeling shell-shocked by its sheer ferocity, but still wanting more. My flawed, ambitious characters are, essentially, ordinary people who happen to work in an extraordinary place. I hope that the story will interest anyone who has an interest in politics, and the workings of our political system, but also wants to understand how politicians tick – what motivates them on a basic human level.
Rodney Richmond, the young, charismatic yet ultimately insecure Leader of the Opposition, is at a critical time in his leadership. But once his Shadow Cabinet reshuffle turns sour, leaving a sacked Chief Whip out in the cold, events begin to spiral out of his control. Richmond’s leadership rival and deputy sees his opportunity to seize power through a ruthless game of manipulation and blackmail, leaving Richmond battling for the heart and soul of the party – and the woman – he loves.
Will the loyalty of Richmond’s most trusted allies be enough to stop his enemies, or will their attempts to save him lead to tragedy? Set in the heart of Westminster, Party Games is a hotbed of ambition, treachery, friendship, love and passion. Nobody is safe, and everyone must play...
Before he knew what was happening, a deafening sound rang out and an indescribable agony surged through his exhausted body. There may have been two, perhaps three shots, he didn’t know, wasn’t sure...he couldn’t see around him, who else was hurt, but he felt himself fall to the floor, hitting his head hard on the corner of his desk. There were voices; faint, incoherent, male and female all competing in short, sharp sentences, their words a jumble of sounds amongst panic. He tried to move, to react to the noise around him, but he had no idea even how to open his eyes. As the voices grew ever more distant, the agony in every inch of his body, spreading down from a fierce ache in his head, made him want to scream out to force them to understand. To understand...but understand what? He couldn’t think coherently. His limbs – could he feel them?
He felt sudden remorse for the imperfections in his life, how he had treated those close to him, how they had treated him. Would he be missed? Would he be mourned? Would she have regrets?
Darkness began to descend over his jumble of thoughts and it occurred to him he must be slipping into a coma. Perhaps he was dying – this was what it felt like, no bright light guiding you towards eternal life but instead trapping you within a fading mind as death swamped your senses and finally took you from the world. Pain gripped him but he was unable to respond. Death could only be a relief. After a moment all the feeling he had within him began to drift away and he no longer felt scared.
Then he felt nothing.
Monday, two weeks, three days earlier
“Yes, I’m keeping an eye on him, although I must say, he’s rather been behaving himself lately. Nothing too...untoward, shall we say.” The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the Right Honourable Rodney Richmond MP, cast a glance at the clock. Must wind up the call.
A small tap on his office door gave him the excuse he sought. Rodney’s Press Secretary, Clare Shaw, pursed her lips as she entered.
“Rodney, they’re ready,” she whispered, as if keeping her voice quiet would disturb him less.
Rodney ended the call with his predecessor, and mentor, with the usual exchange of pleasantries. He had told the old man what he needed to know, anything else was superfluous. Throwing on his suit jacket, he followed Clare through to the adjoining suite. Another day, another interview. He had become accustomed to such variety in his day, but, occasionally, he wished he were miles away. Long interviews made him feel uncomfortable, especially if they delved too much into his private life. All that ‘touchy-feely’ stuff wasn’t really his style, but he had been told by those around him that he carried off such style ‘beautifully’.
“Right,” Clare said, waving a clipboard in one hand, BlackBerry firmly in the other. “D’you think we’ve run through this enough times? I mean, I’ve told Wood that he can’t pull his usual stunt of changing his questioning, and there will be a break after ten minutes. He might try to stretch out Cornish devolution.”
Rodney straightened his tie and ran his hand over the back of his dark brown locks. “Right, it’ll be fine Clare, don’t worry.” He knew the interviewer, Graham Wood, well; they had worked together in his early days at ITN before Rodney moved to the Daily Bulletin. He sometimes wondered if he may have had risen to Wood’s job as political editor of ITN had he stayed in his original profession.
“Have you seen Deborah or is she still doing battle with Number 10?” Rodney asked Clare, glancing around hopefully. He sucked in his stomach, running his thumbs around the waistline of his trousers. He considered momentarily that perhaps he should take up jogging again, but he noticed that, even in such austere financial times, one of his staff had bought a large box of pink doughnuts covered in chocolate sprinkles. That was just the sort of sugar rush he would need to get him through the afternoon in the House of Commons.
“I’m here,” a breathless voice rang out, stopping Rodney before he could walk over to the bored-looking film crew. Wood was shouting determinedly down a mobile phone.
“What’ve you got for me?” Rodney asked quietly as his Chief of Staff, Deborah, took him aside. Clare pulled her folder tightly into her chest, a look of annoyance across her young face.
“Looks like we may get a statement in the House after all, we’ll probably know by the time you break,” Deborah muttered, glancing over her shoulder to where Clare was looking irritable. “Oh, and reshuffles are...”
“Off limits. I know, Debs,” Rodney sighed. Sometimes she made him feel like he was a child being chastised by his mother. “Keep tight-lipped, but smile none-the-less. They’re all doing a brilliant job.”
“Including Rivers,” Deborah added. She bent her head to gauge the readiness of the crew. Wood had ended his call and was busily tapping into his iPad; Richmond’s press officers would already be checking his tweets.
Rodney’s expression soured. “Quite.”
The reporter was suddenly looming by his shoulder. Forcing a grin, Rodney turned and stretched out his hand, taking the journalist’s in a firm show of greeting. “Ah, Graham! It’s been a while.”
“It certainly has,” Wood replied with a smile. He signalled to Rodney to sit, and before he could make himself comfortable he was wired up and smothered in face powder. “Right, well we’ve a lot to get through. I’ll be gentle, I promise.” Wood’s second smile suddenly felt to Rodney to be far more insincere, but that was the nature of the journalistic beast. It wasn’t personal. Well, not yet anyway.
“Mr. Richmond, first may I thank you for agreeing to such a frank and detailed interview. It has been two weeks since your second party conference as Tory Leader and over a year since you comfortably saw off your then rival and now deputy Colin Scott, yet it would appear that the British electorate still don’t know much about you, the man who hopes to be walking into Number 10 in a few years time. You have been described as ‘intensely private’, but some may say we should know as much as possible about who we have elected. Would you agree with that?”
Rodney bit his bottom lip. Clare had told him on more than one occasion to break that awful habit, and if he had looked up over Wood’s shoulder he might have seen her at the back of the room shaking her head.
“Well, firstly, I like my privacy just as much as anybody does. I have a life outside politics, my own private interests, and I don’t think my family should be the subject of public scrutiny.”
Wood nodded, yet appeared unconvinced. “But do you agree that personality matters in politics just as much as policy? Or maybe even more? You were hardly in the public eye before you beat Colin Scott for the leadership, even though he had a relatively high profile.”
“I certainly believe personality is important in politics, as this plays a huge part in policy. One’s own experiences and judgements determine what one sees as important, what needs changing for the better and where government should mind its own business. Who we are as people - our convictions and morals - form the very basis of policy development and underpin our whole democracy. ”
“Tell me about your childhood, your life even before journalism. You were a bit of a child prodigy were you not? Didn’t you want to be a farmer at one point?”
Rodney chuckled, scratching his brow. “Well yes, I did want to be a farmer. I don’t think my mother was too pleased when I announced I was off to study agriculture, especially when I had done so well at school. But I never was one for doing what other people tell me to do. I think my decision had been based more on rebellion than anything, but instead of going into teaching like my parents I switched to read politics and journalism at Bristol, where I found my niche.”
“Ok, moving on to talking about today’s Rodney Richmond. You have been described by a recent editorial in the London Chronicle as ‘possessing charm, potential ‘voter appeal’ and sharp political instinct’. Do you think that was what won you the leadership election?”
Rodney felt himself blushing through his thick layer of face powder. “Well, I can’t really speak for my colleagues and the party at large who voted for me, but I like to think that I am able to detect public mood and what concerns voters in this country and act on this with development of responsible, practical policies.”
“And would you say that you haven’t much of a tough shell, that you can’t take criticism from your colleagues, or would you describe yourself of a bit of a bruiser?”
Rodney cringed inside. A bruiser? Wood wanted him to be either a poodle or a pit-bull terrier, but he considered himself neither. “Well, like all politicians, I’m only human, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t affected when people criticise me in public. With regards to my colleagues, I have always said that my door is open for those with anything they wish to discuss with me. I like to think I have ‘open leadership’, there is much talent within the Parliamentary Party and sadly I can’t squeeze all of it into the Shadow Cabinet, so constant feedback is vitally important to me.”
“Talking of your Shadow Cabinet,” Wood began, his forthright, professional tone the antithesis of the mischievous glint in his eye, “any hints on when we could expect your long-awaited reshuffle?”
Rodney chuckled. Wood knew the rules. “Come on, Graham, you can’t expect me to say anything about that.”
Wood pushed. “So you’re still deciding?”
Rodney simply smiled. It was the tell-tale signal that of course he had decided, but the journalist would have to wait along with everyone else. It was a waste of a question, but Wood had been duty-bound to ask, of course.
“Who would you say is your political hero?”
Now this was something Rodney could answer. He changed his secretive smile to his assuring one. “My political hero would have to be Edmund Burke. He spoke of continuity and stability, but also of pragmatism. Burke once wrote ‘circumstances give, in reality, to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect’. I like to think of myself as a pragmatic politician, ready to adapt to circumstances rather than expecting them to adapt to my principles.”
Wood shifted in his chair, putting pen to paper. Another tick. “Moving on to Cornish devolution, Mr Richmond, considering your personal interest in it, do you see it as an issue which reflects over the whole country…”
Clare coughed loudly directly behind Wood. Filming suddenly cut out and the journalist twisted round, his expression furrowed in annoyance. It was still two minutes off the ten minute break.
“I’m sorry,” Clare said, stepping towards the leader. Rodney indicated to the technicians to remove his microphone. “You can have him back later today, four o’clock’s not too late is it?”
Wood frowned, but his tone was amicable. “No, that’s fine, we’ve still got a lot to get through but I’m sure we can rattle through it. Statement from the PM, is it?”
“Yes, it is,” Rodney cut in as he rose to his feet. Deborah was over by the door, glancing pointedly at her watch. “We’ve been asking for it long enough, you can always report it as a bit of a victory for us if you like.”
Wood grinned knowingly as Rodney patted him firmly on the shoulder. “I’ll see you later then Graham, once I’ve slaughtered the PM in the Chamber.” The Party Leader snatched up the remaining doughnut, and with his entourage, marched with significant purpose from the room.
Sat in his modern Parliamentary office in Portcullis House, shrouded in semi-darkness, Colin Scott, the Honourable Member for Romsey and Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, poured himself a triple shot. He hated Mondays. Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration, he didn’t hate Mondays, as it meant he could finally get away from the drudgery of a weekend down in the constituency. Tonight, however, he had to stay late to vote, and was in a terrible mood. Not that the impotent Chief Whip, Tristan Rivers, would have noticed if the whole of the Parliamentary Party had gone to the Red Lion pub instead of the ‘no’ lobby.
Colin had been invited, through guilty politeness, for a drink by two of his Shadow Cabinet colleagues but he had declined after pretending to give it thought. They could watch the interview with the appallingly sycophantic Graham Wood from the bar if they liked, surrounded by colleagues praising their glorious leader’s skills on camera, but Colin wanted to savour it alone. That way, if he felt the urge to punch the wall, it wouldn’t find its way into that gutter rag The Morning Engager.
Colin’s gaze drifted down to the business card playing between his fingers. One phone call and it would all begin to fall nicely into place.
He had to admit, Richmond came across quite well. Handsome, with a natural confidence, Richmond oozed charm. He was busy doing his ‘human’ bit and he certainly looked the part – but then again, Colin thought in annoyance, he always did. Edmund Burke. Very smooth. The leader had learnt his lines well. Still, everyone knew Wood to be the easiest interview around. Wood was gently massaging Richmond’s ego again, asking him about girlfriends. Who bloody cares?
Colin sank back into his green easy chair and focussed his gaze on his whisky bottle. He gripped its neck until his knuckles turned white – if he screwed the lid back on and stuffed it back in his drawer then he wouldn’t have to slip into drunken unconsciousness.
The questioning turned to the Deputy’s least favourite subject – Cornish devolution and the forthcoming Bill in the Commons. For some inexplicable reason Richmond had attached himself to the issue like a limpet to a rock, as if it would save his leadership from drifting out to sea with the political tide. Colin saw it as unimportant, to the electorate at least. It was a selfish political manoeuvre. A man like Colin Scott was all in favour of manoeuvring of the most self-obsessed kind, but he didn’t think it wise to put the party’s fortunes on the line. He had been telling Richmond that for months, but he felt his opinion, and his ‘job’, mattered little.
Richmond was squirming on the issue of health, a desperate, half-baked policy despite his level-headed Chief of Staff warning him not to try to develop policy too fast. With one hand we giveth, with the other we taketh away. Wood was right to pick up on the flaws. There were many. It surprised Colin, because Richmond was usually a perfectionist. His campaign against Colin fifteen months ago had indeed been perfect in every way. He had a competent, attractive, female campaign manager and at 39 he had youth on his side. Richmond sounded good, Colin sounded smug and insincere, Richmond looked good, Colin fared better in radio interviews. He hadn’t stood a chance against a professional journalist. The old cliché of style of substance.
Colin wrinkled his nose and breathed deeply. Here was the biggest mistake of the interview: Richmond would stay on after the next election even if the party did badly. There was much to do, a political mountain to climb. It may take a couple of terms to make the party electable again... He rolled his eyes. Well, he certainly had given the journalists the hook they needed for their story. Maybe he wasn’t such the professional after all.
With a light head and heavy heart Colin thumbed his BlackBerry, his eyes fixed on the card. But as he shifted from his chair there was a small, unexpected tap on his office door. He glanced at his watch – 11.03pm.
“Hello? Colin, are you in there?” a familiar, Lancashire voice called through the crack of the door.
Shit. Colin fumbled for a mint, slotting the business card hurriedly into his wallet. He opened the door to see a tall, slim man with a crop of curly blond hair smiling broadly at him. Colin returned the gesture, blinking through the bright light of the corridor. He was well rehearsed in pretending to be pleased to see someone he would rather not talk to.
“Jeremy, hello, you’re still around?” Colin purposefully blocked his office entrance.
“Well a Party Chairman’s job is never done, just been watching the boss. Thought you might still be here. How do you think our guy do then? Did you watch him?”
Colin pursed his lips. Jeremy Cheeser, Member of Parliament for Wensleydale, looked distracted, but he always did. It bothered Colin, the way the Chairman was always so incredibly nice. He might have even liked him, if it wasn’t for their personal history and Jeremy’s blind loyalty to the Leader.
“Yes, I thought he did well,” he lied, swallowing his mint and forcing another smile. “Covered all the bases I think. The headlines tomorrow will of course be about his admission that he wants to stay after the next election even if we do badly.”
Jeremy grimaced, but said nothing. He might have agreed that it had been a bad move, but an awkward silence descended. Colin expected nothing more than a guarded reaction to anything negative he might insinuate.
Colin coughed. “Is there any other reason why you’re here?” he prompted. The alcohol seemed to be catching up with him, his brain soaking it up like a sponge in a bath.
“Ah, well, I just thought….I’d check you were ok, as I was passing. Dropping some stuff off at the office,” Jeremy indicated to the heavy folder tucked under his arm and avoided eye contact, but Colin could spot the sympathy. It was the same every year.
“I’m fine. Thanks for the concern,” Colin responded flatly. His old university friend’s ‘moral Christian duty’ repulsed him and Colin didn’t give a damn if Jeremy thought he was going to hell. He considered that the bloody place may have even been more preferable.
“How’s Linda? And George?”
Jeremy’s face lit up. “Oh, it was George’s fourth birthday yesterday, Linda insisted on throwing him a party for his nursery friends, completely chaos of course! Anyway, Linda’s fine. She’s on nights tonight, she won’t slow down no matter how much I nag her. I said to her the hospital won’t fall apart if she needs to take a day or two off, especially as she’ll soon be on maternity leave anyway, but she just says that she’s the doctor so she should know!”
Something stirred deep inside Colin. He suppressed it instantly. “Well, give her my best.”
“I will. We should have dinner sometime, the three of us. Actually there’s a mutual female friend of ours coming round next week - we could make it a foursome,” Jeremy flashed a smile. The timing of the invite had set-up written all over it and Colin mentally balked.
“Maybe,” Colin muttered, thumbing his personal mobile phone in his pocket. He wondered if the girl might text him tonight, beg him to visit. He hoped she would. He longed for her.
“Well, just let me know,” Jeremy patted his colleague on the arm. Colin noted his desperation to get away. “Anyway, best dash, I already feel guilty enough for not being able to see George before bedtime. Thank goodness for nannies!”
“Quite. See you tomorrow. Actually, have you heard anything about..?”
“Reshuffles? No, not a bean. Rodney’s very good at keeping it close to his chest, but it’s for the best I suppose.”
Jeremy hurriedly bid his colleague goodnight. Colin stood alone, switching off the television. He wished he could forgive him for preventing him from becoming President of the Oxford Union all those years ago. He wished he could overcome the jealousy he felt. He wished he could forgive himself for all that happened, block out the flash-backs which woke him in the night, cold sweat moistening his face and pillow.
Colin stared at the black screen through the dim light. The girl wouldn’t text this late, but he knew he could visit her if he desired. He snatched up his wallet, flipping it open. The picture he was so used seeing had worn over the years; it was dated and the colour had faded, but when he gazed at it he felt strangely at home. Colin ran his finger over the plastic which shielded it, those beautiful, smiling blue eyes staring back at him but without recognition of the sadness in his heart. Sometimes he would experience such anger and frustration, while sometimes he would feel nothing. The passing of the years hadn’t made it any easier.
Sighing heavily, he remembered the business card. He still had a call to make, and the rate things were moving waiting another day could be too late. Anyway, he was paying him enough. He’d better bloody well be awake.
It was the talk of the Members Tea Room. The usual 5 o’clock Shadow Cabinet meeting had been unexpectedly cancelled at the last minute, prompting rumour and speculation. Retreating to his office to await his summons by the Leader, nobody was more aware of the current buzz around Westminster than the Opposition Chief Whip, the Right Honourable Tristan Rivers MP.
“You’ve got your head in the sand again,” Tristan could hear the assiduous Deputy Chief Whip’s worryingly familiar words ringing in his ears. Perhaps Bradbury was right.
He sat behind his desk and buried his nose in Hansard, the daily record of Parliamentary debates. Best to carry on as normal. He could hear the faint chatter of his junior whips and he knew full well what they were discussing. He didn’t particularly care they weren’t scared of him, but most of them had undermined him for long enough. Just because he wouldn’t keep a ‘little black book’ of a few recalcitrant colleagues, or strong-arm them into the correct lobby, his whips had turned their fire on him in their own little revolt. But, Bradbury had argued, in the nicest possible way, if Rivers couldn’t keep his own troops in line, what hope was there for the rest of the Parliamentary Party?
“I don’t condone the ‘jobs for the boys’ attitude around here. It’s got to change,” Tristan had told him. Bradbury merely sighed.
Tristan breathed deeply and glanced at the clock. Moments later, his BlackBerry message came. It was time.
Anthea Culverhouse MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Devolved and Constitutional Affairs, shivered as she hurried along the wind-swept colonnade stretching from the main Palace of Westminster to Portcullis House, the modern, airy and newest addition to the Parliamentary estate. Big Ben chimed 5.30pm, the pale autumn light fading into darkness, and Anthea felt the splash of drizzle on her cheeks as she kept up her fast pace, heeled shoes clopping steadily on the smooth slabs. For a moment she wondered whether she had brought her umbrella, but her thoughts quickly returned to more pressing matters. Reshuffle rumours weighed heavily on her mind, and in her stomach. Rivers was on his way out as Chief Whip, and a woman was heavily tipped to succeed him. It was just which woman.
She waved when she saw the lofty figure of one of her favourite colleagues heading towards her, a warm smile across his face and his curly locks loose in the chilly October air. Jeremy ground to a halt, his long legs stepping to the side so the two of them could talk. There was, of course, only one topic of conversation.
“On your way over?” Jeremy asked. The colonnade was a busy thoroughfare, MPs and staff charging through, chatting loudly. Anthea nodded, glancing around her.
“Yes, I feel like I’ve been waiting forever,” she said surreptitiously. “Why is it that journalists think you know more than you do about these things?”
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. “Yes, indeed. I hear Rodney managed to keep Gregory at Foreign Affairs and Steven’s telling everyone who will listen that he begged him to stay at Home Affairs as he couldn’t bear to lose him.”
Anthea looked incredulous. “Bet Barty feels lucky to have survived. If he doesn’t produce a workable education policy by next spring, I think he’ll finally be out.”
Anthea knew Jeremy was avoiding mentioning Tristan Rivers, but nothing really needed to be said. They had both read that morning’s Daily Bulletin – Anthea might become Chief Whip, but was that because of her long-standing friendship, close friendship, with the Leader? Or because she deserved the job? It had been nasty, vicious even, and it hurt her far more than she would ever show.
“Bet Colin’s miffed he hasn’t been given Home Affairs again,” Anthea began, keeping the conversation away from herself, but she stopped as Tristan headed towards them, his brow furrowed in concentration as he scrolled through his BlackBerry. She knew where he was headed. His fate hung ‘in the balance’, as that evening’s London Chronicle had splashed across page five, and it showed on his face. His strides appeared to pick up pace, but she smiled at him broadly as she caught his eye.
“Poor man,” she said to Jeremy once Tristan had vanished up the escalator.
“Yes, he’s...he’s a nice guy. Really nice, such a shame. I do feel for him, he’s been treated abominably.”
Anthea saw the genuine remorse in Jeremy’s eyes. He was right, and she wished she could help. There was something about Tristan she found intriguing, almost attractive.
“Talking of Chief Whip,” Jeremy said quietly, “good luck. Cornish devolution’s going to continue to be a big issue for you one way or another.”
Anthea smiled weakly and made her excuses to end their conversation. Perhaps, if she went over to the Leader’s Office now to wait her turn, she might catch Tristan after his sacking.
A click of the Leader’s Office door as it shut, and the relatively smooth reshuffle had turned somewhat bumpy.
“Damnit!” Rodney swallowed, slamming a glass of water down on his desk. His Chief of Staff Deborah pursed her lips.
“Bloody idiot,” she said flatly.
Minutes earlier, Martin Arnold, Shadow Environment Secretary, had announced to Rodney he suspected he might need to resign. Rodney had replied he hadn’t really thought the post of environment all that demeaning, but increasingly the look of utter hopelessness on Arnold’s face meant that the brief had nothing to do with it. Was he ill? No. Was his wife ill? No. Was anyone ill? Not that Arnold knew of. There was only one reason left for his swift departure, and Rodney had sensed what was coming. The meeting was over quickly, but not painlessly.
“And we’ve still got Rivers to go,” Rodney felt sick. He looked at Deborah, the most unflappable of all his advisors. Her objectivity amazed him and she was invaluable. “I wasn’t wrong to make him walk, was I?”
“Not at all. You made an example of him. Arnold can’t sleep with the enemy and get away with it,” she said. “It’ll produce some bad headlines, sure, but he’d be a liability long-term. He wasn’t even all that good. Give his job to Derek Bradbury. He’s done well trying to stop Tristan Rivers cocking everything up at the Whip’s Office.”
Rodney felt like a judge on one of those talent shows whose decisions can make or break careers, but if he made his choices purely on the balance of merit and raw talent then the new Shadow Cabinet line-up scribbled on a notepad might have looked quite different. His advisors, Deborah included, may have said “well, it’s up to you Rodney of course, you’re the leader,” but he took this with more than the merest pinch of salt. Tristan Rivers’ departure, however, was purely Rodney’s own decision. Cornish devolution was too hot an issue to have it botched up in the House, he needed someone he could trust to battle, make deals and scratch backs where necessary. And he knew just the right woman for the job.
“Rivers has arrived next door,” Deborah said, now stood in the doorway. She lowered her voice. “And remember, be gentle. We don’t want two of them sulking on the backbenches, Arnold will be enough.”
Moments later, Deborah had gone. Rodney smiled warmly at his Chief Whip, waving a hand in the direction of a green Portcullis-embossed leather chair.
“Tristan, thanks for coming. Please, sit.” When Tristan refused with a shake of the head, he tried not to let the rejection of comfort in favour of standing unnerve him. The chair had become a physical barrier, so Rodney perched himself on the edge of his desk.
“Look, Tristan, let me be straight with you. I think we both know why you’re here. It’s not been working for a while, you know that as well as I do. Your whips see you as too...timid.” To Rodney’s surprise, Tristan looked him straight in the eye. There was a defiance in him he had never seen before, and could only wish he had.
“And I’ve tried to be straight with you, for a long time now,” Tristan appeared to be shaking. “I have tried my very best to stamp my authority on the Whip’s Office, to run it how I see fit, but I’ve been blocked at every turn. I feel like I’m beating my head against the brick wall of my office during every meeting.”
Rodney rapped his knuckles on his desk top nervously. He felt that he had had this conversation with him hundreds of times and he had finally run out of patience. When he found himself spending too much precious time worrying about the petty bickering of the Whip’s Office he knew something had to give. And that, unfortunately, had to be the Chief.
Tristan fell silent, watching as Rodney turned on his heels and snatched up from his desk a well-placed Hansard. He flicked through it to where a sticky label marked a page and flipping it round thrust it at Tristan, pointing at the list of MPs who had passed through the lobbies for the vote.
“Take the fisheries vote from two weeks ago! It’s obvious which people are missing from this list, the editorial in the Bulletin lapped it up! Gary Lough, Patricia Joseph, Matthew Gaines, where were they? I mean Gaines, he’s a serial rebel, why hasn’t he been brought in and read the Riot Act like I asked you to? This was an important vote for us and we blew it!”
Tristan snatched the Hansard from Rodney’s firm grasp and stared at the list of names, as if they would somehow prove his salvation. “I…I tried, I told him to stay in line, I told him I’d withdraw his whip if he didn’t buck up his ideas….”
Rodney interrupted with a snort. “You have been trying for long enough! Just simply telling Gaines you will withdraw his voting rights and not actually doing it sends all the wrong signals!”
“I have it in hand, Rodney!” Tristan gripped the chair. Rodney looked at him with concern, noting the sweat beading at the man’s temples. “Look, I’ll make an example of him, suspend him...”
“It’s too late,” Rodney said with incredible finality. “You’re also meant to feed back to me what colleagues are saying, and I won’t name names, but as for what your colleagues in the Whip’s Office say.”
Tristan’s shoulders slumped, but his voice remained firm. “Bloody David Fryer, it’s all him, isn’t it? He’s a complete shit, he’ll drip poison into anyone’s ear...”
“At least he gets things done! He gets results!” Rodney’s face creased in exasperation.
Tristan’s mouth snapped shut. Although Rodney privately commended him for defending himself, every time he spoke it was simply another nail firmly hammered into his political coffin. He was merely making Rodney’s point for him. Tristan looked broken.
“You’re the Chief Whip, they should be terrified of you!” Rodney’s voice was raised and at a slightly higher pitch than usual. He glanced at the clock – he was running late. Best get this over with.
“It’s a mess, and it makes me look stupid. I’m the one who’s blamed out there in the real world and I can’t afford that. Look, perhaps getting a space on a select committee would be better for you. The way I see it, you’ve now got two options; to resign, here, right now, or to be sacked. Which is it going to be?” There. Rodney had said it. All this crunchy debating with Tristan had really been futile. Now at least he had offered him a way out which could minimise his embarrassment, he only hoped he would be shrewd enough to take it.
“So my options are to go, or to go?” Tristan muttered in defeat.
Rodney gulped, his mouth parched. He would need something stronger than water after today. He lowered his eyes as Tristan looked crestfallen, his last ray of hope snuffed out.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this, Tristan. But basically, yes.”
Anthea had been waiting a long, tense fifteen minutes outside the Leader’s Office, and she wondered why Rodney was running late. The more she thought about it all, the greater the frequency she glanced at her watch.
She then wondered about Tristan. He wasn’t as bad at his job as many had made out; people could be so cruel in politics and weren’t interested in seeing the good in people. Perhaps the role of Chief Whip wasn’t exploiting his talents; he seemed far too genuine for the job and she had hoped Rodney would move him to a more suitable position, but it seemed unlikely.
Without warning, the door flew open. Startled, Anthea jumped to attention as a scarlet-faced Tristan stormed past her, his face contorted in anger as he headed down the corridor. She had never really seen him incandescent before. Her presence suddenly appeared to register with him and he paused with a grunt, turning to face her, his familiar blue eyes ablaze with irrepressible fury.
“Looks like you’re next,” he growled. Anthea merely nodded. “But watch your back, or you may come out with a bloody great knife sticking out of it!”
Opening her mouth slightly to speak, Anthea tried to think of the words, but could only manage small but genuine whimper of pity. They locked gazes, but it was obvious Tristan’s thoughts lay elsewhere. Tristan turned to take his leave, but Anthea suddenly found herself calling out to him.
“If you need someone to talk to..!”
He stopped and stared at her, but hid any surprise at her offer.
“Thanks,” he muttered.
“Well,” she sighed, her voice low and soft, “I’d better…I’m so sorry, Tristan. You didn’t deserve it.”
Tristan might have enquired as to what ‘it’ was, but he appeared to think better of it and merely thanked Anthea again before walking away.
“So,” Rodney beamed at Anthea as she perched herself in the chair Tristan had refused. Rodney’s normally warm smile towards her appeared insincere and fixed, like it had been etched onto his face and sprayed with starch. They were best friends, why couldn’t he just act natural? It was his ‘professional’ smile, the one she guessed he had given to everyone who had passed through his door in the past two hours, including Tristan Rivers.
“So...it must have been an interesting afternoon for you,” Anthea attempted a laugh but then worried it might come across as sarcasm. She clasped her hands together, her body taut. Once again he was keeping his distance; for the next few minutes he was her leader and not her friend. It never used to be like that, in the old days, when they had just been elected and were ready to take on the world. Gone were the evenings when the two of them could get in a bottle of wine and talk politics for hours; a platonic, almost playful friendship made up of gentle teasing, similar political ambition and a simmering, barely hidden tension which had always been suppressed. It made it simple to keep it that way, and was how they both liked it. Or, at least, how Anthea liked it.
“Yes, it’s been – well, it’s not over yet. Anyway, how d’you think you’re doing?” The tenseness in Rodney’s voice eased, but as he drummed his fingers methodically on the desk Anthea felt her heart pounding in time with each finger as it tapped the wood. For a second she pondered whether his nails were actually better manicured than her own, and once upon a time they might have laughed had she enquired, but now was not the time. It never was any more.
Anthea considered her reply. A loaded question? “Oh, I’ve enjoyed it immensely.”
“Lots to do over the next few weeks,” Rodney stated, as if barely hearing her. Anthea felt as if the whole meeting was following a script. “I’d like you to stay there, build up our strategy of attack over Cornwall; our plan of action. The vote is around the corner and you’re a very capable woman, Anthea, and I want you to carry on the good work.”
A very capable woman? A wave of disappointment flooded her and she swallowed hard. The Chief’s job hadn’t been hers for the taking after all. She felt utterly stupid.
Rodney was still talking, his tone that of the professional politician he had become over the past months. “There will be an awful lot of press interest in this issue, and I know you will be able to handle it. This Bill’s implications spread far wider than just Cornwall, the ‘yes’ campaign for regional bureaucracy won’t just stop in the South West…”
“I know,” she interrupted. Suddenly, all she wanted to do was get the hell out of there.
“So you’ll stay then?” Rodney smiled again, but it appeared more genuine. His brown eyes softened, catching Anthea’s for the first time.
“Of course I’ll stay. As you say, much to do,” she hoped she didn’t sound disappointed. If she wasn’t the woman to succeed Tristan, who was?
“Wonderful,” Rodney appeared relieved. “I couldn’t do much of this without you...I mean, without such brilliant colleagues around me.”
He wearily rose from his seat. Anthea took in every detail of him, from the slight stomach he seemed to have developed to the strands of dark hair uncharacteristically out of place after a day’s brow-scratching and unwanted meetings. Her time was obviously up and he still had a Chief Whip to appoint; Anthea was simply one of many meetings, although she was unsure whether he didn’t feel like chatting as much as he didn’t have the time. Can’t he even ask me about Ben? He knew that her estranged boyfriend had only sent her two postcards in the last three months.
“Are you alright?” Anthea chanced. “I’ve just seen Tristan.”
Rodney headed for the door. “He resigned.”
Anthea blinked in surprise. “Resigned? But I thought...”
“He resigned. That’s the story, makes it simpler. Gives them one less thing to write about,” he opened the door a crack. Time to leave.
“Right, indeed,” At least it was something Tristan could hide behind and save a bit of face. That’s if he wanted to hide at all.
As Anthea moved to pass beyond the door, Rodney placed his hand gently on her elbow. His heavy gaze was sudden and lasted the merest moment, but Anthea had no desire to reciprocate. She left, that familiar confusion resurfacing until she pushed it, quickly, back into her subconscious once again.
Two men sat on the mezzanine at the popular Westminster haunt the Cinnamon Club, looking down on the main dining area in prime position to spot anyone worth their interest. Decorated in marble and stone imported from Rajasthan, the restaurant was filled with the echoes of gossip and laughter. The place oozed class and exclusiveness, the essence of modern dining, decorated with tasteful browns and creams.
Home Affairs Whip, David Fryer MP, licked his fingers and wiped his mouth, his companion polishing off his crusted monkfish and gulping the last of the Merlot.
“The food’s delicious here, I could eat another whole plateful if there wasn’t a bloody vote just around the corner,” Fryer said gruffly as he stabbed at his shrimp pickle.
Sir Geoffrey Dickenson, editor of the tabloid paper the Daily Bulletin, chuckled throatily. “Ah, yes, voting. Blasted nuisance, I suppose.” There was little doubt as to where Dickenson had originated, his cockney accent as broad as his grin. “Got me autobiography coming out in a few weeks, remind me to send you a signed copy.”
“Building up for retirement, Geoff? You don’t strike me as the kind,” Fryer smirked. He liked to gently mock his old acquaintance.
Dickenson shook his head with a small burp. “Nah, not quite. Not letting those bastard foreign con-artists get hold of this baby. The Morning Engager’s sold out, but I’ll be bloody damned if I will.”
“Well, you founded the Bulletin in the gutter, I’d never expect you to drag it out of it,” Fryer said wryly. Dickenson smirked. “Oh, bugger,” Fryer dropped the last of his munched crustacean and lowered his head, his gaze across the restaurant floor.
“Not scared of a brown-nose like Cheeser, are you?” Dickenson asked, turning to look. Fryer furrowed his substantial brow in annoyance, watching as the tall, lean frame of the Party Chairman hurried to a table on the far side of the restaurant to join a fellow MP.
“No, it’s just...well. Never mind.”
“He’s fucking ruining everything, him and Richmond,” Dickenson waved his fork in the air. “The party I’ve supported all my life, poured my own bloody money into, is slipping into wrack and ruin, after all I’ve done for your precious leader and his career. Richmond turned as wet as a baby’s nappy once he left the paper and began crowing about public duty and helping people. He was a much better bloody journalist.”
Fryer saw a flash of darkness across the editor’s face, a raw nerve obviously hit hard.
“Scott can give you what you want,” Fryer said flatly. He clicked his fingers at a nearby waiter, who began to clear the table.
“Yes, I’m sure he could,” Dickenson agreed. “Shame most in the party can’t seem to stand him. Still, he’s got balls, and if I twist them enough he’ll squeal like the runt he is and be at my mercy. And you – you’re just the muscle Scott needs.”
Fryer took that as a complement. “Although it would be far easier to get support if Richmond had kept the incompetent Rivers where he is,” he pulled his napkin from his collar. “I mean for God’s sake the fellow’s a bloody idiot. Although, once Colin’s at the helm, I’ll be Chief Whip. I’ll have the bloody run of the place, you wait.”
Both men smiled in understanding as they thumbed the dessert menu. The meal would be on Dickenson’s expenses. Scott had sent Fryer on a mission, and he was about to close the deal. Old alliances were being reborn.
“The Leader rewards loyalty, just be patient.” It was a line Jeremy Cheeser had become accustomed to uttering. Although not always strictly true, it often did the job, Jeremy’s reassuring tone softening potentially rebellious hearts and giving people hope of a career progression. His lunch companion’s expression hinted that he had heard this one before, but Jeremy ignored his own uneasiness and simply smiled.
“I personally wouldn’t have any reason to be disloyal,” came the response.
“Well no, of course not. The leadership election is clear blue water under the bridge,” Jeremy smiled and picked at his cauliflower and cheese parcel. “I hope we have time for dessert before voting. The lemon tart here is exquisite.”
“Indeed,” his colleague leant in over his curry. “However, there’s a lot of...concern about, in the party. People can be patient, and many on the Right are giving Richmond the benefit of the doubt, but Cornish devolution is becoming a worry. Many feel Richmond’s a bit...obsessed by the issue. I know you, Jeremy, you don’t go around with your head in the sand. You’ll have sensed the feeling at Party Conference.”
Jeremy felt exasperated. He sipped his water to buy some time, but as he did so, he caught sight of two very familiar faces up on the mezzanine. He stiffened in his chair and swallowed the water hard, but it caught in his throat and he began to choke.
“God, you ok?” his companion asked, pouring him more water. Jeremy flushed, smoothing down his blond curls and dabbing his mouth. His parcel had turned cold.
“Yes, sorry, wrong way.”
“As I was saying, Cornish devolution – you know Scott has been saying privately that Richmond’s bullish approach is a waste of time. Many are inclined to agree with him.”
Jeremy barely heard, his eyes flicking between Fryer and the table. Everything suddenly looked bad. Very bad.
“Colin doesn’t say much that’s private any longer,” he muttered. “Look, Rodney’s sure that it’s a vote-winner, and Conservatives have to make a stand against the break-up of the UK, even if some feel that a ‘back water’ like Cornwall can do what it likes and there not be consequences. There’s principle here, you know that as well as I do. Colin’s just – if it wasn’t this issue it would be something else, like Europe, or taxation.”
“Just be warned, by a friend and colleague. Scott’s not going to stay this quiet for long, and today’s reshuffle isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference. He’s putting out feelers again, trying to shore up support for what he sees as the battle ahead.” Jeremy’s fellow MP placed his cutlery down and folded his arms.
“Yes, I can see that,” Jeremy nodded slowly as Fryer caught his eye. The two men locked stares.
Suddenly BlackBerrys vibrated simultaneously around the restaurant. Hands pulled out their electronic gadgets from pockets and handbags, a collective sigh following in quick succession. VOTE EXPECTED SHORTLY. Damnit. Always before bloody dessert. The briefest of smiles flickered across Jeremy’s lips, acknowledging Fryer but sending him a silent warning. I’m watching you.