Mary sat uncomfortably on the sofa. Why can’t I be at my desk? She eyed the others in the room. Harcourt-Smithers smiled at her benignly when he noticed her looking over at him. Oh, I just know what you’re going to say: I’ve got to do something dramatic to get my ratings up. As if, standing up to the Russians wasn’t enough when they poisoned Skripal and his daughter. That should have shown the electorate that I am meant to lead. Her gaze turned to the portrait of Margaret Thatcher that hung behind her desk. The Iron Lady sat rigid, defying the camera to capture any weakness. I’m like you. This lady’s also not for turning.
The door opened. ‘Prime Minister,’ she turned to see Chris enter, ‘my apologies for being a tad late. I was kept on the phone by that blather Bernard moaning on about fishing rights after the transition period.’ Ah yes, we know all about you Michel Bernard, chief EU procrastinator and thorn in my side. He has just got to be a Frenchman, doesn’t he? You’d think the EU might have appointed someone from a country we hadn’t defeated twenty times. ‘Bastard’s out to stich us up.’ So, he thinks he can outwit us, does he? We know your game, froggie. Her eyes turned back to Thatcher’s picture. Perhaps a good hand bagging, eh, Maggie?
‘Well, now we are all here, perhaps we can get down to business?’ She turned back to the assembled group. Harcourt-Smithers was looking expectantly at her. Andrew, her secretary was watching her from a chair near her desk.
Chris had found one of the armchairs. He looked past her at the portrait of Margaret Thatcher. ‘Maggie was quite the lady. I wonder what she would have made of Brexit.’ Hand-bagged the lot, Chris—as you well know. They wouldn’t have known what had hit them.
‘Uh huh.’ Harcourt-Smithers fidgeted in his chair.
‘PM, we have a big, big problem. What with the way we have only the slimmest of majorities and the disgruntled Brexiter Brigade snapping at our heels, not to speak of the Rebellious Remoaners, the upcoming local elections present us with something of a real headache. It’ll look very, very bad if we lose a lot of councils.’ Yes, yes, dear man, get to the point. We bloody well know the situation, you’ve been harping on about it every time you call me.
‘Brexit!’ Chris was nearly jumping up and down with excitement. Mary smiled inwardly. You’re like a boy with a new toy. Why do I think that? She looked at him in a new way. Yes, yes, in spite of your age, there is something boyish in the way you look and carry on. Why hadn’t I spotted it before?
‘Precisely, Chris. We need something to convince the doubters that we can exit the EU without doing so and somehow please the soft Remoaners. Isn’t that so PM?’
You’re my advisors and should be coming up with the goods. But, oh no, here you are , expecting me to come up with a cunning plan to square the circle. ‘Oh, of course.’ Mary paused. How should I put it, so my Brexit Secretary understands the hidden meaning? ‘Chris, do you consider there’s anything we can do on Brexit before the elections that would help swing some of the Remoaners who would naturally vote for us, to not defect to Labour?’ And save my premiership. She cast a glance at Thatcher’s portrait. And allow me to match your term in office.
‘Well, that’s a difficult one. What with leaving the Single Market and all that.’ He paused a minute. ‘We could go for the Norwegian option; call it something else, play it up a bit—that sort of thing.’
‘No, no, no. That would mean Brussels holding sway over what we do.’ The man’s an idiot, what doesn’t he understand about Brexit is Brexit? Mary turned to James. ‘What do you suggest?’
James cleared his throat. ‘I think Europe is a vote loser, whatever we do. Now, there’s this talk of a new centrist pro-European party. Franks is throwing money…’ he waved his hand around as if dispensing largesse, ‘…at anyone who will create a Remoaner party. Truth is, he’s an angry man who was pro-Labour before Cotton got in. Now he’s trying, as he says, to break the mould at Westminster. He doesn’t explain why this is so important. Personally, I think he doesn’t like the fact he’s given Labour money and they won’t play ball. But he’s got no idea about creating a new party. It won’t be easy…’
‘Good luck to him.’ Chris, shut up and let James explain what he’s thinking.
‘I’ve heard it said this new centrist party intends to Make Britain Great Again—but more in a David Attenborough sort of way than a Donald Trump one.’ Or à la Macron, as they say in France.
‘Indeed. Quite ridiculous really. But even so, Franks is backing the idea with a lot of money. We shouldn’t underestimate the threat this new party poses. That said, we’ve seen off others before. We thought UKIP was a danger and look what happened to them. Any new centrist, pro-European party is much more likely to attract all those Remoaners who joined Labour but don’t much like Cotton. So, it’s possibly good news. I say we should ferment this as much as possible before the elections. Make them feel queasy about supporting Cotton. Perhaps it’ll keep them at home. Hopefully, it’ll split the vote and give us a chance.’
Give them rope to hang themselves. Brilliant. ‘I like it. But we can’t just hope people who don’t like Cotton won’t bother to vote. What else should we do?’
‘PM, aren’t we already taking the fight to Labour? Your new NHS plan and initiatives seem to have gone down well.’ Indeed, Chris and its nothing you can claim credit for—they are my ideas. I know your game—you want my job.
‘The other piece of good news just in is that the latest favourability poll gives you have a ten-point lead over Cotton. So well done, PM. Hopefully, it will help our chances in May.’ And the last time you were muttering what a busted flush I was. Perhaps I should be looking for a new chairman, eh, James? Let you see what it’s like to anxiously await that knock on the door.
‘But things are looking up on Brexit.’ Yes, Chris, we know! What we need is a strategy to avoid a local election disaster. Brexit isn’t for another year, or have you forgotten that? The elections are next month.
There was a ping. Mary turned to see Andrew flushing red. ‘Sorry, forgot to mute my phone.’ He looked at the screen. ‘There’s a new Trump tweet.’
‘What does he say?’
Andrew tapped his mobile. ‘Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!' You shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!’ My God! He’s declaring war on Russia. It’s WW3!
‘This is what we need, PM, don’t you see?’ James, no, I do not.
Mary turned to him. This is Trump’s show not ours. ‘Explain yourself, James.’
‘If we act with the Americans, you’ll be able to show that you’re the person to be leading Britain in these troubled times.’ I already am, James. What’s more troubling than Brexit? Her eyes turned to Margaret’s portrait. Is this my Falklands moment, Maggie?
‘Shall I call an emergency cabinet meeting?’
Mary snapped around to glare at Andrew. ‘What for?’
‘To discuss Trump’s plan to blast the Syrians.’
‘It’s all they deserve after gassing their own kind in Douma.’ Wow all these testosterone driven men and their big guns.
‘So, Chris, us killing a few Syrians—who have been murdering their fellow countrymen—in retaliation is going to make things better, is that it?’ I may be somewhat slow on the uptake, but I can’t see this helping at all to stop their civil war. It’s been going on for seven years now. What’s Trump thinking?
‘PM, if I may be blunt, I’m not sure supporting Trump on this is such a good idea.’ Of course, James, being blunt is your code for how you can wriggle out of saying anything that may come back and bite you.
‘I’ll need to consider what’s in our interests most carefully.’ You can rest assured I don’t want this to be another Iraq or Afghanistan.
‘I’m sure you’ll look to safeguard our interests.’ You mean your chairmanship, James. If I go because of a screw-up in Syria, you go. Is that what’s worrying you?
‘I’m sure we’ll get a call from that new Secretary of his. What’s his name again?’ I wonder if he knows what Trump’s thinking? Does Trump?
‘Thank you, Andrew. Yes, Pompeo.’ His name sounds like Pompous, one of those Mr Men people. Why didn’t he choose Mr Impossible or Mr Worry?
‘Can we get back to the problem of the local elections? To be in with a chance, we need to be seen as the caring party, not the bombing party. What worries people is housing, the NHS, not Syria.’
‘I agree with you, James. I’m not keen for some foreign adventurism.’ And a possible Parliamentary defeat just when things are looking up. Oh no, no. ‘Now, I’ve a plan for us to steal a march on Labour.’ This is going to be fun. ‘To show we are in tune with modern views, I’ve had Quinn work on a proposal for a gender self-identification bill. What do you think of the idea?’ Your daughter put it together—are you going to turn the proposal down?
‘An initiative like gay marriage.’ You’ve got it, James.
‘Wow, PM, pushing gender diversity and self-identification. It’s brilliant.’
‘So, you agree we should go for it, then?’
‘Most certainly.’ Ha! I bet you don’t believe this is a vote winner, do you, James?
* * *
Aidan stepped out of the bus and headed along Peckham Road towards the local Tory party offices. He spotted the shop. Its lurid blue posters screamed out with the faded pink paint colour of the shop. Obviously a temporary let. He looked both ways before crossing the street. He still felt angry as he stomped towards his destination. What have I done to you Carberry to get me sent to—his eyes fell on some dog mess on the pavement, he stepped around it—to Southwark to help for a day’s electioneering? He parodied Carberry’s voice in his head, ‘You are to report back on the mood of the electorate.’ Why me? I’ve no experience of the hustings. Aiden felt a sudden rage. Drops fell on his head. Blast! Even the weather is against me. He tightened his coat around him and dashed for the door. It jingled as he opened it.
The young woman sitting at a desk just inside smiled at him as he entered. ‘May I help you?’
‘I’m from Central Office. I’ve come to see Katherine Reynolds.’
‘Kathy’s popped out to get a Costa. She’ll be back in a moment.’ She pointed at a chair. ‘Make yourself cosy.’
Aiden sat down and used the wait to check up on his Facebook feed. He liked a couple of the previous days’ posts. There was little new stuff. And nothing to get excited about. Ah yes, of course! They’re all at work; that’s why they’re not posting. Shall I tell them I’m in Camberwell? Nah.
He looked up as the door jingled. A woman carrying a coffee cup entered. Katherine? In her other hand she held an umbrella which she deposited in a bin.
The receptionist pointed at Aiden. ‘You’ve got a visitor.’
He jumped to his feet and extended a hand. ‘Aiden Pearce.’ He gave her the once over. Not bad! Pretty eyes and a nice figure.
‘I got a message someone was coming. Something about helping out with the canvassing.’ She grinned. ‘Nice to have you along.’
‘I’m only here for the day. I’m supposed to get a sense of the electorate’s mood.’ As if!
Her expression darkened. ‘I could have told you that over the phone. The short of it is, we’re in for a real drubbing. Cotton’s got everyone stirred up to vote Labour. Pyle’s not popular around here.’
‘I suppose it’s Brexit; London doesn’t seem to care for it much.’
‘That and the NHS, local government funding, and Grenfell Tower, and…’ her voice trailed off as she swept her hand in an arc to indicate everything.
‘I’d heard as much. The private polls are terrible.’
‘Well, you never know. Think how things went our way in Scotland when nobody thought we stood a chance.’ You’re deluding yourself. Scotland was different. There’s a call for a change up there. He made the connection. And the same applies to us. S&%$. It doesn’t look good. He suddenly felt very despondent. ‘When I’ve had my coffee, we’ll go out.’ She headed off into the back room. Do you want me to come too? She turned as she got to the door. ‘You coming—or what?’ He scuttled after her.
The backroom was piled with party leaflets, placards and other election paraphernalia. Katherine found a chair and sat down. She waved at another chair, which had a pile of pamphlets on it. Aiden put them on the floor and sat facing her.
She sipped her coffee. Aiden took a good look at her. Late twenties or thirties, though as far as I know you could be older. Women can look a lot younger than they are. She took another sip of her coffee as she gathered up a pile of leaflets and stuffed them into a bag.
Is this some sort of test? Why isn’t aren’t you talking to me? ‘Is this your first election?’
She smiled at him. ‘No. I stood in 2010 and 2014. We didn’t do well. We lost three seats in ’10 and another in ’14. I didn’t get in. We’re pretty much at rock bottom here in Southwark. If any more go this time, we won’t have any say at all on local issues. We’re becoming a complete joke.’
She passed over a Tory rosette. Reluctantly, Aiden attached it to his coat. Katherine drained her cup then got up. ‘Well, let’s go, then, since you need to meet some voters.’ You sound defeated. If everyone’s like this, we don’t stand a chance.
She led him out the shop and along the street. At least it’s stopped raining. Ahead, was what looked like a council estate. Ah ha! She smiled at the people they passed, offering them a leaflet. They either ignored her or gave her a dirty look. A few waved to indicate they weren’t interest. One bloke shouted at them, ‘Filthy Tories.’
This is appalling. I’m glad I’m not standing here. ‘How do you cope with their behaviour?’
She laughed. ‘You develop an iron skin in this business. If I wasn’t committed to helping these people, I would have given up long ago.’ She offered a leaflet to a passer-by who determinedly refused to look at them. He didn’t take it. She shrugged as he disappeared down the street. ‘You know, it can be disheartening. But I’m encouraged by what Kemi Badenoch’s said: If it's not messy, you are not doing it right.’
‘I suppose so.’ But it shouldn’t be quite so soul destroying.
They turned off into the estate.
‘Cotton country.’ Katherine gestured at the social housing, as they passed into the complex. ‘This is solid Labour. Shall we talk to a few of the residents?’ You’re setting me up, aren’t you?
She led him into one of the buildings and stopped at the first front door they came to. She rang the bell. After a bit, the door opened a crack. A chain stopped the door being opened wide. ‘Whatdaya want?’
‘I’m hoping you’ll vote for us in the election.’ She held out a leaflet.’ The door slammed shut. Katherine shrugged her shoulders. ‘Probably a Labour voter.’ How can you tell? How do you know?
They moved on. At the next flat, they got no answer when they knocked on the door. The one after was opened by a large, overweight man wearing a string vest. This revealed the ornate tattoos that ran down both his arms from the shoulder. Not someone I’d like to meet in a dark alley.
‘We’re from the Tory party…’
‘You’ve a cheek comin’ ‘er.’
‘Will you be voting in the election?’
He eyed them both, sniffed and then spat on the ground beside them. ‘Not for scum like you.’ He stepped back inside and slammed the door.
What a lout! ‘You’ve got a nice polite ward here.’
‘Oh, he’s not the worst of them. Shall we try the next floor?’ She headed for the stairs to the upper level.
Aiden followed her up. She looked to left and right before deciding to go right. Katherine knocked on the first door. Aiden could hear music. Rap. There was a scuffle inside, but no one opened it. The music became louder. Katherine knocked again. The music soared in volume. They don’t want to answer the door.
‘The music, do you recognise it?’
‘Uh?’ Why you’re asking me? ‘That’s Stormzy, you know the rapper who had a go at Pyle.’
‘They’ll be Labour, then.’ Suppose so.
Katherine moved on briskly passing the next front door. The one after that was slightly ajar. She knocked. There was no answer. Aiden could hear noises inside. A moan. Then panting. Katherine pushed the door open. What did you do that for? Don’t you recognise the sounds? There was a scream. ‘I think we should move on.’ Katherine stepped away along the walkway. ‘You seen enough?’
‘Right let’s go and get a drink. I think we’ve earned it.’
She led him back out of the estate and turned along the street away from the party’s office. I thought we were going back? He walked at her side as she marched briskly along. Ah there’s what looks like a wine bar ahead. Katherine walked right past it. He gazed inside. It looks fine to me.
She turned off the main street. On both sides was a row of terraced houses. Near the end, she turned to one of them and, producing a key, opened the front door. ‘My humble abode.’ She gestured he should enter. ‘Lounge’s first door on the left. Here let me take your coat.’ He passed it over.
‘I’ll get you a coffee.’ Katherine disappeared into the back of the house, leaving Aiden to go into the front room.
A large television dominated one wall. A Matisse print of a blue nude hung on another. Two sofas provided seating. He chose one at random. He noticed the coffee table was decorated with a small vase with daffodils and a copy of The Conservative. He picked it up.
He was reading the editorial when Katherine returned with his drink. ‘Here,’ she passed him the mug, ‘I’m going to change into something more comfortable.’
‘Thanks.’ She went out. He took a sip. Wow, this is hot. And it has brandy in it! I wasn’t expecting that.
He resumed his reading. Between paragraphs, he sipped gingerly at the hot liquid.
Katherine returned carrying her mug. Aiden’s heart jumped. What? She was wearing a long flowing negligee over which she had a sleeveless housecoat. She nestled into the other sofa, drawing up her legs. ‘Ah, isn’t this nice.’
Aiden eyed her. Are you a cougar? Is that why you invited me back here? He looked around the room. Do I want this?
She smiled at him. ‘So how long have you worked at Central Office?’ Oh no!