A fictional (?) account of the first post-summer meeting between the British prime minister and his deputy at 10 Downing Street
ACT ONE (Tuesday 5 September 2010)
Nick’s heart is pounding. First proper day back after covering while Number One and Sam Cam were in Cornwall, delivering babies.
Four months on, he still cannot quite believe it all as he strides purposefully to the famous black door.
He is feeling pumped this morning. He breathes in deeply, pulling his shoulders back. The post-shave tang of Aqua di Parma mingles with post-workout endorphins in the crisp autumn air.
The new Paul Smith suit feels amazing. Sharp silhouette. Single lapel. No pleats. Pointy shoes and navy blue tie completes the look. James “W” (the Tory director of lifestyle for men who doubles up as a special adviser), knows his stuff.
The PM’s study door is open. There he is! In shirtsleeves. Soft Ferragamo loafers up on the desk with cashmere socks peeking indolently over the top.
The PM springs up.
“Ciao! You look great Nick!”
The deputy-PM, reddens and feels a delicious quiver of delight at the top of his neck and resists giving the PM a triple continental kiss.
“Thanks. You too,” Nick gushes, “really, great”, stealing a glance at Dave’s smooth complexion.
Nick then feels silly for a moment. A slight, but perceptible, frown darkens Dave’s visage.
Nick recovers instantly. “Hey, man. Congrats on becoming a dad again.”
Dave: “Oh Florence has got Sam’s looks. Let’s hope she will not inherit my waistline!”
Dave winks at Nick in that self-deprecating Eton way of his.
“Get Nick a latte will you love,” the PM gestures to the brusque-looking tea lady from Serbia. Nick ventures a glance in her direction. She really has to go. Her tart mannerisms and knowing looks are annoying him.
Dave: “Let’s get down to it.”
“Nick you were outstanding this summer. You stayed firm. Kept us nicely on message. As the hapless John Major once said: “If it is not hurting, it is not working!”
“Just one thing. I was not entirely happy about your Afghan road trip. Will you clear something like that with Andy Coulson (Tory director of communications) next time?
Nick feels small. “Sorry Dave. It won’t happen again.”
He looks up as the warm touch of the manicured prime ministerial hand engulfs his. “Hey, look Nick. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s a learning curve for all of us.”
Dave: “Ah. Just one other little thing. When you talk — as you must keep on doing — about the spending cuts, please stop saying it will not be like the 1980s. The Tory Party are, excuse my French, S-H-I-T-S. But we do not slate Margaret. Right?” (A reference to Baroness Thatcher.)
Nick: “Sorry Dave.”
“Do you think I should nip over to Chesham Place at some point for a photo call with her?”
“No, no. That will not be necessary,” Dave laughs spluttering over his chocolate-dipped almond biscotti. “Just send the old duck flowers next month. She turns 85. So expect some light Nuremburg histrionics from my loony right.”
Nick: “Er Dave, can I raise something?”
Dave: “Fire away Nick.”
Nick: “I am getting some flack from Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy about the IFS findings on our spending cuts. Paddy Ashdown is also on my case. Apparently, the poorest communities of Britain will be the worst affected … that is not the problem … they vote Labour for some unknown reason …but … ”
Dave (interrupting): “Look Nick, you have to keep your lot in line. You cannot expect me to do that for you. I gave them, I mean you, what’s it called … oh yeah, the AV thingy.”
(Cameron ceded a referendum on the Alternative Vote to Clegg. His party will campaign against it.)
“By the way, my lot did not appreciate Charles spoof parody of the spending cuts in Glasgow.”
(To the delight of the local Labour association, Kennedy had deadpanned the line: “Her Majesty’s government is asking what you can do to reduce Britain’s deficit. Would you share a twin room with the foreign secretary to cut costs?”)
Nick shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “Why was Charles addressing a Labour Party meeting anyway?” he asks silently. The Paul Smith trousers might be a little too well tailored.
“Dave, thanks for still letting me represent you in New York.” (The annual September UN plenary.)
Dave: “Come on. You put in the work. You get the kudos. That’s how this gig works.”
“And thanks for moving the Lib Dem Conference so you can represent us. Bet Simon had quite a hissy fit.”
Nick: “Oh, I did not mind that. Wish we could skip it all together.”
Dave looks at Nick knowingly.
Dave: “Just please do not do the one-on-one photo call with Barack if he recognises you in the Big Apple. His staffer probably won’t ask. But just in case. Don’t want us to confuse the Americans. They think coalitions are for losers. And don’t slate Tony. At all. God, the Yanks dig him. Gordon yes.”
Both public school boys laugh heartily.
Nick: “Tony was a class act last week.”
(The former prime minister, Tony Blair, launched his memoir and appeared on Irish television, but had to cancel the London launch.)
Dave: “Yeah, the four of us had such a good laugh at the Maze a few weeks back. Cherie actually relaxed. Made a change. Even better, Tony paid the bill on his AMEX Plat.”
Nick stops himself just in time from asking how often Dave has seen Blair. The PM does not like being asked, he now knows, about whom he sees in his private time. A twinge of jealousy tugs at Nick.
Early evening on the same day.
A paper-strewn study in Kirkcaldy. The autumn sun is setting on the River Firth and the air is redolent with the smell of brine and history. This is the same scene upon which Adam Smith gazed when he penned The Wealth of Nations. Barges that once plied these waters as forerunners of manufacture and export, now founder alone in antiquarian memory.
Adam Smith has been a lot on Gordon’s mind as he madly bashed out on his battered laptop, an account of his leading role in saving the global financial architecture two summers ago.
It was a short, but epoch-defining interlude, yet he’s still not sure if it was the best or the worst of times. While mocked and reviled at home, German treasury officials eagerly listened to him. Fresh-faced American civil servants hailed him “Mr Prime Minister” as he painstakingly delineated his strategy to “save the world”. For once Merkel, the frump, had deferred to him and the diminutive Sarkozy managed to keep his acid Gallic remarks to himself — for an entire 24 hours.
The golden glow of reminiscence leaves a faint smile on his lips and Gordon suddenly realises he has been feeling better this week.
For the first time in four long months, the gnawing exhaustion has gone. In office, even a week’s sleep would not have not cured him. Now the blackest shadows are beginning to disappear from around his eyes. He has shed a few kilos too.
He can hear Sarah reading to the boys in the next room. He is lucky to have them. He knows that. He would never go back. Not now.
He is back in the arms of God and country and knows in completeness the non-sentimental affection of his small community. Sunday Celtic hymnals bring a measure of peace as his voice is echoed with that of his kirk kin.
These are decent, God-fearing, honest people. And from across Britain — a surprising number from the South too — polite letters of restrained British kindness arrive each day.
Gordon, even now, is still convinced that he knows the authentic character of his countrymen even though he could not emote for them.
He spares that failing only a momentary thought — after all, the Conservatives did not win either.
The first weeks were hellish, of course. He was numbed and humiliated after being double-dealed in the coalition negotiations.
It was only because Alastair Campbell (Blair’s former director of communications) and Peter Mandelson (Prince of Darkness-at-large) had their wits about them, which ensured his artful and statesmanlike departure from office before sunset.
How strange; Tony’s boys were with him for the final act. And now, when he sees the strange rictus grin of his former friend on television, punting his book, the bile no longer rises in him.
The television is full of the sound and the fury of life, but he doesn’t know any more if it really signifies anything. Not really.
These are musings of another life, and sometimes it even feels like of another country — one that he knew long ago.
The reverie doesn’t last long, as the final rays of sunset brush the sinuous curves of the river into night, Sarah calls him to put the boys to bed.
She always knows what he is feeling.
Gordon smiles ruefully and gets up from his wingback chair, he brushes memory and yesterday from his chest and goes to kiss them goodnight.