© Stuart Martin
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For those who may not know FDR = Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States from 1933 to 1945.
Unrestrained euphoria pulsed around the packed hall. Preston Manning raised a hand in acknowledgement of his supporters. He drew his wife into an embrace as he stepped back from the lectern, eliciting a renewed crescendo of cheers from the crowd. He whispered, “I love you, Abby Manning.”
Abby raised an eyebrow. “Was that focus-grouped?”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “I’ll show you how genuine it was when we get back to the house.”
Abby smiled out at the morass of faces and phones, barely moving her lips as she spoke, “So, that’s how becoming Prime Minister makes you feel…Or is it this pencil skirt?”
“Both.” After twenty-three years she still gave him that tingle; he manipulated a smirk into a warm smile. Their fingers slid apart as Preston stepped forward and grasped the lectern. “I just have…” He waited until the noise subsided to a murmur. “I just have two more things to say – clichés, but true nonetheless.” He leaned forward like a hellfire preacher, his expression intense. “The hard work starts tomorrow. The electorate has given us a mandate to deliver change, and I want us to hit the ground running.”
“We’re with you, PM,” shouted a young man in a grey suit.
Preston pointed at him. “That’s two of us.” His eyes scanned the room. “Anyone else?”
The party faithful chorused a lingering: “Yes…”
He knew reality would dilute this mood soon enough, and paused, determined to absorb the moment into his psyche. He smoothed back his dark hair and rested his right hand over his heart: that was focus-grouped. “We have achieved this. You, me, and our colleagues all over the country. And it will be my honour, my privilege, to lead our party into government – thank you. Enjoy tonight, but be ready for work tomorrow.”
Applause and cheers rang out as Abby and Preston were escorted along a corridor by six of the campaign team, each in turn praising their performance. John Saddler, his office manager, fell in beside them. “No one outside the party expected this, there’ll be some headlines rewritten tonight – I’m loving that thought.”
Preston put a hand on Saddler’s back. “The important thing is we can make real changes.”
“Of course, but there’s nothing wrong with a man enjoying his work.” They exchanged smiles. “I think we caught the police on the hop too. The chief constable’s office have been in touch, they’re allocating a new man to coordinate your personal security.”
Preston narrowed one eye. “New man, why do we need a new man?”
“Something about the ‘required security clearance’.” A trill bleep came from Saddler’s pocket. He pulled out his phone. “Talk of the devil, he’s waiting with the cars.”
The group slowed as a man standing in a doorway came into view. It was Victor Timmins, the last leader of their party to be Prime Minister. That had been fourteen unkind years ago. “Congratulations,” said Timmins, proffering a trembling hand.
Abby touched Preston’s arm and whispered, “Be nice.”
The only one of his late father’s many anecdotes on life that had real traction sprang into Preston’s mind: ‘Those you once admired who disappoint you are the people you despise the most.’ He looked Timmins in the eye and took hold of the offered hand. “Thank you, Victor. So very glad you could make it.”
Timmins reciprocated with a weak smile, but gripped Preston’s hand with a firmness that belied his frail appearance. His voice wavered as he spoke, “Do what you can. You’ll still be able to change things for the better…I believe in you.”
A little nonplussed, Preston stiffened his posture and wrested his hand free. Timmins immediately started towards the hall. Preston called after him, “There was a time I believed in you.” Timmins hesitated, but continued without looking back. Preston’s eyes went to Saddler then Abby. “What was that about?”
Saddler gave a facial shrug. “Malfunction due to ageing – Maggie-itis.” There were sniggers from the entourage.
Abby winced. “Well I feel a little sorry for him. He was never the same after his wife had that awful accident. That must have been so hard.”
Preston mumbled to himself as he watched Timmins move out of sight, “He abandoned his principles - nothing can excuse that.” Refocusing his thoughts, Preston led the group towards an emergency exit door which was opened by a uniformed security man.
Once in the courtyard Preston took a deep breath and looked up at the star-filled sky. That cliché suddenly had genuine resonance. The task that lay ahead was huge, the expectation would be unrelenting, and the hard work would start tomorrow. A buzz of anticipation rose from his stomach to the top of his head: he relished the challenge. He took Abby’s hand and they posed for the campaign team who were brandishing various digital devices.
A minute later Saddler stepped in front of them. “All right people, shall we let the ‘Prime Minister’ get some rest? He does have rather a lot on tomorrow.”
Preston gave a final nod of appreciation and mouthed, ‘Thank you,’ to the team.
Abby, who had joined in conversation with two friends gave a little wave. “Won’t be a minute.”
Saddler gestured towards four men in dark suits standing next to two Jaguar XJ Sentinels parked near the gate. He spoke in a low voice as they walked, “The ‘new man’ - Levi Griffin. He’s the one who doesn’t really look the part.”
It was obvious who Saddler was referring to. Griffin was five-foot-nine, but looked short alongside his physically imposing subordinates. He was fortyish, had a round face, and wore a professional smile as he stepped forward holding up his accreditation for inspection. “Mr Manning - Sir. Levi Griffin, I’ve been asked to coordinate your security arrangements.”
Preston steadied the card with thumb and forefinger and gave it a tacit look. “So I believe.” He mirrored Griffin’s smile. “Though I’m not really clear why the change was necessary.”
“My orders are to facilitate your attendance at a meeting tomorrow—”
“Tomorrow?” Saddler’s face contorted. “You do realise what’s happening tomorrow?”
“I am fully aware of tomorrow’s itinerary, but I’m led to believe this is a matter of national importance.” Griffin took an envelope from an inside pocket. “This is for you, sir. It’s from the acting chief of the Security Committee.” He handed the letter to Preston. “The venue for the meeting is Westminster. The people involved are sensitive to your situation and have agreed to convene at 06.30, to accommodate your standing engagements. I’ve arranged for you to be picked up at 05.50 - if that’s alright with you, sir?”
Preston opened the envelope, pulled out the single sheet of paper and read the note – ‘Preston, please attend the arranged meeting. There is a situation you need to be made aware of before you officially take office. – The stamp was official and he recognised the signatory. He looked at Griffin whose demeanour was schooled, intended to elicit trust; Preston recalled receiving the same instruction himself. He waved Abby across and slipped the letter into a pocket. “I suppose I’d better be ready for an early start.”
Saddler flicked through pages on a smart phone, his eyebrows pinched together. “This could throw our plans out if there’s a delay - you’d better pick me up as well.” His eyes flicked up to Griffin then Preston. “Can’t afford to miss your morning briefing.”
Griffin took out his own device. “Not a problem, sir. I’ll make the arrangements.”
Saddler patted Preston on the back. “See you in the morning.” Still flicking at the screen he headed back to the hall, pausing to kiss Abby on the cheek as they passed.
Griffin moved to the cars and opened a rear door. “Your daughter’s protection will remain vigilant but low key, as per your request, sir. But your security package will be under constant review from now on of course.”
“I understand,” said Preston as he followed Abby into the car. “Thank you, Mr Griffin, very efficient.”
Griffin gave a nod and pressed the door shut. Abby took hold of Preston’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “That reminds me, Nessa sent a text. ‘Congratulations to daddy, knew he could do it. Could you please transfer some funds into my account, need a new laptop.’ Or words to that effect.”
Preston grimaced. “Really? How many laptops does it take to get through a business degree?”
Abby leant her head on his shoulder. “You have to admit, she has impeccable timing.” Preston couldn’t supress a smile as the gates opened and the Jaguar XJ Sentinel eased a path through the firework display of camera flashes.
Preston pursed his lips as he stood in front of the hall mirror picking at his hair. Abby, wearing a black negligee and a pair of fluffy slippers, shuffled up behind him. “Stop worrying, a little grey looks distinguished.”
He turned, rested his hands on her waist and kissed her forehead. “Thank you…For everything.”
Abby rocked up on the balls of her feet and caressed his bottom lip with hers, running her fingers down his lapels as their lips parted. “Are you worried about this mysterious meeting?”
“It’s almost certainly some kind of security threat, something I’ll have to get used to dealing with.” He took a breath, held it for a moment then exhaled deeply. “Delivering on our pledges, that’s the important thing for me. I don’t want to let people down.” A vibrating sound from the hall stand drew his attention. He picked up the phone. “They’re waiting outside.”
She gave a last squeeze and released his hand. “People will never feel let down if they see you’re sincere. I know you are so just be yourself.” The door was ajar when she added, “But keep listening to John’s presentation advice, can’t do any harm.”
“See you later - at number ten.” They exchanged eyebrow raises and smiles.
Griffin opened the car door. Saddler had a tablet on his lap which he held in front of Preston as soon as he got in. “Let’s skip through yesterday’s stats on the way. We can fine tune your speech to the press later.”
Staring at a distant point, Preston had a moment of clarity. “I think people will have had enough of statistics to last them the rest of the year.” He turned to Saddler. “I want people to know I’m sincere. Show me those inclusive hand gestures again.”
Saddler selected a different file. “Good call, sir – trust trumps stats every time.”
The car was crossing Westminster Bridge when Preston looked up from the screen. The first slivers of morning sun flitted along the Thames and illuminated the façade of the Houses of Parliament. The old palace, usually austere and obdurate, stood like a beacon lighting the path to a better future.
With two security men close behind, Preston and Saddler followed Griffin along a series of corridors. Stopping in front of a door with an electronic lock, Griffin indicated a room to the left. “You’ll have to wait here, Mr Saddler.”
Saddler frowned and tapped his watch as he edged past the security man who was holding the door open. “Don’t let this run over…Hmm.”
“There won’t be a problem. All the timings have been worked out,” Preston tugged on his shirt cuffs and turned with a guarded smile, “isn’t that right, Mr Griffin?”
“That’s right, sir.” Griffin pulled a card through the lock reader. “As I said, everyone involved is sensitive to your situation.”
There was a bleep as the door lock engaged. Griffin led the way down a flight of stairs and along another corridor. Preston glanced around as he stepped alongside. “I didn’t even know this section was here.”
Griffin slowed, reached for a door handle and spoke without looking back. “Most people have no idea how many levels there are.” He swung the door open and guided Preston through with a hand on the back.
Two steps into the room Preston pulled up and did a double-take. He recognised the man sitting at the desk in the centre of the room, it was Conrad Troller, a reputed multi billionaire of no specific nationality: this felt very wrong. Preston held up a flatted hand. “I don’t know what this is, but I want no part of it.” Turning, he found Griffin blocking off the door, hands subtly positioned protecting his crotch and solar plexus. “Am I to be physically prevented from leaving?” Griffin remained motionless except for his busy eyes.
“Please sit down, Mr Manning.” Troller’s voice had a calm authority. Preston turned and regarded Troller with an analytical eye. He was in his fifties, had short greying hair, wore a dark blue suit, and exuded an undeniable presence. “All the advice you have had from your security people will have told you to ‘go along’ with your assailants in a situation like this – as long as you are not in imminent danger, and you are not. So,” he indicated the chair, “please…Sit.”
That was exactly the advice he had been given. Preston fiddled at the knot of his tie with his right hand. He made to take a step forward, but spun, and with a practiced pivot of the shoulders launched a punch at Griffin’s head. Griffin leaned a little and tilted his head to the left; the smile as he evaded the blow was disconcerting. Before Preston had time to react Griffin gripped his wrist, twisted his arm into an unnatural position and applied pressure to his elbow. A nerve grinding pain pulsed from his hand up to his right eye and back as Griffin manoeuvred him onto the chair. Once released, Preston used his left hand to lift the listless tingling limb onto his lap. Head bowed, and breathing in gasps through gritted teeth he massaged his shoulder and neck, attempting to restore its motor function.
Troller reclined in his seat and rested his fingertips together. “Mr Manning, you have some important appointments to attend today, and I have no wish to make you late. However, I am going to have to insist that you listen to what I have to say.” Some movement returned to the fingers of Preston’s right hand. He glanced back at Griffin, the bastard had a smirk on his face. “I advise you to contain your anger. I know you boxed in your youth, but Mr Griffin is a consummate professional.”
Preston moved his narrowed eyes to Troller as he flexed his digits. The only sensible option was to listen, these arseholes could be dealt with later. He gave a grudging nod. “I’m listening.”
“Good.” Troller pressed his mouth into a momentary smile. “I speak for a global organisation. When I have given you the relevant information there is one question we would like you to answer – can you work with us?”
“Why would I enter into a pact with a bunch of Bond villains?”
A genuine smile flicked across Troller’s face. “A reasonable analogy. The difference is we don’t have to take over the world, we’ve been in control for a number of years. We work with all the major governments. We don’t involve ourselves in the day-to-day business of government, we set parameters and restrictions that safeguard the industrial and financial health of the world.”
Preston spoke through a sneer, “You mean you manipulate people to further your own interests.”
Troller straightened his posture. “That is a simplistic, naive appraisal. We believe in democracy, up to a point. But the world’s economic structure is too complex and interdependent to be left at the mercy of politicians who could well put self-interest first. We are a steadying hand.”
“Is that how you justify it to yourself?” Preston grimaced. “You’re suggesting it’s right for you and your cohorts to direct policy without any kind of mandate or scrutiny. That’s a dictatorship.”
“The parameters we put in place are designed to keep the fragile financial structure in place.” Troller checked his watch. “Let me tell you how our organisation came into being. You may know some of the history.”
Preston winced as he circled his shoulder. “If you’re hoping to convince me of your benevolence, you’re wasting your time.”
“What I’m hoping to convince you of is the necessity of our work.” Troller rested his elbows on the desk as he continued, “In the thirties our organisation was coalescing form small like-minded groups. The embryonic alliance made the very misguided decision to try and take executive power in the US, by force.”
Preston knew of the attempted coup and gave a slow nod. “I’ve heard of the incident.”
“Then I’ll skip to the relevant events. General Smedley Butler presented a list of the conspirators to FDR. He could have had everyone on that list put on death row, their actions amounted to treason. But, as you well know, Mr Manning, pragmatism is a huge part of politics, and FDR took no punitive action worthy of note. He understood that the people involved were the very fabric of the financial system, and removing them would be a dagger to the heart of the major economies of the world. Instead, FDR met with the relevant parties. He not only understood their concerns, he empathised. A tacit agreement was arrived at, they would cooperate, help each other, with our organisation staying in the background steering the global economy. And that is what we have done ever since.”
The agreement was a revelation, though probably not true. In fact this whole thing was likely nothing more than an attempt to profit by manipulating government policy. Long slow breaths helped Preston disguise his anger, but the muscle under his left eye developed an involuntary twitch. “Am I supposed to believe heads of government around the world are happy to work under your control measures?”
“No - persuasion is usually required, and occasionally it has to be uncompromising persuasion.” Troller flipped open a laptop as he spoke, “You need strength of character, and real belief that the outcomes justify the methods to sanction such actions.”
“Or be a psychopath.”
“A psychopath has a very low threshold of personal justification, but the principle remains the same.” After tapping a few keys on the laptop Troller made pointed eye contact. “You think you have deep convictions, Mr Manning? You never really know how strong your convictions are until you have to be ruthless to uphold them.” He gave a dismissive sniff.
Preston edged closer, intensifying his stare. “Why would I believe you’re anything more than a self-serving thug?”
Troller lifted a hand in a stop gesture alerting Preston to Griffin’s close proximity. Griffin edged back towards the door. “Disappointingly transparent,” said Troller, with a deliberate shake of the head. “Your plan is to report this approach to the authorities, and you tried to provoke me into revealing information, yes?” Preston tried to be impassive but could not stop the twitch. “I know you don’t have contacts in the intelligence community, so you intend to go to the chief constable.” The muscles in Preston’s neck tensed as Troller continued, “We need to move things along so let me help you out.” He arced a finger onto the keypad, and without breaking eye contact eased the laptop round to face Preston.
Wearing full dress uniform and a solemn expression the chief constable addressed him from the screen, “Good morning, Mr Manning.” Preston swallowed deeply as his mouth dried. “Congratulations on the election result.”
“Are you…?” Confusion and doubt fused in Preston’s chest stifling his question.
The chief constable drew back his shoulders. “My advice to you is simple, Mr Manning. Work with Mr Troller’s organisation. Any attempt to undermine them would be futile, their influence is all encompassing. Live with the compromise and get on with the job. I can’t think of anyone who would make a better fist of it than you.” He touched the peak of his cap. “Good luck.”
The picture faded and Troller eased the screen down with an outstretched finger. “An incisive man the chief constable.” The knot in Preston’s stomach tightened and his shoulders slumped. Troller made a gesture with his fingers.
A moment later Griffin appeared holding out a glass of water. Preston cupped it to his lips. “It doesn’t matter how you dress it up or who you control, this is a criminal enterprise.”
From a drawer, Troller produced a single sheet of paper which he placed on the desk. “Mr Manning, I thought we had just established that some people are, unquestionably, above the law.” He slid the paper in front of Preston. “This is an outline of the policies you would need to restrict. The two at the bottom will have to be dropped.”
“And if I refuse, what then - shot by a deranged lone gunman?”
“Nothing so dramatic. We only use extreme measures out of necessity, we have a moral compass.”
Preston swung his eyes to Griffin and back to Troller. “Really?”
Troller leaned back and interlocked his fingers. “These are the choices available to you. Step down as party leader – make your own excuses. Leave here unmolested and carry on with your stated policies. In that case you would force us to create a situation that would result in you being removed by your own party.”
“Create a situation?”
“As the chief constable alluded, we have wide ranging influence - the police, intelligence services, media, judiciary, financial institutions, and politics. There are so many ways – a story could appear in the papers about your daughter being caught in possession of drugs. A police officer would be accused of covering up the crime. He would admit the misdeed, but say he only did it after a personal approach by yourself, and it wouldn’t be the first time…If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Doubt pulsed in his frontal lobe. Politics could be a sordid business, but this was a new depth. Preston raised trembling fingers to his temple. “Go on.”
“You could leave here and announce our activities to the world. That would result in a similar scenario. Who would believe you then?” A smile flickered across Troller’s lips. “The only place you might get a platform would be David Icke’s website.” The business-like expression clicked back into place. “The obvious choice, work with us.” He indicated the list. “The constraints are minimal, nothing that can’t easily be moved into the background. You know how these thing are done, an inquiry here a judicial review there, the financial position left by the last administration - people soon move on. Things will happen with or without you, so ask yourself this question…Who would deliver more of your promises, you, or the person who would step into the void?”
That would be Philip Reynolds, Preston sighed - need some thinking time. With a tentative hand he lifted the sheet and scanned the items. “My party wouldn’t allow this.”
“We have some suggested cabinet appointments that will help you with that.”
A vision of party workers, their faces etched with disappointment filled Preston’s mind. He took another sip of water and drew himself up. “As you say, the least bad choice.”
Troller lifted the screen on the laptop again. “Not quite how I put it, but…” He hit a key and a video clip started. “Now we have an accord I need to add a note of caution - attempting to renege on our agreement in any way will not be tolerated.” He gestured to the screen.
They looked young, but Preston recognised several faces as the camera panned across the room. It zoomed in on a man being held by two military looking types. When he recognised the restrained man his chest tightened. There was no sound, but Victor Timmins was obviously distressed and shouting. The picture blurred for a moment. It refocused on a woman sat on a straight backed chair, her hands and feet bound with cable ties. She looked terrified, smeared makeup and wide, reddened eyes. It was Timmins wife, Gillian, it had to be.
A man holding a long crowbar casually rested on one shoulder moved into view. His hair was thick and black, but the face was unmistakable, it was Griffin. He nodded, seemingly acknowledging an instruction, and gripped the crowbar with both hands. Preston held his breath. Without hesitation, Griffin slammed the bludgeon into Gillian’s shins. There was a surreal moment where she looked down at the shattered bones, then convulsed, vomited, and seemed to faint. The camera moved back to Victor who had slumped to the floor, hands clasped to his face. The screen went blank and Preston hauled in a shallow breath. Selfish, but he could only think of Abby. The thought of her being hurt was a physical pain.
“Seems brutal, but we can’t allow the work of generations to be jeopardised.” Troller nudged the list forward. “My advice, start by limiting expectations…Mr Griffin, will you see Mr Manning back to his car,” he smoothed out his tie as he stood, “we wouldn’t want him to keep the Queen waiting.”
Thoughts and emotions churned in Preston’s mind as they stepped outside. He lifted a hand to deflect Saddler’s tirade of suggestions. The Palace of Westminster’s masonry and the now grey sky had formed an oppressive alliance. “What happened in there, is something wrong?” asked Saddler, lowering the tablet.
Preston put a hand to his forehead. “Bad headache, that’s all.”
Outside ten Downing Street uniformed police officers marshalled a ring of barriers. The throng of photographers and TV reporters jostled for the best view of the cordoned off area. There were sporadic shouts and cheers from party supporters waiting to see the new Prime Minister’s morning press call.
Standing back from the window, Preston surveyed the scene from an upstairs room. The door opened, a moment later Abby took his hand. “Everyone’s waiting.”
“I know,” he said, continuing to observe the crowd, “but I need to see Timmins before I go out there.”
“He’s downstairs.” Preston moved to the door but Abby held onto a finger. “I don’t understand, why, why now?”
He kissed her on the forehead and attempted a smile. “It’s important.”
He hustled downstairs toward an anxious looking group. “Victor Timmins, where is Victor Timmins?”
An aide indicated the study. Saddler held his hands out fingers spread and stared wide-eyed. ‘Five minutes,’ mouthed Preston as he opened the door. Saddler rolled his eyes.
Steadied by a hand on the desk, Timmins stood. Preston approached and the two men clasped hands with a warmth born of mutual understanding. “Thank you for coming. Let’s sit.” Preston pulled a chair close. “There is so much I want to say, to ask. I haven’t got much time right now, but I must know - how did you carry on, after what happened, what they did to Gillian?”
Timmins lips pursed and twitched, and his eyes watered up. “Gillian insisted I carry on. She is an incredible woman. She has always been my strength, as I suspect Abby is yours.”
“She is.” Preston closed his eyes for a moment. “But the thought of -”
“That was a mistake I have to live with. I thought I knew who I could trust.” Timmins took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Apart from Gillian, the thing that emboldened me was the conviction that I was doing the best that could be done under the circumstances. The disappointment in people’s faces was hard to take, but I clung to that thought.” He gripped Preston’s forearm. “I know you are a conviction politician, you aren’t looking for platitudes. Do the best that can be done.”
In the hallway Preston composed himself to the background music of Saddler’s last minute presentation advice. The last sentence registered, “If you forget everything else, remember the inclusive hand gestures.”
A coffee mug was pressed into Preston’s hand as the door was swung open. Questions were shouted from all quarters as he strode to the array of microphones, “Will Philip Reynolds get a cabinet post?”
“Are you going to up the minimum wage?”
“Was the Queen pleased to see you?”
Preston nursed the mug to his chest and held up his left hand. “I’ll have to get back to you on that one.” There was a collective chuckle from the crowd. “Our party campaigned on a platform of change, and I am fully committed to that programme.” Enthusiastic applause rang out. “However, it appears that several aspects of the economy are not as presented by the last administration. That may result in the implementation of some policies being delayed. But rest assured, I intend to do everything I can to deliver those commitments.” The crowd applauded again, but he felt the enthusiasm had waned.
Back inside Preston ushered Abby into the study, took her hands and held them to his chest. “I know this sounds pathetic, and no one should ask for unconditional support,” Abby looked confused, “but I need you to tell me you will always believe in me.”
“What is this about, Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“There…It’s just…” He blinked, trying to shut down the image of Griffin holding a crowbar that filled his mind. “This is going to be harder than I ever imagined, even loyal supporters may lose faith. If I can be sure you won’t falter I can face anything.”
Abby pushed away a little and gave him her school teacher stare. “Preston Manning, do you really have to ask. People will understand that the wish list won’t happen overnight.” She stroked his cheek. “You are a good man.”
He eased her head onto his chest. ‘Am I?’ The Question was to himself.