Prologue: Infernal Coalition

Monday 9 November 2009

“Bloody hell.”

“What’s wrong?”

“The Warthog’s had a change of mind. He’s standing down.”

Alex Harris pointed animatedly towards the screen of the laptop computer as his wife Susie blearily crossed the bedroom and pulled back the curtains.

It was just before seven o’clock. For the ninth successive morning, the sun was blazing down on the north coast of Jamaica, promising another day of uninterrupted leisure at the all inclusive island resort where Alex and Susie had decided to put off the impending gloom of the English winter. Susie had long ago accepted that even in such luxurious surroundings, it was too much to expect Alex to close his mind to the outside world altogether, and as usual he had logged onto the internet to catch up on the previous day’s news from the UK.

Almost fifteen years ago, Alex had walked away from his partnership in Thornbury & Summerson, a firm of Birmingham solicitors. His decision to do so had not been entirely without regret, having gained his professional qualification there and progressed through the ranks. However, after a lengthy period of internal turmoil that had almost forced him out involuntarily and had eventually led to the toppling of the firm’s entire executive committee, he had been left with little option other than to recognise that the atmosphere at the firm had been irretrievably soured. Persuaded by his old friends Trevor Sawdon and Geoff Stokes to join them in a small practice just outside central Birmingham, adding his own litigation expertise to their specialist areas of corporate and property law, life in the legal profession had proved far more rewarding in every way since then.

“You’ve got to be joking.” The sudden onslaught of bright sunlight, after a late and exceptionally rum fuelled night, made the unexpected news from back home all the more difficult for Susie to take in so soon after waking.

For her part, while Alex had set off on his own fresh career path, Susie had made a steady but determined rise through the academic world at Birmingham University, attaining a professorship in law. Three months earlier, she had taken up the opportunity for a year’s sabbatical, and was making good progress on her two book projects, a textbook on Unfair Dismissal and Freedom of Contract and a study of the rise and fall of British educational excellence.

“No, deadly serious. Take a look.” Alex stood up.

Susie sat down at the computer and read the main article on the political news page. It reported that the Conservative Member of Parliament for East Worcestershire, Sir Walter Hough, had announced on the previous evening that after thirty five years in the House of Commons, it was time for him to step down. He had cited increasing pressure of work and his personal desire not to miss out on his grandchildren’s formative years. Alex and Susie were both members of his constituency party and Alex had occupied the role of Deputy Chairman Political in the association for almost two years.

“What on earth could have brought that on?” Susie asked. “I thought they’d carry him out of the Commons in a wooden box. Give him a literal last chance to set the political world on fire.”

Sir Walter’s brief ministerial career had first ended in dismissal in the mid eighties, and then in voluntary resignation two years after an unexpected recall in 1992. Since then he had tirelessly devoted himself to work on the Public Accounts Committee and to Parliament itself. He had consistently laughed off the inevitable porcine nickname that had attached itself to him, and had even deliberately grown an impressive handlebar moustache in open defiance of media insults.

“Probably disgusted at the expenses scandal.” Alex replied. “He was in the Top Five Squeaky Clean Members, according to the Sun. He’d always said he’d serve one more term. Maybe he can’t stand the place any more. There’s going to be a real stampede for his seat now.”

“Have you ever fancied the idea? Becoming an MP?”

Alex winced. “Not in a thousand years! You know I’ll debate national policy issues until the cows come home, but I know my limitations. You’d be far better than I would at dealing with people’s day to day problems. Coming down?”

He gestured towards the bags of gym kit on the sofa. They had both made a tentative promise to keep to a routine of pre-breakfast exercise at the resort, knowing full well that their friendly Caribbean hosts would be determined to ensure that their guests were as heavily laden with personal excess baggage for the flight home as possible. So far, only Alex had stuck to it.

“Sorry, too much rum punch last night. I might go back to bed for a while,” Susie muttered sheepishly. Alex kissed the top of her head before she burrowed fully back under the duvet and picked up his kit.

Returning an hour later, he was surprised to see Susie sitting at the computer, lost in deep concentration, shuttling between three open browser screens and making copious handwritten notes.

“Something up?”

Pushing her chair back, Susie gestured towards the laptop.

I know you wouldn’t want to do this. But I think I could.”

“Do what?”

“Apply to succeed the Warthog. Become the Conservative MP for East Worcestershire.”

Alex could hardly believe what he had just heard. “What did they spike the cocktails with last night? Ganja?”

“Just sit down and listen for a moment.” She pointed to the spare seat, which the open mouthed Alex promptly occupied. “Remember what David Cameron said when all those expenses fiddlers were being caught out claiming off the taxpayer for their moats and their duck houses? Something about it being high time for the political class to stand aside and let a different generation of people come forward as candidates? They’ve already picked a doctor without political experience for a safe seat somewhere in Devon. Well, aren’t I exactly the kind of person they’re looking for? A woman and a professor? How often do you find conviction Tories in the academic world? Just when I’m on my sabbatical year as well? And I’ve got a ready made real education platform to speak from. Not forgetting what you said about how good I’d be at dealing with ordinary people’s problems.”

Alex’s early morning gym session rapidly became as distant a memory as their prolonged stay at the bar on the previous evening, where they had worked their way through the Cocktails of the Day menu which mysteriously seemed to change on the hour, as they watched the endless waves strike the shore. It soon dawned on him that Susie was deadly serious, even to the extent of having already read the party’s online guidance notes about candidate applications. Half an hour’s discussion later, it was time for him to put his own strategic thoughts into play.

“OK then, let’s not mess about with underlings. If you really want to do this, how about an email to Conservative Campaign Headquarters, this very morning, addressed to the party chairman? Something like ‘please excuse the temerity of this direct approach, but may I suggest that I have just the credentials you are looking for as a candidate for the soon to be vacated seat in East Worcestershire…’ That might just be in with a chance of standing out and getting noticed.”

As Alex set to work on his draft, Susie called up a report of the previous general election result for East Worcestershire.

“Last time around Sir Walter had a majority of 8,000 over the Lib Dems. Labour were nowhere and there were a couple of fringe candidates. That’s a safe seat by anyone’s reckoning.”

Alex looked up from his paper. “True, but there’s probably a fair amount of pure personal vote in that. If the Lib Dems put up a half decent candidate this time, it could be a lot closer.”

“All the more reason for the Tories to pick an individual who’s local and who actually has something to say for herself. Rather than a Central Office clone armed with the party line, dangling from a set of puppet strings.”

“I couldn’t agree more. Let’s finish this email off and get some breakfast before we’re too late.”

Seven hours later, Alex and Susie were on their way back to their room from a snorkelling trip, when one of the resort staff members came running up.

“Hello, Mrs Susie. Someone’s been trying to call you.” He handed over a message slip. Susie read it and passed it to Alex with a wide grin on her face.

‘Diane from Conservative Campaign Headquarters called. Keen to take things forward. Please call back on 0044 207…’

* * * * *

Interested in reading more? Look for the series of blog entries leading on from the Prologue under the themes of Hope, Despair, Disbelief, and Amazement - and Retaliation.

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