As always, they began with global forecasts.
‘Of course, my boys, it all comes down to the question of the debt, which bears down on everything as a low pressure tearing through the world economy. That is the starting point for an understanding of the situation. It makes conditions ever more volatile on the high seas of the world market.’
Peter twisted his reading glasses between his thumb and forefinger, hands hanging loosely off his crossed knees, the occasional strand of hair creeping out from beneath his cuffs.
‘How much is the debt, PM?’ asked Tristram.
‘Worldwide? One cannot precisely say.’ Peter did not let his disappointment show through. As always, he was quite prepared to persevere with his student. ‘But the best estimates are around two-hundred trillion dollars – a figure even our Clientele cannot entirely comprehend.’ The brothers turned in their seats.
‘Think of it this way: It is three times what the entire economy of the planet produces in a year. That is to say, the debt could be repaid in only three years’ time… if we could get the little people to work without pay.’ Tristram looked perplexed.
‘I don’t think that would go down very well, PM.’
‘Quite right my boy, quite right.’ He had long ceased expecting fireworks from his young apprentice, but he admired his trying little squibs, brought to him like a faithful golden retriever. The mediocre student who endeavours can climb high, say the Chinese, a brilliant student who does not will fall low. His other student would be brilliant, if only he would apply himself.
‘This is why it is important that we continue to pursue our projected aims. Our Holdings here, and in the media, are dedicated to talking up the economy – very important for morale. Do you recall what Napoleon had to say about morale?’
Tristram’s face became constipated. It was on the tip of his tongue; his Lord said it so often.
Much to Peter’s irritation, Chuka merely peered out of the high grated windows. It was a sunny morning. He saw oarsmen skimming over the waves that rippled along the Thames, before escaping under Westminster Bridge.
‘The moral is to the physical as three to one,’ said Chuka, putting Tristram out of his misery. ‘Something which our former leader never understood,’ he added, slouching disinterestedly in his leather arm chair.
‘Do sit up and pay attention, my boy,’ said Peter, a mother’s despair pregnant in his plea. Chuka complied.
‘Of course, we must understand that this… necessary fiction, is contradicted by the facts. In America the figures show it is the weakest recovery in history, and elsewhere matters are worse. What that means, regrettably, is that predictions for economic growth are revised down on a routine basis. Ultimately, that erodes confidence; like chasing a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.’
Tristram nodded in solemn comprehension. He learned long ago that there was little point in chasing rainbows.
‘Now, you are both keeping up with the Financial Times, are you not? It is paramount you do, and that you bring your findings here to discuss. The FT is the only completely open channel we have. I have shown you which writers to read, and if you do read them,’ he tilted his head toward Chuka, ‘then, of course, these meetings will become a little less one-way, and we will save ourselves a great deal of time if I don’t have to…’
That Lord Peter declined to finish his sentence was all the sign the boys needed, and they both promised to keep up with their homework. Tristram jotted down a reminder in his notebook to take out a subscription to the Financial Times, underlining it several times.
‘Pay attention to the interest on the debt… thank you my dear,’ his secretary brought Peter his tea in a delicate china cup. ‘It denotes the health of an economy, like the charts the doctor keeps at the bottom of a patient’s bed. And after that: investment levels – they indicate the flow of oxygen through the system. In America, capital investment as a whole is at an historic low, and state investment has been falling for the past five years. This shows the prevailing mood, not just of our Clientele, but of the entire bourgeois. Their reasoning is simple: demand is so weak that it is near impossible for them to know whether to sow fields they may never harvest.’ Tristram turned to Chuka with a plea for help written across his face.
‘What’s the point in buying new machinery and building new factories,’ explained Chuka, ‘when they can’t make a decent profit from the ones they already have?’
‘Precisely,’ said Peter.
Tristram did revere his brother. He simply could not put things like he did.
‘And in Britain,’ Peter continued, ‘of all the money that is undoubtedly sloshing around, less than a fifth is in new production. Most is being spent by companies on their own shares in order to keep the price high, which is quite understandable. If one cannot invest, better to keep the shareholder happy than let good money sit idle.’
Peter’s mouth curled ever so slightly. ‘One of our Clients is apt to say: “You can buy a throne with money, but you cannot sit on it.”
The boys made polite noises like laughter.
‘Yes, most droll,’ said Peter. ‘Therefore, and as we have said before, the problem is not for lack of money. Vast sums have been injected – even conjured – since the crisis, but to no avail. To be perfectly honest, all that printing did was increase the public debt, with at best negligible results. Despite the best wishes of our aforementioned Client, around one-and-a-half trillion dollars are little more than thrones piled high in the bank vaults of Europe and London. Plenty of sore bottoms, I think you will agree.’
‘All that would go a long way toward paying off the debt,’ said Tristram. ‘In that case why have we printed our money, PM? Seems rather silly to me.’
‘Well, the Clientele are not very well going to pay the debt themselves, good heavens!’ said Peter. ‘They would not be Clients very long if they did so.’
Chuka bit his bottom lip.
‘Oh, it was desperation, in the main – the need to be seen to be doing something. We had our reservations, naturally, but even our influence has its limits. After all, if we were omnipotent, what would be the point in being organised?’
The boys again made noises like polite laughter. It was a favourite maxim Peter’s, and as he believed repetition to be the mother of all learning, the boys knew the sound of it well.
‘What the world needs is a severe detox, not printing more debt,’ asserted Chuka, fondling his wrist. ‘Go cold turkey. That’s the only way to do it.’
Peter admired his student’s ruthless streak; if only it could be harnessed. Combined with the boy’s ‘ethnic good looks’ he could be Blair re-born. Or, dare he dream, the British Obama? But did he possess Tony’s instincts?
‘Well, you are quite right, my boy,’ said Peter, offered his palms and exposing more dark, wiry filaments.
‘Only, of course, this only goes to show why global forecasts are so important.’ He suspected the boys did not appreciate this most fundamental of questions. They always seemed to brighten up when the discussion moved on to organisational matters.
‘We are not academic eunuchs. We discuss economic forecasts for one reason, and one reason only; insofar as it informs our understanding of the class struggle.’
‘In the interests of the Clientele,’ said Chuka, nodding enthusiastically. Once Peter guided his man to the battlefield, he could usually understand the terrain. But Tristram shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
He had only been attending these meetings for the past year; Chuka much longer. The three men usually met on the first of the month, every month, in Peter’s office, but on this occasion it had been held back, owing to the General Election.
At first Tristram had joined them only occasionally, and the discussion had been quite informal. He was flattered to be invited into the confidence of his Lord, but for an occasional doubt that smouldered, like indigestion, in the hollows of his rib-cage.
PM often talked about the ‘class struggle’, and used terms like ‘capital’ and ‘proletariat’ and ‘bourgeois’ quite freely. Tristram felt awfully embarrassed when this happened, struggling to know where to look.
‘We discuss developments in America;’ said Peter, ‘China’s slowdown, and the consequential drop in the price of oil; the effect that has on our oil Clientele; how that in turn plays out in the arena of international relations; the Euro Crisis and its effects on morale; all for one reason: the class struggle.’
‘The fall-out from 2008 has not gone away. It persists, like background radiation. But it is no mere Three Mile Island. We cannot evacuate. We have no choice but to live among it; to keep taking the Iodide and persevere, in the national interest, as you so rightly said, my boy.’
Peter talked for some time about the class struggle in China and the growing pessimism of the East Asian Clientele. China represented one of their greatest triumphs, and far better managed than what had transpired in Russia.
But he offered a word of warning: The Clientele was now questioning whether they had not been too successful in their Oriental endeavours; whether their success was not in fact provoking instability between the classes.
Tristram did his best to grasp the essence of what was being said, trying to look past the exotic language Peter and Chuka employed. He was learning that questions of stability were real concerns for Peter’s friends. It was an alarming picture, as far as he could understand. The Chinese simply did not have the infrastructure in place to deal adequately with the brewing discontent. ‘Safety valves’, Peter called them. The British had perfected theirs over many centuries, whereas the valves made in China were cheap and plastic in comparison, and poorly installed. He reported that increasing numbers of Chinese clients were travelling to visit Peter personally to discuss how they might manufacture to British standards. It was one of the few growth industries.
‘Yet, rule by the sword remains the most common practice,’ continued Peter.
‘It is all rather uncivilised. But a necessary evil, one must concede, when you have not laid down the many centuries of sediment, as our forebears did.’
They went on to discuss the precarious balance of the classes internationally, and the key battle fronts in South Africa, in Venezuela, in Mexico. They discussed the troubling developments in Europe and the worrying signs in Spain and the appalling situation in Greece, which they all agreed was the greatest danger in the present situation. Finally, they arrived in Britain.
‘What characterises the situation here, of course, is the advanced understanding of the national interest that the little people have.’ Chuka and Tristram nodded wholeheartedly.
‘Not that we have not had our occasional difficulties,’ continued Peter, with a serpentine smile. ‘The Prime Minister had an uncomfortable start when the students threw out their toys. Our Liberal Democratic friends played an admirable role in all that…’ His voice trailed off into a sigh, and for a moment he stared, glassy-eyed, through the high grated window.
‘There draws to an end one of our finest projects.’ A moment’s silence descended upon the little gathering.
Presently Tristram ventured:
‘How do you mean, PM?’
‘He means the SDP,’ whispered Chuka. ‘It was one of the first directives that helped build the Tendency. Don’t you remember? We discussed it a few months’ ago – about how the Clientele was forced to split the party in eighty-one? And how it then brought some back later, and fused the rest with the old Liberal Party to form the Lib Dems?’ Of course he remembered.
‘…but this is business,’ said Peter, regaining his composure, ‘and last week’s result has knocked them out of the equation. However one might feel personally.’
‘And the so-called General Strike remains in the long grass,’ said Chuka.
‘Quite right,’ said Peter. Go to the top of the class. ‘Our people at the TUC made short work of that. Of course, some of the union leaders continue to be tiresome, but we maintain stout Holdings and wide Secondary Holdings among them.’
‘And we also have “Holdings”,’ said Tristram, wielding the word unsteadily, ‘in the left groups and campaigns?’
‘We do,’ said Peter, ‘one or two gritty fellows who do not mind that sort of thing. In small groups it is often as simple as sniffing out the demoralised elements – and our men can smell demoralisation a mile off. Their mandate is quite straightforward: to keep these groups safely partitioned from the Party.’
Tristram found this the most gratifying revelation he had stumbled upon in their year-long meetings, and was by far his favourite topic of discussion. He loathed the Left with such a hideous pleasure that he took care to keep its true depths hidden from all sight, even from Peter and Chuka. It was secreted behind a palatal flap at the back of his throat, and it lactated each time they discussed the question.
‘But what the General Election proves, in laboratory fashion,’ said Peter, ‘is what we have always said. The British are the most advanced people on earth, and therefore the most sensible. I suspect it comes from getting our bourgeois revolution out of the way so early. A king’s head was not a bad price to pay, in the long run. Once the fires petered out, the path was cleared for hundreds of years of slow, gradual progress and peaceful cooperation.
‘Naturally, one cannot discount the influence of foreign ideas that excite the blood; particularly in this era of instant communication. But if the last period has shown anything, it is the superior good sense of the English.’
‘You mean the British?’ said Tristram.
‘Yes… and who would have thought it? After five years of quite brutal cuts to their treasured “welfare state”, they hardly made so much as a peep.
‘The occasional protest was bound to flare up, naturally, but we keep such developments so far away from the party that they dissipate into thin air, thank the Lord. If only one could keep them out of the unions…
‘And so the little people voted back the same pro-austerity government. Only the German can boast the same success. How can one argue with that?’ The boys nodded in furious agreement.
‘I have to say, even I underestimated the little people,’ said Peter, with a broad, rascally smile.
‘At least, that is what I have concluded. I never had much faith in Ed, as you know.’ The boys raised their eyebrows in concurrence.
‘But of course, he will always have our eternal gratitude for raining down that mighty blow upon the unions – surprised us all.’
Peter took a sip from his bone china cup. The tea had gone cold. It happened every time they met. If only they had a little more to say.
He had let the discussion veer, and they agreed to move on to business. On the agenda were just two items: the leadership contest, and reports from Holdings. They spent the lion’s share of their remaining time on the contest, talking late into the afternoon. Their strategy and tactics flowed seamlessly from their political conclusions. They were all agreed: It was time to reclaim the Labour Party.
The next evening Chuka and Tristram dined together in Soho. Inspired by their new joint venture, Tristram was full of questions. They were much the same as Chuka had asked many years ago when he had joined, and as he spooned his Sugar Puffs he did his best to answer the questions as they were fielded. Tristram ate up every answer, so much so that he was hardly able to finish his big bowl of Frosties with chocolate milk.
Their organisation was called the ‘Inner Steel’, explained Chuka, the chivalric title a consequence of their earnest student origins. More often, however, they referred to themselves informally as ‘The Tendency’, and fellow members as ‘Intimates’.
It would be enough to be told that someone was ‘Intimate with the Tendency’ to understand they were a member, although he explained that one had to earn many years of trust before you were deemed ready to be introduced to the wider organisation. They were a disciplined force, clandestine, and were nothing without the ideas around which they organised.
‘After all,’ he said, ‘before we can fight together, we have to understand what it is that we are fighting for.’ That sounded reasonable enough, thought Tristram.
‘So what exactly are the… core beliefs?’
‘We work under the direction of the Clientele and at their discretion. The core beliefs can be summarised in three words: “Modernism”, “Moderation” and the “National Interest”.’
‘I’ve noticed PM often refers to “The National Interest”.’
‘It might sound like a euphemism,’ said Chuka. ‘I assure you, it is not. We’re vigilant against that kind of thing slipping into our internal communications. Of course, every craft has its own specialist language, but if you unpack it you’ll find the term is quite logically… flawless.’
Chuka explained how the Tendency strove for total internal clarity. Managerial circumambage was a tactical necessity, of course. Evasion, misdirection, ambiguity; these were all tools of their trade. But to wield them internally would be fatal.
‘When we talk about “The National Interest”, we are describing the preservation of the status quo; the Clientele’s established order of things,’ he explained. ‘Of course, we all accept that the free market is the only possible system.’
‘You mean capitalism?’
‘Exactly. If you don’t get that clear in your head, and keep it at the forefront of your thoughts at all times, you’re lost.
‘Simple enough,’ said Tristram.
‘For us, perhaps, but you’d be shocked at how many people in the Labour Party have a hard time hearing it. I mean, it’s not like there is an alternative. But that’s the essential difference between ourselves and the rest of the party – they haven’t thought it through.
‘The Labour Party ranks live in a sort of collective denial. They reject logical thinking outright, for fear of where such clarity would lead them. It’s a defence mechanism. There are few non-Intimates in the party who come close to the understanding and foresight we possess.’
‘Non-Intimates?’ said Tristram, grinding his flakes between his molars.
‘Everyone outside The Tendency.’
‘I see. And I suppose once you are clear that there is no alternative to capitalism, certain things flow from that?’
‘Exactly- you’re a logical thinker. But we’re not so naïve as to worship capitalism. We understand it has some serious defects; o-eight showed us that quite clearly.’ Tristram slurped his lime soda, captivated.
‘We don’t believe in an “Invisible Hand” that will just correct the market if left to its own devices. The same way you wouldn’t expect your garden to tend itself– it would soon grow wild.’
‘You’d need to hire a gardener,’ said Tristram. His mind drifted to his local constituency.
‘Precisely. We’re very much like gardeners. We check for rain, we test the soil, we prune the vines; we plant, we channel, we unearth.’
‘And I suppose you sow, too?’
‘We do indeed, brother,’ he said, leaning across his bowl of Sugar Puffs and raising his cream soda in a toast. ‘And in a few months’ time we’ll reap the harvest.’
‘Long may he reign,’ said Tristram.
‘Long may we reign, my friend.’
Chuka continued his explanation. The problem with the free-market dogmatists was that they believed the state should not interfere. If they had had their way they would have allowed the entire capitalist system to collapse. If the banks had not been bailed out by the state, their so-called invisible hand would have been bleeding cash machines dry across the planet. It would have led to anarchy, war, revolution – instability.
Such people were all well and good for propaganda purposes. One could provide them with a professorship and a healthy disbursement. But they should be kept safely confined to whatever backwater department one finds them in. It was dangerous when propaganda rose above its station – tactics should not dictate strategy.
The bottom line was that there was no such thing as perpetual motion. The system needed maintenance. It needed managers. In the past, you might have relied on tradition and mother Church to lend an inert hand – but they were no longer reliable.
That said, Inner Steel had no time for sentimental traditionalism. If anything it nurtured a low-key contempt for the decrepit bishops and lords and ladies that had managed to cling on to their hereditary titles. Nothing like PM of course, who had earned his peerage.
‘My father too,’ said Tristram, proudly.
For the most, the old nobility were time consuming profligates. However, just because something was old, it did not necessarily make it less modern. The British state was extremely modern, Chuka explained, because it was the model of managerial obliqueness.
‘The British system is not a set of rigid and inflexible rules,’ explained Chuka, ‘but of precedents and ancient traditions. Some can be brought to the surface at one moment, and pushed into the background at the next. We can rearrange them as we see fit; bury them one minute, revive them the next. It’s a beautiful labyrinth, an intricate pantomime, and it can absorb any shocks because of its rubbery demarcations.
‘For instance: Who is the Queen? What can she really do? Does she have a say in running the country? Or is she just window-dressing? Most little people wouldn’t be able to answer such questions with any degree of accuracy. They’d soon end up contradicting each other and cancelling each other out.
‘That’s what makes the British state so thoroughly modern. In disturbed times, it’s an important moderating force in the hands of the Clientele. And for that, Britain commands a great deal of respect among the nations.
‘Did you know that the British state is the basic model for all call-center queuing systems?’ Tristram did not.
‘That’s why we’re the envy of the world. PM says even our American Clientele would like nothing more than to adopt the British model and re-write their naked and self-contained constitution, all there to see in black and white. But of course, when they wrote the thing they never imagined that one day the little people would be able to read.’
‘Yes – very short-sighted,’ said Tristram. He found this all wonderfully refreshing. It was not as if he had not suspected such things. A little understanding he had gleamed from his discussions with Peter and Chuka. But it was so liberating to hear such correct ideas articulated, not only perfectly sensibly, but by people who were serious, and who put their money where their mouth was, and were well organised. That lent their words weight.
‘The crisis in o-eight shows why defending the national interest is synonymous with the preservation of the capitalist system,’ said Chuka. ‘Only the state was able to come to the Clientele’s rescue.’
‘The half-trillion pounds of taxpayers’ money?’
‘Yes. You see the Clientele are the national interest. And the nation-state is our tool for preserving them.’
‘But why say “The National Interest”?’ asked Tristram. ‘Capitalism is a worldwide phenomenon. You can’t say the two things are completely identical.’
‘But there isn’t a world state, is there?’ said Chuka. ‘There are international relations, of course; international treaties, blocs, and the like. And our Tendency naturally operates internationally. But everywhere we work, we do so through the ready-made machinery. That means the nation-state.
‘Theoretically, I suppose one might imagine a single international capitalist super-state. But the Clientele prefer to have a number of local departments to work through. Why put all your eggs in one basket?’
‘So how does the Tendency view the EU?’
‘We’ll work anywhere. We’re not purists. NATO, NAFTA, the IMF. Hell, we’d work in Islamic State if there was an angle to it. But these things come and go. What remains is the national interest. That is what the system is based upon. Yes, capitalism is global, but it rests on individual nation-states which the bourgeoisie have built up over centuries, and which the Clientele are in no hurry to dispose of.’
‘How many people are involved? It all sounds so wonderful, but I’ve only met you and PM.’
‘You’ve met more than you think. But look, we’re careful. There’s no membership list. We’re small in the name of discretion. But truthfully, I don’t know how many members there are. It exists, and it must exist, that’s as far as I know.
‘I’m held in intimacy by PM, and I had Holdings in you – before we became intimate. And there are others, higher up, that PM has intimate relations with.’
Higher than PM? Goodness, they must be ten feet tall.
‘Besides, we don’t need a big set-up. The Clientele sees to it that we are well financed. And with a decent flow of Holdings, our Intimates can have an impact far beyond their number. I have a portfolio of Holdings and Secondary Holdings, but it’s not my place to talk to you about them. The little people that keep you informed in your constituency; you should consider them Holdings. It bodes well to maintain a limited portfolio outside of Westminster.’
‘By Holdings, you mean apprentices, am I right in saying?’
‘Not exactly. PM is responsible for both of us, and reports to Intimates higher up, even Clientele.
‘Eventually I might take you out of PM’s hands. Then we can be intimate with one another on our own projects, and have intimate discussions by ourselves.
‘Holdings and Secondaries are more like influence. They are either someone you meet with on a regular basis and bring round to our way of thinking – before a crucial vote at the NEC, say – or someone you know we have influence over, but choose to deal with them indirectly, through a Holding. It can often be better that way. For a long time, you were a Secondary Holding of PM’s. Then for the last year he has held you directly, and now we’re all intimate together.’
Tristram felt slightly objectified to be discussed in such a way. Bur he did not dislike it.
‘Have you ever thought what it might be like to join the Conservative party?’
The sinful question that had niggled at Tristram over the years suddenly let fly. It felt good to get it off his chest.
Chuka did not flinch. It was a question that often came up during an Intimate’s induction, and showed he was developing well. But it was not an option. The Conservatives were a very important element in the equation, and Inner Steel was very active inside of it, but members of the Tendency inside the Labour Party had a crucial role to play.
‘We are valuable members of Inner Steel, much more than your equivalent Tory. The Tendency tries to put people where they work best: in parliament, in the unions, in the local parties – anywhere they are needed.’
The crucial role played by Labour Intimates, Chuka continued, was their stewardship of a deep and dangerous fault line which the trade unions created over a hundred years ago when they created the Labour Party. The original idea was harmless enough – that the little people should have their own voice in parliament. But of course that did not necessarily mean they knew how everything worked.
While there was an open question as to its long-term usefulness, the Labour Party remained an extremely important lever that the Clientele wished to keep their hands on. Sometimes an industrial lubricant was needed to keep the party from careering out of control: peerages, honours, roles in the state; not exactly suitcases of cash one should understand. That was too crude, and liable to leave fingerprints. Nevertheless, the positions and the combinations to those suitcases were ‘made available’ if and when necessary.
‘You know that most union leaders never take a worker’s wage? Well, that was us. At one point there was a counter-current against it: “Workers’ representatives on workers’ wages” – even for Labour MPs!’
‘Gosh! That would cost me half my salary,’ said Tristram. ‘Not very worker-friendly.’
‘Indeed. Thankfully, these days union jobs – MP’s jobs, even local councillor positions – are well-lubricated. And everything runs smoother as a result. What was really magnificent about that particular accomplishment was how we tapped into the historic Labour demand for waged MPs.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Parliament used to be a gentleman’s sport, attended by those rich enough not to have to earn a living. The Tendency took Labour’s historic demand and turned it to the Clientele’s advantage, you see? Today they all defend the wages system.
‘It speaks no words, it leaves no trace, but it has a lot to say all the same. That’s when we work best.’
‘Of course, there are still troublemakers, like the Firefighters. They pay their General Secretary a high wage, but he donates a large slice of it to political causes and in reality only takes what the average firefighter does. It’s a problem, but relatively isolated. At least they’re no longer affiliated.
‘But you get the picture. It’s important that all levels of the Labour movement are “priced in”, so to speak. Without a price things can become unknowable, and even unmanageable.’ Tristram understood.
‘Once we’ve broken them in, ninety-nine per cent of the labour movement leaders become the most accommodating chaps to work with. Often, they were so rigid before that, once they snap, they lose all resistance… Did you know that trade union organisation is one of the most upwardly mobile professions? Our Intimates at the top accomplish a great deal because they often come from actual working-class backgrounds, you see. They rarely start out as place-seekers or bargain-hunters, and some can be too wild to be put to good use, but you’d be surprised how many former proletarians we’re intimate with. It’s like the armed forces – important to bring a few up from the ranks. They talk the proles’ language, and that’s all round better for morale.’
‘Which is three to one,’ said Tristram.
‘Very good,’ said Chuka, chewing his puffs, ‘you’re learning. What makes our work such an art is the balance we must keep between two opposing forces. The little people are always wanting more: more money, more wages, more health care, pensions; things like that appear to interest them.
‘Our Clientele, on the other hand, always wants to claw those wages back so they can be better invested. The workforce is quite an expense, you know?’ Tristram had heard as much.
‘The difficulty I suppose,’ said Tristram ‘is that we can’t categorically make them go away. I mean, we can’t have a country without… workers. Although, I suppose we could have a country without the Clientele?’
It was something that Tristram would never be able to say in public, but it gave him a sense of freedom to speak it plainly, knowing he would not be mistaken for some rotten socialist.
‘None of us wants that, of course.’
‘Exactly,’ said Chuka. ‘Can you imagine a world without the Clientele? But that’s why it’s important that Labour is priced in. If you don’t, it might spin out of control.’ Tristram could see the logic in that.
‘Which is why it’s paramount we don’t foster illusions.’
‘I thought that was the name of the game?’
‘I mean internally, inside the Tendency – between Intimates.’
‘Oh yes, of course.’
‘Inner Steel is a realistic force for moderation. The only logical alternative is Russia and gulags and war.
‘Unfortunately, the world is made up of different people, all occupying different positions and with different outlooks. You can’t persuade all of them, all of the time. So we accept that there is no perfect system, only one of temporary stability within a greater chaos. The weeds never stop growing.’
They moved on to some of the finer points of membership.
‘Directives come from the top down – no democratic nonsense. Clarity doesn’t mix well with democracy. Our directives are determined by logic, not votes. Every so often forecasts are reviewed, refined, re-approximated; sometimes spawning entirely new directives and projects, all flowing from our overall global forecast.’
‘I know I shouldn’t ask, but… is Blair an Intimate?’
The question caught Chuka with his spoon between bowl and mouth. ‘No. And no, you shouldn’t ask. Don’t do it again.’
‘Really!’ he exclaimed, so loudly that he disturbed his fellow diners. Munching ceased in the Soho restaurant.
‘I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t have. I was just… so certain.’
‘Shocked me too, first time I heard it. Technically he’s only ever been a Holding of ours. PM says he was too unalloyed to be brought into the Inner Steel. Talks about him like he’s the Messiah; says he didn’t need to be held – that he was too pure.
‘Every directive the Clientele passed down Blair already anticipated. I don’t know how much of an exaggeration that is. Don’t know the guy. Anyway, that’s why he was never organised – there was no call for it. He was only ever intimate with himself, says Peter. The way he tells it, half the time Blair was directing us.’ Tristram was disappointed and impressed.
‘Payments are made offshore every quarter. But you won’t need for money anymore. The Tendency takes care of you now.’
‘And Tristram, you must understand, we never lose anyone. Once you become intimate with the Tendency… I’d like to say that it’s based purely on loyalty, but you know we require a deposit.’
‘Yes, I… understand.’
‘PM says it used to involve a Polaroid and an Alsatian in the old days – that’s students for you. Before the internet. Now it’s more straightforward. Of course, in your case, the Tendency is more than satisfied with their security.’ Tristram went bright pink.
‘Don’t worry about it. We’re all human.’
‘Yes, quite,’ said Tristram. His Frosties had gone soggy.
A few days later Lord Peter summoned the boys, insisting they meet in the parliamentary tea rooms on urgent business, the details of which he would not disclose over the phone. Neither suspected anything out of the ordinary; last-minute mid-morning conferences happened all the time.
They sat by themselves in the middle of the democratic din. Only a few weeks had passed since the General Election, and Westminster Palace had not yet settled into its usual rhythm. Amid the mash of noise, occasional gasps escaped, all relating to the coming Labour leadership contest:
‘It’s going to last three months.’
‘You can vote for just three quid.’
‘Who is Mary?’
As planned, Chuka had lost no time in announcing his candidacy. At that moment he felt all eyes were on him, and he bathed in it.
Crowding the entrance of the tea rooms was a tiding of new MPs on their induction tour. Tristram noticed there was a substantial Scottish contingent among them.
‘Bit out in the open this meeting,’ he said, cutting into his cake.
‘There’s Liz’s camp,’ said Chuka, nodding discretely at a thicket of MPs stood around one table. ‘They’re talking about us.’
‘They’re scared,’ said Tristram. ‘I’ve spoken to one or two members who are considering transferring their support now that your hat’s in the ring. Although I have to say, I’m surprised how many have already plumped for her. But a worthy opponent – better than the other weaklings.’
He chewed guardedly, glancing sideways at the thicket.
‘They’re saying Andy is the favourite and apparently the trade unions are backing him. Can’t believe how quickly they’ve organised. We should be able to get out the support in Stoke.’
Chuka was inspecting his brogues and not really listening. He was familiar with the general structure of the conversation.
‘Well I’m not surprised; you’ve always been a staunch local MP.’ He folded one leg over his knee and thumbed the polished leather of his shoe.
‘That’s right,’ said Tristram, washing down his cake with a gulp of tea. ‘One of the little fellows said the same when I was up there last. You know I put in two straight weeks in Stoke in the run-up to the election. I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard in my life!’
‘Is that so?’
‘Bit of an ugly bunch, I must say. Very pasty – could do with some sun. Funny sort of place, faces seem to change every time I visit.’
‘The unions can’t do too much for Andy,’ said Chuka ‘they’re a spent force. They’ve been threatening to take their ball away for years. Maybe this time they’ll honour us.’ Tristram did admire Chuka’s devilish streak.
The morning sun passed behind a cloud, and the room dimmed slightly. At that moment the mash of noise faltered. Lord Peter had entered.
As he neared, he did not slow or meet their eyes, but walked straight past them without so much as a smile and continued toward an isolated corner of the tea rooms, near to the gap in the service counter through which the waitresses passed. Two large Tory gentlemen sat there enjoying bacon and eggs, minding their own business.
Tristram and Chuka watched silently, and so did the rest of the tea room. The tubby Tories, seeing Peter approach, rose from their seats, and one almost unbalanced in his chair.
Soon they both developed watery smiles and began nodding pensively. Then they gathered their eggs, their mugs, papers and briefcases in clumsy bundles and vacated the table with good will.
Peter took his seat, extracted a handkerchief and lightly dusted the table. The boys approached, and he did not stir, but merely sat cross-legged, staring into nothing and indifferent to the world around him. Presently the Lord looked up at them with the inner peace of a grandfather wakened from a dream.
‘Hello, my boys. Please, be seated.’
Soon the tea room returned to the usual bludgeon, although one or two eyes continued to twitch toward the wholesome little threesome nested in the corner.
A waitress immediately brought Peter a pot of tea. The briefest of small talk was had, and then Peter asked them:
‘And how do you feel about the present predicament?’ Tristram suspected his meaning.
‘I was only just saying to Chuka, a lot of chaps have already promised themselves to Liz’s camp. I mean, early days yet, but they really have moved ever so quickly. All in rather bad taste, I thought.’
‘It is not the contest, my dear boy… and yet again, it is. Have you not read the papers?’
Tristram understood that Peter enjoyed testing them, but this was far too cryptic. The boys looked at each other, neither knowing Peter’s meaning. The Lord leant back in his chair for a moment and pressed the tips of his fingers together.
‘There’s no easy way to say this, my boys, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to just come straight out and say it: We are pulling out of the race.’
‘What!’ blurted Tristram, indignant for his friend. Chuka looked down at his shoes.
‘What’s developed, PM?’ asked Chuka.
‘I do wish you boys would keep up with your reading. What has happened is this,’ he said, producing a bundle of photocopied sheets from inside his jacket and landing them on the table. They were of a national newspaper and underlined heavily in biro.
‘New directives?’ asked Chuka.
Tristram looked about him.
‘Isn’t this a bit out in the open, PM?’
‘It is in the newspapers, my boy – hardly top secret. Not that anyone here is giving it the attention it deserves, what with this blasted leadership contest. But the Clientele certainly is.’
‘What does it say, PM?’ asked Tristram.
‘Oh, it says many things, my boy, many things I’m sure a clever lad like you might have guessed.’ He sipped his tea.
‘It contains the most advanced analysis of the General Election to date, and tells us that our previous conclusions were, well, quite unfounded. For us, the most important headline is the Labour vote. According to the data, it was the most middle-class in the party’s history.’
‘Surely that can’t be right,’ said Tristram. ‘If we had captured the middle ground, how could we have possibly lost the election?’
‘Because,’ whispered Peter grudgingly, leaning forward in his chair, ‘the proletarian core did something we failed to price in… They deserted the party in their droves!’ He banged the flat of his hand on the table, causing his tea to upset. Eyes blinked from the corners of the room. Tristram was confused. It did not seem to him something to be all that upset about.
‘But doesn’t that show that we’re winning? Isn’t it proof that union influence is on the wane?’
‘My dear boy,’ said Peter. ‘There is no point advancing on a position if you leave your rear exposed. The proles are our base – money in the bank. ’
‘So where have they gone, PM?’ asked Chuka with dead eyes, reconciled already to the new situation.
‘Scotland, of course, but we were aware of that. But also to UKIP. And the Greens took the youth, also an important base.’ Tristram could feel Peter’s weariness radiating.
‘The Clientele are up in arms about this and are calling in a revision of the entire forecast. It will be the third revision in a year,’ he sighed, longing for more innocent times.
‘We knew that UKIP was undermining the Tory base with this immigration nonsense. But to give Ed his due, he seemed to have positioned himself well enough to check that on our flank. The mug even said we needed to be tough on immigrants. I really did not see this coming.’
He finished his sentence in his tea, taking a prolonged gulp. The boys waited in silence, concern dawning upon their faces.
‘It is true we were initially surprised that we had not provoked a rebellion,’ said Peter, his cup drained. ‘Some local difficulties at the beginning of the Prime Minister’s term, yes, but nothing monumental. These figures, however, provide us with a comprehensive snapshot. The Clientele says it shows the situation is D.U.D.’
‘D.U.D?’ asked Tristram.
‘Deep Underlying Discontent,’ said Chuka. ‘They’ve mentioned it before, in regard to China and Southern Europe. But it couldn’t happen here, surely? Our union Intimates would have picked up on it, wouldn’t they, PM?’
‘I don’t know, my boy, that is what worries me. The unions no longer seem the sensitive instruments they once were. Zero-hour contracts have been good for the national interest, of course, but the unions do not seem to know what to do with them.’
‘Useless,’ said Chuka. ‘You should have a word with them, PM. Tell them to get organised.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Peter. ‘But in the meantime what the Clientele is demanding is a radical repositioning of Labour. They have already had to let go of the Lib Dems – and I can tell you what a sorry fuss was made over that! We picked up a lot of liberal support, but little else, and of course the middle class is not what it once was. The core losses to the SNP and UKIP the Clientele consider intolerable.
‘Apathy is fine, but this kind of political re-distribution threatens stability,’ continued Peter. ‘They want normal working relations to resume as soon as possible. The Prime Minister needs to govern in peace.’
‘Apathy means contentment – one only has to look at my constituency to see that,’ said Tristram. ‘Only, I thought the Clientele would be pleased with the outcome. After all, the Prime Minister doesn’t have to work with that awful Clegg anymore.’
‘The Prime Minister had to promise a referendum on Europe to stop half his party defecting to UKIP,’ said Peter. ‘Having the Lib Dems as a shield actually worked out surprisingly well for him.’
‘Yes, but now the election is over with, surely he can renege on one little referendum?’
‘And risk splitting the Conservative Party? The Clientele would be appalled. Do you know that half the Tory backbenchers voted UKIP at the election? The Prime Minister is having a hard enough time trying to bury that English Parliament nonsense he cooked up – he only has a majority of twelve. If he reneges on Europe he will lose his majority. That will provoke instability. No, no; the Tories must be held together. We made it through Scotland… I am afraid we will just have to weather another plebeian supervision.’ Peter tapped his fingers on his lips. Chuka had never seen him so agitated.
‘So I am afraid what this blasted contest now needs is not another moderniser, but a bone to throw to the proles. It has become the Clientele’s number one priority – stop Labour’s bleed. That means pulling the whole thing to the left. Can you believe it? Unfortunately, my boys, that is the price of stability.’
‘And what about Liz – is she going to be stepping down as well?’ asked Chuka.
‘Too suspicious. Besides, we need someone to carry the standard, my boy, but that is not going to be you. If you ran, you might win, and the Clientele considers that too much for the Prime Minister.
‘But look, she is not going to win. She is there to keep our lot on the map. We have big ideas for you, but they will have to wait. Your time will come.’
‘Anything to serve the national interest,’ said Chuka.
‘That is the spirit, my boy. Take it as a compliment.’
‘As for now, we need to start working on a whole raft of new directives that have just come down. They are even talking about creating a genuine labour youth group, good heavens above!
‘I need you boys to start scouting for a candidate of the Left; someone with a bit more about them than the last one. Work through your Holdings and report back to me. And be thorough – I fear there is not much to choose from.’
In the month of May forty-thousand men, women and children, fleeing war, entered Europe.