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For You, the War Is Over

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The campaign office at Walworth Road is filled with the detritus of a disappointing evening– stale cigarette smoke, boxes of flowers, discarded rosettes, unopened champagne bottles, Neil. It's past their bedtime. The hours after midnight are for young men. So increasingly, Roy suspects, is the Labour Party.

He shouldn't be here, but then, neither should Neil, and Roy feels that he shouldn't leave him alone. Not because Neil is likely to do anything stupid– Neil has been doing stupid things for eight years, most recently a week ago in Sheffield; this night has freed them, at long last, from Neil's stupidity– but because it does not seem right that the leader of the Labour Party should be abandoned on the eve of his defeat like those red and gold rosettes that lie scattered about the floor. And while he will never be Prime Minister, Neil is, still, the leader of the Labour Party, as he will be until John Smith can get his affairs in order.

Roy will never even be that much.

He is starting to hate the smell of roses.

They have been in opposition for thirteen years. Now they will be for another five. It's not Neil's fault, although Roy's not sure Neil realizes that. Maybe that's why he's staying, because there should be someone here who understands that this defeat was not Neil's fault. Maybe it's to screen Peter Mandelson's inappropriately jubilant phone calls. He's a good kid and Roy’s pleased for him, but he really needs to learn when to keep his fucking mouth shut.

Where has Glenys got off to, anyway? Surely she should be sitting this wake for the nation's future with them, if only so that Roy is not left to defuse Neil’s bitter fury alone. Roy takes an irritable swig of his champagne– Neil's not drinking, but in all honesty Roy can't come up with a single reason to be sober right now– and tries not to think about facing the triumphant Tories across the benches in three weeks’ time.

At last Neil, who has spent the night in uncharacteristic silence, slams his fist against a table and turns to Roy.

"You knew this would happen. That by pushing us to the center, I would become... this. Unelectable, unreliable, unlikable, mistrusted by the public, despised by the press, hated by my own party. A man afraid of his own voice, a man without a single principle to his name. You knew."

Bitterness is not an emotion that sits well in Neil. It's more natural than the solemn gravity the Communications office tried to impose on him, but there is still a wrongness to it, a fundamental taint in the proper order of things, like wine gone to vinegar. Tony Benn, for all his faults, wears his bitterness like a martyr's halo, like Christ's crown of thorns. In Neil it just looks graceless and petty. He was meant to be a happy man.

Roy, who is not entirely sure this conversation will not end with Neil hitting him, carefully sets down his champagne. "Yes. I knew."

"And Peter, he knew, the treacherous little snake. The whole time he worked for me, he was planning this. I was just a means to an end, just a stepping stone to John."

Roy sighs. "Have you been talking to Bryan Gould again? Leave the kid out of it. He was still trying to stuff you into those ridiculous black suits when we were halfway through the policy review– whitewash and flower arrangements, that's his level. Cardinal Richelieu he is not. A secret agenda? He can't even get you to start speaking to him again, much less mastermind the reform of the Labour Party.  And you know perfectly well he would never do anything to maneuver John Smith into power.  If you want to blame someone, blame me."

"Oh, I do blame you." Neil smiles, a quick flash of teeth like a striking knife. "They warned me, you know. When I won the leadership they said that I was your cat's paw, that you Londoners would use me to destroy the Left but you would never follow me. But I didn't listen, no, I knew everything, I was too young and arrogant and stupid to take advice. I was fool enough to think I could unite the party. Under my leadership." He spits the word with the same venom he would use for 'Tories' or 'Thatcher'.

"I'm sorry," Roy says.

"No you're not. It's all gone according to plan, hasn't it? I did exactly what you wanted."

"We needed someone like you, someone of the Left who would push us out of the ditch and back onto the road. If you hadn't been what you were, you could never have been elected leader. If you hadn't betrayed what you were, the Party could never be elected to government again. There had to be a sacrifice. I'm sorry it had to be you."

Roy is a little surprised to find he genuinely means it. They've had their differences over the years, and God knows Neil has been the world's worst boss ever since their defeat in the 1987 election, short-tempered and tyrannical and mendacious, sending out Peter to brief against anyone who dares to defy him and then lying and denying everything if the victim confronts him about it. That's really the basis of his snit over Hartlepool, not the fact that he feels abandoned, although he does, or the fact that John Underwood is incompetent, although he is, but the loss of his hitman. It's no way to run a political party, but Roy was never brave enough to stop him. It doesn't matter now.

None of that matters now. There is nothing left to do but hold up the torch of socialism for these last few weeks until John is ready to receive it, a bright steady flame that needs little tending, not the guttering wreck that Neil was handed in 1983. There is something strangely liberating about being superfluous. Roy is free to admit to himself the fundamental truth that their political differences have always obscured– he likes Neil. Neil is a deeply flawed man, and Roy knows his vices only too well, but he finds he likes him no less for all of that.

"I don't mind about the sacrifice," Neil says, a rough edge to his voice. "I just mind that it was all for nothing."

Roy's post-election depression is lifting. He doesn't think it's schadenfreude. Maybe it's the champagne.

"Oh, come off it, Neil. I'm not going to be Prime Minister either," he says, with more good cheer than he can remember feeling for quite some time. He abandons his drink and walks over to his leader, meaning to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder, but something snaps in the air between them like an electrical current grounding and suddenly Neil is in his arms, clinging to him and sobbing into his suit.

Neil clutches at him like a man drowning. It is less awkward to hold him than Roy feels it should be. There is something very un-British about this sort of emotional incontinence, especially in a fifty-year-old man, but Neil slots into his arms like he was made for it, slender against Roy's bulk, short enough to lay his head against Roy's shoulder. Roy holds him tight and doesn't let go.

“It wasn't for nothing, Neil. Someone had to push us out of the ditch, and that person was going to wind up covered in mud. There was no other way. You won't be Prime Minister, but John will be, and he could never have done it without you." He plants a gentle kiss on Neil's balding crown. "It wasn't for nothing."

Neil releases his death-grip on Roy's suit and swipes a hand under his eyes, embarrassed. Roy holds him more gently, but he doesn't let go.

"Do you really think that?"

"I don't think we could have won this election. Not because of Sheffield, not because of that bloody light bulb, not because you fell over on the beach or let Thatcher off the hook for Westland. It's not even because we couldn't get the tax policy straight. It's nothing you did or didn't do, Neil. It's the Party. We're not ready for government yet, and the bloke who sets up the shot can't score the goal."

"I suppose Keir Hardie never served in a government, either," Neil says, not sounding entirely convinced.

"There wouldn't be a Party without you. I really do believe that."

"Five more years, though." Neil shakes his head in despair.

"Next time we'll win," Roy says. "Next time for sure. Do you want some of this champagne, Neil? It isn't bad."

Neil smiles, the first proper smile Roy has seen from him all night. It's faint and laced with sorrow, but it's real.

"All right, Royster. Maybe I will."

We’re all right, Roy thinks, with a surprising lack of sarcasm, we’re all right, and goes to pour Neil a glass.