It’s five degrees colder in Roseworld than it is back home, and as Malcolm steps into the new world the chill night air slaps him across the face like Nicholson’s limp dick. He winces and turns up the collar of his coat, thinking as he does at this time every year that these meet-ups are an enormous fucking waste of time and he should just turn around and go home. But he’s winded from the jump, and given the choice between sitting out on the cold steps of their old campaign headquarters for twenty minutes catching his breath like a fucking wino or having a drink with Mandy and Campbell, the drink wins, by a narrow margin. It’s not like he won’t enjoy himself. Peter has always been fun, in the embarrassing-before-and-after-the-fact way of all recreational drugs. It’s just the idea of an annual reunion with his alternate universe counterparts that causes Malcolm’s stomach to try to crawl up his fucking esophagus to escape its pathetic, reunion-attending prison.
Besides, there’s always the chance they’re more fucked than him. The Plasticine Panda is not exactly a statesmanlike figure, and maybe it’s just the fact Malcolm first encountered him on The Thick of It, but he still struggles with the idea that there is a universe in which Ed Balls is a real person. The Roseworlders had a lucky break with Coulson, but by now the local ambiance of utter fucking incompetence should be reasserting itself. And as far as he knows no one in Cameron’s cabinet has accidentally tweeted something racist, so that’s a point to Malcolm’s world, definitely.
On the way to the pub he pops into a newsagent to search for ammunition. A close inspection of his coins would reveal they’re not quite legal tender, but Malcolm gives the kid behind the counter one of his icier glares, and he’s too busy trying to make change without dropping the money from his shaking fingers to notice that the Queen has a slightly different hairdo. It’s fucking cold out, so Malcolm props himself up against the wall to leaf through the papers.
The story of the hour seems to be that the Prime Minister has opened a new, or perhaps an old, chapter in Anglo-French relations by flouncing out of some European summit over banking reform. Probably a load of jingoistic bullshit, but it will play well with the public until they realize it costs money. Labour are claiming it was a diplomatic catastrophe, but since their argument seems to hinge on the idea that the Euro could be saved if only David Cameron were there to lend his massive intellect to the treaty negotiations, this assessment probably has roughly the same fact-to-arseplasma ratio as the Government’s, not to mention being wildly unpopular.
Fortunately, no one gives a fuck what the Opposition say at this stage in the election cycle, so Miliband could go on the Andrew Marr Show and make Teletubby noises for all the difference it will make. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea. Malcolm should suggest it. Then the under-five demographic might actually be able find him relatable; he could double his supporters. Malcolm tucks the papers under his arm and heads back out into the cold.
The Rose and Crown is five blocks away, which is a nuisance, but Malcolm doesn’t dare to jump there directly. London is always changing, and to jump he needs a fixed point, like the stairs to their old headquarters at Walworth Road. It’s not ideal; the building is being turned into a Holiday Inn and someday they’re going to renovate the forecourt and Malcolm is going to wind up in fucking Oceania or the world where everyone dresses like it’s 1910 and carries a fucking animal everywhere. Every transfer point goes wrong eventually. That’s how Malcolm landed in Roseworld in the first place, he’d been aiming for Steve Fleming’s office, but some cunt had moved the desks around and he fetched up in Peter’s instead. But he figures in this economy masonry is more reliable than a business staying open, so he jumps to the stairs instead of the pub.
His own version of the Rose and Crown closed down a few years ago, but in this world they did the place up for some film and it’s been doing decent business ever since. He’s not entirely sure why. He and Peter chose the pub for convenience rather than the quality of the beer or the food. Peter also chose it for the name, which has been a feeble attempt at irony ever since Peter gayed up the local Labour Party by adopting a fucking flower for their emblem and inadvertently supplied Malcolm with a moniker for his world. A rose for Labour, a crown for the government they hoped to form, and a pint glass up the rectum for Peter’s pathetic sense of humor.
When Team Roseworld fucked off to Millbank it ceased to be convenient for them, but it was still convenient for Malcolm, and he’d objected so strenuously to shifting to some posh, over-priced shithole on the Embankment that when his own campaign headquarters followed suit a year later- much to Malcolm’s chagrin, and of course they had to move out again five years on because they couldn’t afford the fucking rent, but that was fucking Steve Fleming for you- he would have looked like a twat for backing down and allowing them to choose another venue just because they were all working halfway across the city. Besides, the Rose and Crown is refreshingly free of hacks and it does decent orange juice.
It is fucking out of the way, though, and the name above the door is a nagging reminder of how funny Peter often isn’t. And then there’s the matter of the date, which is another of Peter’s shit jokes.
“December 9th, International Anti-Corruption Day,” he’d said when he proposed it fourteen years ago, giving Malcolm that little v-shaped smile. “Now that we’re in government, we have to keep each other honest.”
At least, Malcolm hoped that was meant to be a joke. Maybe it wasn’t, maybe Peter genuinely believed it would be enough to be accountable to someone he met for a drink a few times a year. It would explain why his career path had more dips and craters than Keith Richards’ face. But that’s all water under a bridge Campbell set on fire and dynamited ten years ago. Peter’s long since forgiven him, but then, maybe from Peter’s perspective there was less to forgive. For all his airs and graces and his fucking ermine, he’s always liked it best when the lads get a wee bit rough with him.
Malcolm knows that satisfied, dreamy look Peter gets in his eyes when he talks about how the sainted Tony used him as a meat shield and then threw him away once he was so fucking riddled with bullets that he became too heavy to hold up. It’s the exact same look he used to get back in the fucking Middle Ages after he’d taken up his most supercilious Oxbridge tones and goaded Malcolm into pinning him down and fucking the arrogance right out of him. He’d sit up against the headboard afterward and rub his bruised wrists with a little private smile, and he nurses his political bruises in the same way. What was it the Americans said, some bloke would rather be right than President? Well, Peter would rather be wronged than Prime Minister.
It’s not fucking normal to get a hard-on for the guy who fucked your career like a twelve-year-old boy in a Thai brothel, but Peter just can’t help himself. It’s exactly the sort of incestuous intermingling of the personal and the political that’s made Roseworld such a disaster for as long as Malcolm’s been coming around. It’s like something out of Shakespeare, this place. People don’t fucking behave like this where Malcolm’s from. Although actually, the amount of pleasure Cliff Lawton seems to take in fucking whining about how Malcolm sacked him, he probably does wank over press clippings of his resignation, the sad fuck. But that is precisely why he’s never coming within thirty miles of Government again, if only to spare Malcolm seeing that revolting mental image on a regular basis. In Roseworld ridiculous melodrama is practically a Cabinet brief.
Malcolm is prepared to let Peter off for his stupidity- after all, being elected to Parliament is roughly equivalent to Huntington’s disease in terms of the degenerative decline in brain function; someone should do a fucking study sometime- but Campbell was supposed to be fucking watching him, so Malcolm’s still nursing a grudge. They brought in an outsider because they needed someone with a little objectivity, and no sooner had Alastair Campbell stepped through the doors of Walworth Road than he was sucked even deeper into Tony Blair’s cult of personality than the natives. It probably said more about Blair’s hiring practices than anything else; whatever else you thought of him, he was good at reading people, and if Campbell hadn’t been the type who was easily hypnotized no doubt he would never have got the job in the first place. But Malcolm’s not inclined to be fair to a man whose incompetence hurt the Party, not least by allowing Peter’s reputation to grow so toxic that they had to cut him loose. Peter is a massive twat, but he’s their massive twat, and if the subsequent decade proved anything it’s that these fuckwits are lost without him.
But it’s not Malcolm’s fucking problem. That’s the best thing about Roseworld; when things go wrong, which they do, catastrophically and often, because Campbell is shit and the last Government was about as harmonious and unified as the former Yugoslavia, Malcolm can just laugh and walk away. However bad it gets, he doesn’t have to run after these cunts with a mop and wipe up all the verbal diarrhea they’ve splattered everywhere. It’s not his job. On Malcolm’s better days he even manages to remember this long enough to get himself home.
As he comes up to the pub he reminds himself yet again of the all-important principle of NoMFuP, takes a deep breath, and steps through the doors, scanning the room for his counterparts, or more precisely his bone idle ex-counterparts, who have spent the past year doing fuck all while their party collapses around them. He spots Campbell’s auburn head at a table in the corner, bent over his Blackberry. Probably tweeting, the sad fucker. He’s alone at the table.
“Oi, Mr. Vandemar. Where’s Mr. Croup?” Malcolm asks, shucking his coat and sliding into the booth opposite.
“Coming. Says he’s a busy and he’ll be a bit delayed,” Campbell says, still typing.
“Busy? He’s got no fucking job! What could he possibly be busy with?”
“You know about this Europe thing?”
“Your lad Dave running off from the EU summit crying like a little girl because the French don’t like him? Yeah, I saw the papers,” Malcolm says.
“Peter’s probably out briefing on it,” Campbell says, sending his text and slipping the Blackberry into his pocket. “You have to cut him a break; it’s an exciting time for him. He has this new thing where if he’s not party line on something he doesn’t brief, and he disagrees with the leadership about virtually everything they’re doing. It’s been silent running for him all year. This is the first chance he’s had to talk since July.”
Malcolm stares at Campbell incredulously, but he’s not got on his spin face of earnest conviction, so he’s probably telling the truth.
“It would be nice if he’d had this epiphany a year ago! Or ten years ago. For fuck’s sake.”
Campbell laughs. “Tell me about it. But you know what it is: Brains Minor told him to keep his nib out, and Peter’s a good boy, he always does what the leader says.”
There are no fucking words, and Malcolm knows a great many fucking words, including some creative and varied uses for the word ‘fucking’. But something of the colossal falsity of this statement must be communicated by his expression, because Campbell laughs again and retreats into small talk.
“What’s the news from the front? How’s Jamie?”
“Still up in Glasgow having a caber rammed up his arse by the SNP.”
Every so often Malcolm rings him up to tell him how badly Scottish Labour are getting fisted, and Jamie quotes the national poll results back to him, and they cheerfully abuse one another for a hour or two. It’s no longer fraught, so that’s progress, but it’s just not the same as insulting him in person. And it’s been so long since Malcolm’s got laid that he’s started wondering whether he could live with himself if he slept with Ollie Reeder, provided that he gags the little twat first so he can’t whinge the whole time. But he can’t call Jamie back to London because Scottish Labour are about as stable as the fucking Euro and half as popular, and there is absolutely no one else he can send up there.
Campbell makes that glum fish face of his. “You too, huh? I dunno why Salmond’s so keen to secede; he’s the only politician the entire country doesn’t hate right now. If he came back down here he could be Prime Minister.”
“Don’t give the fucker any ideas.”
“He has enough of his own,” Campbell agrees darkly.
“When Jamie’s done with him he’s only going to have one- run. So what’s the story in Fuckanory? How are the kids, and the lovely Fiona?”
The lovely Fiona is actually the reason Malcolm first decided to hate Campbell, before they got into government and he learned how fucking right he had been. He’s always felt strangely protective of the people who overlap between worlds- well, not Thatcher, obviously, or fucking Dennis Skinner, but the people who aren’t cunts- and Fiona Millar is a friend. This Fiona Millar barely knows him, of course, but he can’t help feeling like he knows her, and when she showed up at Peter’s flat with her irritatingly tall, obnoxiously handsome, fucking-English-despite-his-protests boyfriend Malcolm had felt an instinctive brotherly urge to remove the fucker’s testes via his face.
Through a great effort of will he resisted the impulse, but in the years since he’s taken some minor revenge for Campbell’s unwanted presence at the periphery of his life by convincing the Campbell children to adore their Uncle Malcolm. Back in the Nineties they all used to go on holiday together with the Kinnocks in France, and Malcolm kept popping between the two worlds to borrow a spare corkscrew or some toilet roll. Fiona was always more organized than anyone in Malcolm’s party, and she tended to have extras. When he wasn’t resupplying Neil’s barbecue operation Malcolm spent most of his time getting fucked senseless by Peter, but there had still been time to play with the children- a bit of a halcyon age, that, despite Neil’s bitterness. Nowadays Malcolm can’t find time for a holiday at all. The young Campbells heroically overcame the obvious genetic handicap and turned out to be nice kids, so he’s genuinely interested to know how they’re getting on.
“We’re all right. Fiona’s in a perpetual state of simmering fury at the Education Secretary, and I got kicked pretty hard in a football match and ever since my knee’s been bad, but apart from that everyone’s doing okay. Calum just got a job with the Party,” he adds proudly.
Malcolm grins. “Good lad. Breaking out of the culture of worklessness.”
“Fuck you,” Campbell says amiably. “I’m probably earning more than you do. Anyway, I was absolutely swamped last month preparing my testimony for the Leveson Inquiry. That’s the phone hacking thing,” he explains, at Malcolm’s blank look.
“You wind up in front of so many inquiries, Alastair, you can’t expect me to keep track.”
“You’re just jealous because you can’t testify at your own version,” says Campbell, not rising to this.
“Yeah, I’m fucking sick with envy, because I’ve got nothing better to do than sit around all day whinging to some cockless judge about cunt hacks behaving like cunts, like this is any kind of surprise to anyone who hasn’t spent the past decade living in a fucking pineapple under the sea. You, though- all your Christmases have come at once, eh? For the first and last time in recorded history, someone actually fucking wants to hear you moan about the culture of negativity and the rest of that bullshit.”
Campbell just smirks. In the past year or two he’s become impossible to provoke. He flirts with you and genially returns your serves unless you get really nasty, and if you do get nasty- if, for instance, you happen to mention certain embarrassing documents that were released to the press under his watch- he listens meekly with this air of wounded innocence and bats his eyes at you until you run out of steam, and then tells you how sad it is that you feel that way. It’s fucking disconcerting.
They used to get into shouting matches and swear at each other, which was a mode of discourse that worked well for them, because Malcolm is fucking brilliant at swearing and he usually won. He still hasn’t figured out a strategy for dealing with the new Zen Campbell. It’s no good screaming at him because after all these years it doesn’t faze him and it just means he’s succeeded in winding Malcolm up, but if Malcolm flirts back they’ll be caught up in a game of chicken with no clear exit point. He doesn’t want to end up in bed with the bastard just because neither of them is willing to back down.
He is saved from this dire prospect by the arrival of Peter, who saunters into the pub looking rather pleased with himself, his cheeks reddened and his hair ruffled by the wind.
“Malcolm!” he exclaims, as if this encounter is some delightful surprise instead of a scheduled meeting for which he is inexplicably late.
“Lord Mandelson of Hardpecker and Fuck. What kept you?”
Peter grins. “Oh, you know me: busy, busy.”
“Busy doing fucking what?” Malcolm asks, but this question goes unanswered because Campbell is talking over him, browbeating Peter into buying the first round.
“If you’re going to keep us all waiting it’s the least you can do!” he concludes, with the exasperation of someone who has to deal with Peter’s shit year round. It’s always been a challenge to get Peter to recognize that other people’s time is as valuable as his own. When Malcolm first came down from Glasgow, all doe-eyed and innocent and overawed to find himself at the center of politics, he’d been far too impressed with the Roseworlders’ slick media operation for his own good or the health of Peter’s already obese ego, and Peter used to exploit him mercilessly, wheedling him into doing his scut work. He’d seemed so glamorous and clever back then, it felt like a fucking favor to be allowed to threaten some hack on his behalf. It wasn’t until he quit and fucked off to Hartlepool that Malcolm’s head cleared enough to realize he had more important things to do than run Peter’s fucking errands.
“Oh, all right,” Peter concedes gracelessly. It’s not that he minds paying, it’s that carrying the drinks is too much fucking manual labor for him. “What are we having, then? Do I count as adult supervision in Fiona’s books?”
“Peter, you’re the reason people need adult supervision,” Campbell says. “Orange juice for me.”
Peter lifts an eyebrow and turns to Malcolm. “And you, do you want a pint or are you still on duty?”
He’s got to get back tonight, and jumping while tipsy is a very bad idea. “I’ll have the same.”
Peter tilts his head, studying him. “You can stay over, if you want.”
“I’m not sure Reinaldo would be terribly pleased with that plan.”
“We do have a guest bedroom, you know,” Peter says, grinning. “It’s not like when I lived in Wilmington Square.”
Malcolm wouldn’t know; he’s never actually seen Peter’s new house. He spent quite a few weekends at Peter’s little one bedroom flat in Finsbury once upon a time, generally in an attempt to keep himself from various Fleming-related acts of homicide, but proper relationships with people in their own worlds and the stresses of government and Peter’s increasingly embarrassing social climbing have driven them apart over the years. There was a period while Peter was working in Brussels when these annuals meetings were their only contact. Since he came back into government they’ve seen more of each other, but not much, and they’ve both been far too busy to worry about renewing their friendship.
Malcolm still is. If Peter is bored and lonely now he has only himself to blame, the lazy cunt. “You’ll have to get by without me, I’m afraid. Our glorious leader has a piece for the Observer this Sunday and I’ve got to rewrite the whole thing and then convince him all the changes were his idea; I’m going to be up half the fucking night arguing with him.”
“Ah, those were the days,” Campbell says, smirking at him across the table, and Peter glides off to get the drinks. He’s always moved bonelessly, but when he was younger he used to dart about, snake-like, so you were never quite sure when he’d pop up behind you. Now there’s a slow, unsettling majesty to it, like an octopus.
While Malcolm’s been watching Peter, Campbell’s been watching him. He’s got an odd, pensive look on his face.
“Are you really vetting all their articles, still?” he asks quietly.
“Yeah, not all of us dare to enter the intense, high-impact world of fucking blogging.”
Campbell frowns, but not in a way that suggests he’s been stung by this incisive criticism. “Malc, can I say something to you, in all frankness and before Peter gets back?”
“It’s a free country,” Malcolm says, mostly because he doubts saying ‘No, fuck off’ will have much effect. Campbell only ever listened to Blair.
“You look fucking awful, mate. You look worse than Philip did the last time I saw him, and that was the day before he died. You can’t keep on like this.”
On the list of statements that make Malcolm doubt his fucking hearing, this one is vying for top place with ‘Peter is a good boy who always does what he’s told.’ Not the bit about how Malcolm looks like he’s dying of cancer- he knows that, they’ve got fucking mirrors in his world- but the idea that he needs lifestyle advice from Alastair fucking Campbell, the spin doctor so incompetent he managed to convince the entire country his boss was a fucking war criminal. For the second time that evening Malcolm is lost for words, and Campbell takes it as an invitation to continue.
“I know the Party is in a bad way and you think you’re the last line of defense, but you’re no use to anyone if you have a nervous breakdown or a stroke.”
“So I should- what? Fucking retire like you two, and sit around on my arse all day tweeting about how the Petri dish of microorganisms we laughably refer to as a Shadow Cabinet suck cock so deep they shit it out the other end as fucking policy proposals? You really think it’s going to lower my blood pressure to sit on my hands and watch helplessly as these morons stumble around like toddlers running across a minefield? Jesus Christ, this is what I’ve been fucking missing all this time, strategic thinking from the mastermind behind the September Dossier.”
Campbell snorts. “How many seats was it you won in the last election, again? Two hundred and forty-three?”
“Fuck you, Deidre Sanders. You weren’t saddled with Tom.”
“Peter and I were saddled with Gordon, who is about as charismatic as an aubergine and started chucking office supplies at our heads whenever we dared to mention it. We didn’t outperform you because we had the better candidate, we outperformed you because you panicked.”
“How fucking dare you-” Malcolm begins, but Campbell cuts him off.
“Malcolm, I fucking saw you. You’re on reality TV over here, remember? We had The Thick of It up to the moment you called the election.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind Malcolm knew this; Peter had gently insinuated that they’d had a front row seat for his resignation. It’s one of the things he tries to forget, although he’s got enough of their worst moments on DVD to offer some meager consolation. He gives Campbell his most lethal glare.
“Just shut up and listen to me for a minute, will you?” Campbell says, undaunted. “I know about going off the rails, yeah?”
“Like the Ladbroke Grove train crash,” Malcolm growls, and Campbell grins.
“So if you don’t rate me as a spin doctor, at least trust me as a head case. My breakdown made me. It showed me what was really important, where my limits were, what I was capable of. If it hadn’t happened I doubt I would have been brave enough to sign on as Tony’s director of communications in the first place, and I certainly wouldn’t have seen that I was losing my grip in 2003 and I needed to resign.”
Malcolm leans forward to glare better. “You never had a fucking grip in the first place, you twat. Things got hot so you cut and run.”
Campbell shakes his head. “I did it for Tony’s sake, and the Party’s. I’d lost my objectivity; I couldn’t do the job anymore. I’m glad I had the perspective to recognize it in time, and it was my breakdown that gave it to me.
“And Peter’s just the same. I was sorry for years about sacking him that second time, but I’m not, now. He’s twice the man he was before he resigned. He was so afraid before he went to Brussels. I never guessed, maybe even he didn’t know, but he was fucking miserable all the time we knew him. He had to lose everything to see that he was something in his own right. If his life had worked out perfectly and Neil had won in 1992 and made him Foreign Secretary or whatever, he would still be that scared kid, hanging on the leader’s every word, desperate for his approval. He needed to grow up, and to do it he needed us to fucking banish him, to take Tony away from him, because he was never going to be brave enough to leave his side on his own. He’s so much happier now, so much more centered- you must be able to see it.”
Malcolm glares at Campbell, unable to deny it. Peter has changed, since he went to Brussels. Or- not changed, because he is the same man he always was, witty, charming, opaque, quick to anger or to laughter, with a vanity that would be insufferable if it were not earned through a political intelligence even greater than his ego. But there’s more of Peter since his triumphant return from Europe, and not just around the middle. He has intensified somehow, brightened, like a lamp where the bulb has been switched out for one of a higher wattage.
“He couldn’t have swooped in and saved Gordon like he did if it hadn’t been for that second resignation,” Campbell goes on. “To do that he needed to be able to act without fear, and for that you have to crash once, to learn that it won’t destroy you. And the thing about you, Malc, is that you’ve never, ever crashed.”
Malcolm raises his eyebrows. “Yeah. We call that ‘not being shit’ where I come from.”
“Maybe,” Campbell allows. “You’re clever, we all know that. Too clever to learn the lesson, maybe. You went down last year, but here you are, still clinging on desperately- to your job, to the idea you can keep yourself and the Party going with willpower alone. You’ve had your wake-up call and instead of stepping back for a moment and taking stock, you’re congratulating yourself for finding the snooze button. It’s madness, Malcolm.”
“So we lost the election, but that’s all right because it can be a personal fucking growth experience for me. Jesus Christ, do you ever fucking listen to yourself?”
“You can’t help the Party unless you sort yourself out first,” Campbell insists, still infuriatingly calm. “Fear makes people stupid, and you’re too terrified of failing to think straight. For fuck’s sake, you watch politicians panic and accidentally shoot themselves in the face every day; you know this.”
“Of course I’m fucking terrified of failure! If we fail, the wankers stay in government.”
“You don’t think I know that?”
“You’re doing fuck all to stop it!”
Campbell gives a long-suffering sigh, and fishes his Blackberry out of his pocket again. He types for a second and then pushes it across the table to Malcolm.
There are a bunch of figures on the screen.
“What the fuck is this?”
“The list of top donors to the Labour Party in the past year.”
Malcolm scans the list. By far the biggest sum comes from Unite, and everything seems to be union funding from one source or another.
“Christ on a cactus, what happened to all your private donors?” He’d thought it was bad enough having the Party in hock to Julius Nicholson, but at least they fucking have him. The Roseworlders’ situation looks a thousand times worse.
Campbell grins. “You’re looking at one of them.”
Malcolm looks down at the list again, and sure enough there’s Campbell’s name near the bottom, with a ten thousand pound donation, big enough to make Malcolm feel ever so slightly ashamed of the things he said earlier. There’s only one other name on the list; everything else is a fucking union.
“I’m not giving up on the next election, or on the Party. ‘Victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be,’” Campbell quotes softly, with a little self-deprecating smile.
Malcolm thinks of how hard Nicola would mock them for quoting Churchill over an election- and there’s no clearer sign of how sad his life has become, that he knows what fucking Nicola Murray thinks about anything, when the mere suggestion that Nicola thinks at all would have had him rightfully dissolving into uncontrollable laughter two years ago- but what the hell. It’s how he feels too. And it is a fucking war- there are old people who will freeze to death this winter because they can’t heat their homes, people who might live if they were still in government and they could find money for the winter fuel allowance. Just because there aren’t bullets flying about, it doesn’t mean that no one’s life is on the line.
He doesn’t embarrass himself by confessing to any of these thoughts, of course. What he says is,
“‘Terror’ seems a bit fucking generous, for JB.”
Campbell laughs. “I meant the Party’s finances.”
Malcolm glances down at the list again. There are several names that are conspicuously absent.
“Where is Peter in all this?”
“Can’t afford it. He’s got to buy himself an eight million pound house, doesn’t he? Him and Reinaldo and that tiny dog, their current place is too small.” Campbell shakes his head in disgust.
“You realize that’s a Daily Mail story you’re relaying,” Peter says, appearing suddenly with their drinks. He slides back into the booth and elbows Campbell hard in the ribs. Campbell tries to block him with his arm, and there’s a moment of undignified wrestling before Campbell manages to grab his wrist and pin it to the table.
“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” he says, grinning in triumph.
Peter jerks his hand free and glares at him. “I don’t see what my housing decisions have to do with anything.”
“Malcolm’s just trying to figure out why I seem to be the Labour Party’s biggest donor, which I have to admit has me a little puzzled as well.”
“So Peter is skint, apparently- what about the Cheshire Twat? I didn’t see his name on the list either, and he’s a hell of a lot richer than Peter.”
Campbell snorts. “Yeah, that would go down a treat. I can see the headlines now: ‘Miliband Financed with Blair’s Blood Money.’ Tony has always had a keen sense for the public mood. He’s keeping out of the way so Ed can distance himself from him, and at this stage it’s the right judgement.”
“Yes, well. Illegal wars do tend to taint one’s reputation,” Malcolm says. Blair could rape a fucking kitten and these tossers would defend him, but as soon as Campbell says it it’s obvious that in this case he’s actually right, and if Malcolm can’t be annoyed with Blair for using the Party for his personal aggrandizement and then abandoning them the second he had what he wanted, he’s fucking well going to redirect his anger somewhere. Iraq is always an open target.
Sometimes the Prime Minister has an inexplicable desire to go to war in some fucking desert. Lord Melbourne did it, Disraeli did it, Gladstone did it, Lloyd George did it, Eden did it, Macmillan did it, Major did it, Blair and fucking Tom did it, Cameron and JB have done it, and whoever succeeds them will probably do it too. Malcolm has reconciled himself to the phenomenon- politicians are all mental, and to be fair, if he had access to high powered explosives he probably wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to deploy them either, although he’d put them to better use and carpet bomb Fleet Street instead of wasting them on some fucking goat farm in Afghanistan. But it’s basic spin to make sure the U.N. signs off on whatever you’re planning to blow up. He still doesn’t understand how Campbell managed to cock things up so badly.
“Oh, not this again, Malcolm,” Peter says.
“You didn’t even fucking support it!”
“Yes, but that was before we decided to do it. Since we did it, clearly it must have been the right policy all along. No doubt Gaddafi would have murdered millions of innocent people if our actions in Iraq had not persuaded him to destroy his chemical weapons, and the overthrow of Hussein paved the way for the Arab Spring,” Peter says blandly, taking a sip of his drink.
“Cute,” says Malcolm, although Peter’s actually right about his chemical weapons shite- Gaddafi was less buddy-buddy with Malcolm’s Government, and in Malcolm’s world he kept the weapons and used them.
“He’s very good, when he wants to be,” Campbell says, with a fond smile for his confederate, and Peter smirks up at him.
“Oh, I wouldn’t dare to be anything less than word-perfect in front of you, dear.”
“But not in front of the cameras this year, I’m told,” says Malcolm quietly, and perhaps Peter hears the danger in it, because he sets his drink down and gives Malcolm one of his more Dark Lordly stares.
“All right. I can see you’re going to snipe at us all evening if we don’t deal with this, so let’s have it out. Without Paul Dacre’s envy politics, if you don’t mind, Alastair.”
“Peter, I don’t give a crap if you buy a house!” Campbell protests.
“I don’t care if you buy ten houses! I just think that in a year when your primary source of income was that compilation of self-indulgent, vindictive bullshit that’s passing itself off as your memoirs, the least you could do after publicly airing all the Party’s dirty laundry for your financial gain is to give something back.”
“At least he only wrote one compilation of self-indulgent, vindictive shite,” Malcolm points out.
Campbell shakes his head. “That’s completely different. I published my diaries to try to humanize us by giving an account of what was actually going on, not to settle scores.”
“That’s like buying someone a new television after you burn down their fucking house. You wouldn’t have needed to humanize anyone if you hadn’t convinced the nation you lot were war criminals in the first place!” Malcolm says.
“Didn’t hurt that you made a bundle on them, either,” Peter murmurs.
“Which I donated, as well you know.”
“I do. But I like to think I’m a more discerning investor than you are. The Labour Party will always have my loyalty, but my money I am saving for a worthy cause. Ed Miliband is not going to see a penny until he demonstrates he has the foggiest idea what to do with it.”
Campbell winces. “Aw, come on, Peter. Give him a chance. He’s just a kid.”
This time it's Campbell who gets the patented Mandelsonian glare. “Don’t be stupid. He’s forty-one. That’s the same age Neil and Tony were when they became leader, and they didn’t need the previous generation to hold them by the hand.”
“Yeah, but they-”
“-knew what they were doing?” Peter finishes mercilessly. “The party leader isn’t given loyalty, he commands it. It wasn’t me who told Tony to take Shadow Home Sec, or Neil to go after Militant. I joined their teams after they’d proven themselves, not before.”
“He beat David,” Campbell points out.
“And I’m sure we’re all very impressed, but that’s the wrong David. I want to see some sign he can win a general election. Ed has the steel for the job, but he has yet to demonstrate he has the direction, and that’s something that has to come from him, not from us. If he deserves my loyalty, he’ll have it when the time comes, because he’ll have earned it. If he doesn’t, then he needs to be replaced, and propping him up would be counter-productive. All we can do is finesse his presentation, and presentation will not win us the election.”
Malcolm glares at Peter. This is the same bullshit he gets from Jamie, just in RP and with a sneer in place of the profanity. ‘I cannae work for that lying cunt another day’ and a fucking resignation, like Tom wasn’t a thousand times better than JB. He wasn’t Malcolm’s first choice either, but all politicians are shits to a lesser or greater degree, and they have to work with what they get. He could have used Jamie on side in those last bloody months; it might have turned the tide of the election. It might at least have given them enough seats to beat the Roseworlders’ total and save Malcolm a little pride.
There’s no space for this kind of childish self-indulgence in their line of work. It’s the crack that lets the wankers in. Twenty years ago Peter would have agreed with him, but twenty years of political office have taken a heavy toll on his scruples. At long last Peter has what he wanted: a top level Cabinet post, however brief his tenure, and a string of fancy titles and Gordon Brown admitting that maybe he has a few redeeming features after all. Peter’s a statesman, he is, and now that’s he come he’s going to leave the rest of them to finish themselves off.
Still, for old times’ sake Malcolm feels obliged to try to prevail upon his better nature.
“It can lose the election. He lisps, for fuck’s sake. And tells people he’d consider joining the Euro on live television. Michael Foot needed less help than this guy, and you’re just standing by and watching him rip out his own entrails and strangle himself with his intestines.”
“I know. And there’s no one but us,” Campbell says glumly. “We noticed that during the last election. There should have been a bunch of bright young things with stupid moustaches running around, coming up with all the ideas and keeping everything organized. And instead there was just Peter and me.”
“There is a talent deficit,” Peter agrees. “Which is largely our fault; I freely admit that. We should have mentored them better. But unless Malcolm has developed the ability to step through time as well as worlds, there is nothing we can do about it now. All we can do is wait, and I’m confident we will not have to wait for long. Nature abhors a vacuum. Either Ed will find his stride, or he’ll be replaced by someone better, and they’ll find someone new to run their communications, just like Roy found me.”
It’s a dangerous complacency, but Malcolm can’t help envying Peter his peace of mind. Campbell was right about one thing; he does look well. Malcolm wouldn’t have expected retirement to agree with him, not Peter, who worked sixteen hour days, who had no hobbies to speak of except schmoozing, who always had his nose in everyone else’s business. But he shows no ill effects. And Campbell doesn’t look half bad himself. He’s yet to even go grey, although at long last his skin is losing some of its youthful firmness.
No one passing by their table would believe that Malcolm’s the youngest of them, nearly seven years younger than Peter. There’s probably some karmic trade-off of youth for competence- it would explain why Ollie looks like he’s fucking twelve- but it makes him keenly aware of his age, and his blood pressure. The cunt doctor told him to avoid stress, like that would be fucking possible without sealing himself in a fucking cave, but Peter and Campbell seem to be managing just fine, and they even keep up with the news.
But Malcolm can’t walk away. Not when there’s so much at stake, not when there’s no one to replace him- Jamie? Nick Hanway? Steve Fleming? Every possibility is more ludicrous than the last- not when he’s nurturing a secret hope for Nicola that he dares not tell these two or even Jamie, or think too loudly even in his own head, for fear of having it brutally and justifiably ridiculed.
“So what do we think?” Campbell asks, “2015?”
“I’m not doing another eighteen years of opposition,” Malcolm snarls. “That is not fucking happening, if I have to find that tree on the Tories’ logo, break off a branch, and go around the country clubbing every single one of them to death with it.”
“Up and down the country,” Campbell corrects, and Peter sniggers.
“2015, then,” he says, raising his glass. “May our fearless leaders come up with a plan by then, and hopefully a better catch phrase.”
Malcolm is tempted not to join him. All Peter's rationalizations boil down to one thing- for the first time in seventeen years the Labour Party has a leader he doesn't have a crush on, and so he can't be arsed to help. If the Roseworlders lose in 2015, some of the fault will lie at his feet. Malcolm has put up with a lot from Peter, but that's not something he's can lightly forgive, and while Campbell hasn't given up, it's clear he's not prepared to sweat blood for a Labour victory either. It's always infuriating to find that you're the only one doing any fucking work.
But he cannot choose his allies any more than he can choose his leaders, and there's a comfort in knowing there is someone out there who understands the pressure he is under, even if they are determined to offer unsolicited and unhelpful advice or to sit on their hands while the wankers win a second term. Perhaps that's why he keeps coming back here. As obnoxious as they are, Peter and Campbell are the closest thing he has to true colleagues.
Their glasses clink, and Malcolm drinks the toast.