By Andrew Gimson
Follow Andrew on Twitter
Six months in to
what was proving to be an unhappy prime ministership, Ed Miliband woke early
and found he could not go back to sleep. His aides had assured him that “a
quiet weekend at Chequers with no media” would do him a power of good. But as
the wind howled round the ancient mansion and the rain splattered against the
window panes, his fevered brain allowed him no rest.
What did they
mean, no media? What were they trying to protect him from?
The Prime Minister
crept from his bed, taking care not to disturb his spouse, who was sleeping the
sleep of the Justine. He felt for his dressing gown and slippers, found them
and tiptoed in to the corridor, where a low light burned.
architecture situated on the edge of the Chilterns and given a heavy make-over
in the early 20th century was not quite his thing, and he had not
yet mastered the geography of Chequers. But he set off down the corridor, not
knowing what he would find.
And there it was!
A thick bundle of newspapers, sitting on the floor outside what must be Tom’s
room. No doubt his press supremo had left instructions, before turning in, that
a complete set of the morning papers should be delivered to him at the earliest
The Prime Minister
hesitated. Every sane person had advised him against reading the newspapers.
John Major had been driven half mad by reading the newspapers. But like an
alcoholic who sees the chance to nick a bottle of cheap whisky, the PM seized
the bundle and made off, clutching it to his chest.
It was, he told
himself, his duty to know the worst. Later that morning, he would confer with six
of his most trusted advisers: Stewart, Mo, Zuleika, Tom, Dick and Harry. They
were going to give him the benefit of their collective wisdom, which frankly
was not always all that great, especially in the case of Dick and Harry. There
was a danger none of them would be brave enough to tell him what people were
actually saying about him this Saturday 7 November 2015, only six months after
consigning David Cameron to the dustbin of history.
He wanted to find
some small, private place where he could devour the newspapers. For some reason
he found himself instead in a long gallery with bookcases ranged along one
wall, and above them the portraits of the Hawtrey family and their descendants
who used to live at Chequers. It did not matter. There was no one about. He turned
on a reading lamp and tore open the bundle.
The first few
front pages were almost a relief. There were pictures of the new Tory leader,
Boris Johnson, carrying out a bungee jump and announcing it was time for
Britain to bounce back with tax cuts. There was also a picture of himself being
burned in effigy on Guy Fawkes night at Lewes. He could laugh at that. These
people were just primitive. And there was an “exclusive” about how he regretted
not having sacked Ed Balls, which was true, especially as he was now having to
veto a disastrous scheme by the Chancellor to create millions of new jobs by
But what was this?
An anniversary piece comparing him to Francois Hollande, the lame duck
President of France. The author, a
turncoat called Hodges, had done some research, or at least knew how to use
From the moment on the night of 7 May 2015 when Ed
Miliband won a general election victory which owed everything to the
unpopularity of his opponent, the comparisons between himself and Francois
Hollande became unmistakeable.
Hollande began his presidency by getting drenched
during his victory parade on the Champs Elysées. Miliband began his premiership
by getting drenched during his victory press conference in the Downing Street
Hollande promised growth and jobs, and has presided
over deep recession and record unemployment. Miliband, one of Hollande’s
earliest and most fervent admirers, promised growth and jobs, while delivering,
you guessed it, deep recession and record unemployment.
And these aren’t the only records they’ve set. Within
months of taking office, their popularity dropped further and faster than that
of any previous President or Prime Minister.
But it is above all in their total inability to take
the tough decisions needed to get us out of recession that Hollande and
Miliband reveal themselves to be accomplices in incompetence…
The Prime Minister
flung the paper aside. It was the injustice of the charge of indecisiveness that
stuck in his gullet. He decided there and then to bring forward by a quarter of
an hour his emergency meeting with his advisers.
His staff must be
made to realise the situation was really quite grave. He was going to have to
decide whether – in view of their persistent failure to grasp what was going
on, and to persuade the British people that the Prime Minister had devised a
plan to deal with it – the time had come, or might come before many more months
had elapsed, when he would feel obliged to replace Dick and Harry, or at least one
of them (it could be either Dick or Harry), for one did not wish to unbalance
the team by a process of excessively rapid change.
Zuleika too could not be said to be earning her
keep. When he thought of the high-grade briefings he had himself been able to
offer week after week as a special adviser, presenting a number of clearly
delineated options so that his boss could make the final call, it was just not good
enough for Zuleika to say in a dreamy tone: “I don’t know anything about
welfare reform, really. But I know what I like.”
The first thing
was to ring the Chancellor. The numbers were all getting worse. But he could not
face the thought of yet another argument with Ed Balls about why tax cuts were
And anyhow, it was
a bit early to ring the Chancellor. He
didn’t want people to think he was getting like Gordon Brown. The logical thing
was to ring the Chancellor after breakfast, or better still after lunch.
Outside it was
starting to get light. The Prime Minister stood up, gazed through an ancient
window at the sodden turf of Buckinghamshire, and wished he was back in Dartmouth Park.
A discreet cough.
It was one of the Chequers staff. The man held out a mobile telephone and murmured
in a sympathetic tone: “The Chancellor,
“Hello?” the Prime
the Chancellor replied.
“Well I’m not sure
I’d put it quite as definitively as that.”
growth,” Balls said, his anger growing with each word. “We told the British
people if they elected us they were going to get growth. When Cameron accused
you in the leadership debates of not standing for anything, you told him you
stood for growth and he stood for austerity. That’s one reason why we won. But
the thing is, we’re not getting growth, we’re getting a savage contraction. If
we don’t act now it will be too late. Have you seen today’s papers?”
“I’ve glanced at
one or two of them.”
briefing against me?”
“Apparently you wish you’d sacked me years
nonsense. What I find altogether more insidious is the idea that I’m Britain’s
answer to Francois Hollande. They’ve even got a picture of me wearing a beret.
It’s clearly meant to undermine my authority and I’d really like to know who
put the idea in their head, or the beret on my head.”
“Well you’re not
going to be able to sack me now. I’ve had enough. I’m off.”
"You can’t do
“You can’t stop
me. You’ll be getting my letter of resignation later this morning, and don’t
think I’ll be saying what a privilege it’s been to work for you.”
The line went
dead. The Prime Minister turned back to the window, where he noticed for the
first time an inscription: “This house of peace and ancient memories was given
to England as a thank-offering for her deliverance in the great war of 1914-18
as a place of rest and recreation for her Prime Ministers for ever.”
He emitted a hollow
laugh and turned to find another of the impeccably considerate staff standing at
a respectful distance.
“I wondered if you
happen to have decided, sir, what you would like for breakfast. We have porridge,
kippers, kedgeree, a full English breakfast, a continental breakfast, or if
there is something else you would like, we find we are generally able to
the Prime Minister said, and wondered yet again how anyone could accuse him of