By Paul Goodman
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No Himalayan explorer ever shuffled more fearfully along the edge of a precipice amidst blinding snows than did J.Alfred Prufrock, MP for the marginal West Midlands seat of Grummidge West, as his feet felt their way across the noiseless floor of the Government Chief Whip's office. McLoughlin was sitting hunched behind his desk, sag-shouldered, big-shadowed, expressionless. The straight-backed wooden chair towards which he wordlessly waved Prufrock was set in the very centre of the room, illuminated by a single stark ceiling-dangled lightbulb.
"You will be aware that interviews with the Chief Whip fall into two categories," he said slowly. "There is the interview with coffee. Then there is the interview without coffee. You will be pleased to learn that this is an interview with coffee. When I say that this is an interview with coffee I am speaking in a technical sense. This is because there is, I'm sorry to say, no coffee, due to – " he coughed " – an administrative oversight by the Whip responsible. But let that in no way discourage you." He glanced down at his notes. "For you see, Albert – " he said. Prufrock opened his mouth, thought better of it, and closed it again.
"You see, Albert," the Great Man continued, "I want you to think of Mr Randall and I – " he waved a bulky forefinger at a bearded figure bunched on a corner sofa – "not simply as your colleagues but as your…as your family." Prufrock nodded, shook his head, nodded again and decided that the safest thing to do was to rotate it gently from up-and-left to down-and-right. "Tell me, Albert," said McLoughlin, his fingers arching upwards together in philosophical enquiry, "how do you see your future here? What are your ambitions? What would you like to do?" Prufrock paused, and then leaned furtively forward, a penitent about to confess to some shameful secret sin.
"Well, now," said Prufrock in a ghostly whisper. "There is that summer all-party delegation to the Faroe Islands." "Yes," whispered McLoughlin, priest-like. "The Chairmanship," Prufrock went on, "of the All-Party Real Ale Group." "Yes," came the murmured response. "Even…even, perhaps, a PPS-ship at…at, say the Department of Transport." "Yes…yes," affirmed McLoughlin, his voice rising in intensity. He raised himself suddenly upright, a man possessed by a vision. "It is all possible," he cried, extending his arms like two unsmoked hams. "But -" he said sharply, cutting across himself. "There is one thing first."
He shot out a fist and thumped an intercom on the desk. "Dunne," he barked, "the Prufork file, please." A door disguised as a Hansard-laden bookcase was flung open. With a single continuous movement, Philip Dunne glided into the room and, with the smooth discretion of an undertaker, desposited a black-bound file on McLoughlin's desk, turned smartly on his heels, shimmered back to the door and vanished through it, closing it fast behind him. Clapping a dark eye-patch over his left eye with one hand and whipping a magnifying glass to his right eye with the other, McLoughlin pulled open the file. As he tweaked its pages it creaked like a coffin.
"I find here," said McLoughlin, "that on Wednesday 20th of this month you had a conversation with Stephen Crabb, your whip, about the Lords Reform Bill outside the library at 14.47. When asked if you will vote for the programme motion, you replied: 'I can give you that assurance. Nothing is more important than helping the Government. The rebels are behaving disgracefully.' A wave of relief swept over Prufrock, followed by a heady surge of self-confidence. It was time to press his advantage. "Now, about that Faroes trip," he said. "If it is necessary in these austere times to share a double room with Nadine Dorries, I will bow reluctantly to the inevitable – "
And I find here," continued McLoughlin, "that after your conversation with Mr Crabb you turned the corner and passed the door to the tea room, where you had a conversation with… Jesse Norman at 14.51. When asked if you would be voting for the programme motion, you replied: 'I can give you that assurance. Nothing is more important to me than saving the Lords. The Government is behaving disgracefully.' " Eyepatch and glass fell to the desk with a clatter. McLoughlin leaned his bulk forward, his shadow swallowing Prufrock up. "Now how," he mused, "to explain this apparent discrepancy?"
McLoughlin's face flushed flamingo-pink. "If the programme motion falls, you see, there will be no formal limit on debate on the bill in the Commons," he said softly. " If there is no formal limit, the bill will be bogged down. If the bill becomes bogged down, our Liberal Democrat colleages may feel under no obligation to vote for the Commons seat reduction. If they feel under no obligation to vote for the Commons seat reduction, it may fall. If it falls – " he said, his features darkening to sangria-red – "so could the Government. And if the Government falls there could soon be an election under the old boundaries which Labour would win and in which you would lose your seat -"
Those last three words were a bull bellow. Their terrible trinity was too much for Prufrock. The yoking of lose and seat dragged from his guts a scream of primal terror. McLoughlin's face was now bruise-purple. "This," he shouted, "is now an interview without coffee." "But – but there's no coffee anyway," squeaked Prufrock. McLoughlin howled with rage. His face went black. For a moment he would have qualified for a party diversity scheme. "How dare you," he yelled, "dare you seek to deceive Mr Stephen Crabb and question the judgement of Mr Mark Harper. You miserable disgusting – "
A barrage of Anglo-Saxon obscenities smacked Prufrock round the chops, colliding and separating and re-clashing like particles in a centrifuge. Words flew from McLoughlin with the force of an industrial fan. His own hair, Prufrock noted, from the eerie calm at the centre of his storm, was actually standing on end. Now it was being blown backwards. He fell to his knees, hands clasped in the pose of a medieval supplicant: from his mouth came a noise like air seeping from a punctured balloon. From the sofa in the darkness came a sigh. Randall rose and, seizing Prufrock by his collar, dragged him backwards from the room (still kneeling) and down the corridor.
Randall hauled him to his feet. He was at the door of Central Lobby. A strange exhaustion took hold of Prufrock. He looked at Randall and tilted his head on one side. "How," he asked, "did you know about my conversation with Jesse Norman?" Randall paused. "Dark arts," he muttered, tapping his nose. "No-one is safe." And then, as Prufrock turned away, he gave him an avuncular tap on the shoulder. "Shouldn't tell you, really," he said, "But…well, you confused Jesse Norman with Bill Wiggin. Both tall. Both blonde. Both representatives of the proud county of Herefordshire. But Bill's a whip. Could happen to anyone, I suppose. Well, to you, anyway."
And as Randall turned away, the whole lobby seemed to Prufrock both to turn dark and yet be lit by an infernal light. The faces of his colleagues were distended monstrously. Red flames flickered at the corner of his vision. The floor seemed to open beneath his feet, and a searing heat to rise from it. He felt himself falling down, down, down. And faint but unmistakable, there echoed from the whips' office the cackle of demonic laughter…