Michael Gove glanced furtively down at the Black Book grasped anxiously in his right hand. His head ached and his eyes swam. How did it go again? Lumley…Macleod… Maud. Something not quite right there, Michael, he told himself. Let’s try again. Lumley – which one was she? The exquisitely-formed wheels of his fine mind juddered and screeched. Macleod: Iain Macleod? Snap out of it, Michael, he told himself. Mary Macleod, that’s right. And Maud. Maud. Maude! Of course. Francis Maude. Come into the garden, Maude. Tennysonian Gove was momentarily overcome by a flush of pride. No! It was swallowed up by a spasm of terror. He’d left one out! Main, that’s it. Main, Ann Main. St Albans. Of course. The new Chief Whip writhed and groaned aloud. O that I had wings like a dove!
It was in this fretful condition that he rounded the notice board on the right-hand side of the Members Lobby and almost walked slap bang into J Alfred Prufrock, MP for Grummidge West, real ale enthusiast, Faroe Islands devotee, Wolves fan and cycle lane maniac.
Prufrock swayed, Gove tottered, and each man lurched back half a pace, with the speed if not perhaps the elegance of a Strictly Come Dancing finallist. The new Chief Whip was mortified twice over. First, for discombobulating one of his charges and, second, for not immediately knowing who that charge might be. Which one was this? Would his ignorance be rumbled? What should he say? A stab of panic pierced Gove’s breast. How he wished he was back at his happy desk at the Department of Education, with his well-thumbed copy of Aerodynamics for Tots, new edition of Renee Vivien’s The Touch and DVD boxed set of Game of Thrones, Series Three (Sandor Gregane Collectors’ Edition). Where was Dominic Cummings when you needed him?
Prufrock reached out and grasped Gove’s right-hand shirt sleeve, with the motion of an alcoholic steadying himself against a bar. The sleeve of his brown cashmere cardigan (E-Bay, £5) plumped and crinkled. “I’m so pleased to see you, Michael,” he said. “There’s something important that I simply have to tell you.”
The New Chief Whip was in no position not to listen to a Conservative MP. He rocked back on his heels, frowned, smiled, leaned winningly into Prufrock with the kindly motion of a professional counsellor or confessor, and said: “Of course.” But who on earth was his interlocutor? Let’s see now. Mordaunt…Morgan….Morris…
Prufrock cleared his throat. “You see, Michael, I – obviously – haven’t yet gained…preferment.” His voice shook on that last word, and a ripple swept the surface of his white satin silk blouse (Kaleidoscope, £29.99). Gove tilted his sympathetic head. “Don’t say anything. You don’t need to. I know why. I appreciate that I’ve perhaps been a bit conventional. Maybe a bit not with the programme. Not entirely at ease with Modern Britain. Not completely ready to reach out.” His grasp on Gove’s arm strengthed. The folds of his black knee length pencil skirt swirled, and danced like the waves of sea. (Alice and Olivia, £106.49.)
“But I’m ready for change, Michael. I want you to know that. I’m discovering fresh things about myself.” Prufrock smiled. The effect was alarming. Prufrock leaned closer. The heels of his dark grey kitten heeled shoes (Peter Kaiser, £149) clicked smartly on the tiled floor. “The scales are falling from my eyes. I’m looking at the world in an entirely new way. I’m ready for the call. I’m standing by my smartphone. I’m…I’m on a journey. He tugged smartly at his synthetic cotton canvas green belt (Calvin Klein special edition, £578).
A tremor of surprise swept through the Chief Whip, swiftly followed by a throe of disgust. Gove was, he liked to think, a thoroughly modern man – no hang ups, no prejudices. But this he couldn’t take. This was too much. This was simply vile. He asked himself the question that all good Conservatives should ask themselves in such circumstances: what would Roger Scruton do? The answer came to Gove with the clarity of an Archimedian discovery. “Thank you very much for telling me,” he said. “It’s kind of you to let me know. And I will act on what you have said – at once.” And without so much as a pause, he turned on his heels, swung round, skirted the message board – and almost ran across the lobby into the safety and sanctuary of the Whips Office.
And there he was, in the cloistral quiet and calm of the inner sanctum: Hands. The Deputy Chief Whip was seated as ever, like a brooding Peter Capaldi, before the vast switchboard of his Dr Who-like desk, with its packed mass of buttons and dials and levers and klaxons. Hands glanced up, smiled, tilted his head. The Chief Whip strode manfully forward. “Deputy,” he said. “We have a crisis.” Hands’s eyebrows arched upwards.
“Yes,” said Gove. “I can scarcely believe what has just been divulged to me. That a Conservative MP could act in such a way. That a colleague should plump such depths of depravity. I have just been told by one of our flock that she is ready for change.” Hands’s eyebrows arched higher. “That she is standing by her smartphone. Hands’s eyebows arched higher still. “That she is – I can scarcely bring myself to repeat her words – on a journey. Hands’s eyebrows arched still higher, and vanished into his hair.
Outside in the lobby, Prufrock had flung his Louis Vuitton monogram clutch purse (£1074.4) triumphantly towards the high ceiling. He was weeping with joy. Now the vintage felt green summer hat with red flowers and a purple ribbon (Ralph Lauren Blavatnik Black and White Ball Auction Special, £15,367) followed. High it seemed to hang in the vaulted air, heaven-bound, defying gravity…
Inside in the office, The fingers of the Deputy’s right hand were hammering at the keyboard like a master pianist as he bellowed into the tannoy. “Defection alert! Defection alert!” he cried. “Conservative MP defecting to Labour! I repeat. Conservative MP defecting to Labour! All Whips to office immediately. Cancel all slips. Recall all Ministers. Seal off all exits.” And even as one hand jabbed at the dials on his dashboard, the other reached out to the red phone with its hot line to the Treasury…