by P. A. Westgate
a glass of Champagne
‘Well, that really could have gone better.’ Alex had said. A typically calm understated comment. Alex is John’s Parliamentary Assistant and calm understatement is his forte. If you can keep your head when all about you, and so on and so forth. But he was right. Indeed it was difficult to see how it could have gone any more badly.
Truth be told, I hadn’t been looking forward to the reception. It was Alex’s idea of course. Sort of part celebration, part reassuring the masses he’d explained. I don’t think John was that keen. Naturally, I wasn’t consulted. My approval was assumed and simply rolled out as an additional argument. ‘I’m sure that Carol will agree with me on this’ and so on.
The reason for the reception was that John had been given a Ministerial role some months earlier. Quite a senior one, which was surprising as, other than an undistinguished stint as a Junior Minister, he had done nothing of note. It was necessary, Alex had argued, to reassure the local Constituency Party that he’d still be working on constituents’ concerns. Constituents’ concerns being Alex’s own primary concern. So a small drinks reception was proposed. An occasion for John to press the flesh and so forth. Just the party faithful of course. The local Party Chairman and the small army of volunteers who worked so tirelessly come election time.
We had had warning. Even before the papers had arrived, Alex’s press contacts had been in touch. How many times had he been told, had I told him, ‘Don’t put anything in an e-mail that you don’t wish to see on tomorrow’s front page.’ And there it was, in all the Sunday’s.
To be fair, at any other time it might have passed, not exactly unnoticed, but deemed not worthy of promotion above other stories. But a combination of there being no other political news of note and a desire to embarrass a Government already under fire had tipped the balance. The e-mails appeared to show – no not appeared to, they were actually quite unequivocal – to show John pressuring some junior official and being quite blatantly threatening. Surely, the papers declared, this didn’t so much break the Ministerial code as smash it to pieces.
They, the Principle Private Secretaries that is, hand out pre-prepared advice for such situations. A sort of FAQ sheet. John could, for example, talk about ‘a poor choice of words’ or that ‘taken in the right context’ and that ‘it had never been his intention’ and so on.
No one at the reception had been ill-mannered enough to raise it except the journalist - who it transpired had actually been invited, Alex’s idea of course - had planted himself in front of John brandishing the newspapers. ‘Would the Minister care to comment?’
The stand-up row had lasted five minutes before Alex had managed to shut John up and usher the journalist away with the promise of a more in-depth briefing later. The photographer, happily clicking away, hadn’t helped.
It was embarrassing not to say a little humiliating. Apparently, there was a briefing paper for this as well. Two, in fact. One for John and one for me. More FAQs. ‘Was I sticking by my husband?’, ‘Had this damaged my trust in him?’, ‘Was I, in fact, considering divorcing him’. All good questions I had to admit. ‘No’, ‘Yes’ and ‘Absolutely’, crossed my mind but the prepared sheet did not offer these answers.
He could have chosen a supermodel or some gorgeous sex symbol, all tits and bum. Someone who looked good straddling a chair perhaps. Someone his colleagues might be envious of behind their hands. But no, instead of a supermodel he chose a supermarket checkout girl. That’s not even a skilled job these days. God knows how he met her. I don’t think he’s ever been in a supermarket. Certainly not since he became an MP. Far too much risk of meeting a constituent, a real person. Strangely for such a public role, some MPs and nearly all Ministers don’t quite know what to do when confronted with real people.
The most important thing, the paper had concluded, was to minimise any embarrassment to the Government and any embarrassment to the Prime Minister. I did point out that this was actually two things and had asked, in a spirit of genuine enquiry, if there was any priority between the two, if push came to shove as it were. This was met with the sort of fixed smile as if I’d asked who had farted.
The press conference, on the steps of our London house, was thankfully brief and, I gather, went much as these things usually do. John made his apology. Lapse of judgement, carried away by the moment, regrets that he’d let the Prime Minister down, the Country down and his dear wife down. I noted the order. I fielded the few questions addressed directly to me and which seemed to be covered quite adequately by the FAQ sheet.
Of course, he will have to resign. In fact, a draft resignation letter had been included in the briefing pack. No one survives a sex scandal, however laughable it may be. This is Britain after all. A pity he wasn’t a Minister in the French Government. Having at least one mistress under your belt, so to speak, seems almost a requirement for office.
As well as his current appointment this has finished his ministerial career for the foreseeable future if not forever. Not because he’d likely be rubbish at the job - after all that’s never been a barrier to advancement and no one gets sacked for making a hash of things - or even the regrettable jack of judgement with the shop girl. Others similarly embarrassed have simply kept their heads down until someone else’s scandal focuses attention elsewhere. No, it was simply that the PM has more than enough ‘yes men’ available for Cabinet posts.
The fuss has subsided now. John is yesterday’s news. Life has settled down here, for now at least. John, of course, doesn’t have his ministerial responsibilities any more, but I never thought that was important to him. It was merely a necessary step towards the ultimate prize. I sometimes wonder if he wouldn’t have been a better MP and a better Minister if he’d devoted as much energy to those roles as to his own advancement.
It wasn’t so much that he was having an affair as that he’d taken so little trouble to hide it from me. A single telephone call had told me that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be and let the cat out of the bag as it were. It was as if I was of so little consequence that I didn’t merit even a minimum of decent lying. I suppose I felt what most betrayed wives feel. I was upset, I felt hurt, I wondered if it had been my fault, had I not been a good enough wife and so on. I’d sacrificed my life and career for his and attended countless boring receptions, dinners and events over the years. I’d been a bloody wonderful wife.
Everyone has been very kind, of course. ‘You’ve been so brave’ and ‘John doesn’t deserve you.’ The latter, at least, was certainly true.
I had hoped that the leaked e-mails would have been enough. When the Prime Minister had said that John had not broken any rules and that he had his full support I thought that was it, job done as it were. In the old days this would have meant that John had better draft his resignation letter pretty quickly before someone did it for him. Now, of course, it means exactly what it says and if anything put John in a stronger position. Also, I’d forgotten how short the public’s collective memory is and before too long the affair had been forgotten.
I was therefore forced to reveal, anonymously, to a suitable journalist – actually the one he’d taken to task at the reception and who had almost wet himself with excitement - John’s affair with little Miss Checkout. This, naturally, made me look a little pathetic and an object of pity but it did allow me to tell the local Party Chairman, somewhat tearfully, of all John’s misdeeds and general appalling behaviour towards me. It was quite a performance, if I say so myself, if largely fictitious. But by the end of it the Chairman would have believed John capable of anything and thought what an absolute swine he was.
The Chairman is very keen on family values in public life. I’ve heard that John will not be selected as the Party’s candidate for the next election. When I start divorce proceedings I’m confident that he’ll be asked to resign his seat well ahead of that.
To misquote Alex, it really couldn’t have gone better.
About the author
Paul is an enthusiastic but sporadic writer. He lives quietly in his native Essex.