“And will we let Russia rampage across our borders? We will not. Will we stand by while the Soviets steal through out hinterlands? We will not. Will we allow the Red Army to ravage our least resilient resources? We will not; we shall not; we must not. And I tell you this –”
His phone rang, insistently, and he muted the television with a stab of his index finger.
“Braithwaite,” he said lingeringly, letting the two syllables roll around his tongue like vintage burgundy. “Yes, Geoffrey, a stirring speech. He’s a fine orator.”
He listened for a while to the caller, before interrupting him. “No, no, Geoffrey, I’ve told you before. The Prime Minister does not give interviews. No, not even to the BBC. Yes, I understand your perspective, and yes, it is unusual, but we have to respect the PM’s wishes. He is quite firm on this point. Submit your questions to me and I will endeavour to ensure that the PM responds to them personally, in writing.”
He turned up the sound on the television in time to see the Prime Minister leaving the podium, giving a single languid wave to the crowd and brushing past the assembled press corps.
Tall, imposing, with a slender figure, an aquiline profile and distinguished silver hair just a touch longer than was conventional, the Right Honourable Arthur Balmoral was everything the populace wanted from a leader. He was a statesman, from his pince-nez glasses to the watch chain that looped across his waistcoat.
If perhaps he appeared a little old fashioned, then that appealed to the wave of nostalgia fuelled by television dramas set in days long gone, when Britannia ruled the waves and everyone knew their neighbours. If he appeared aloof, then that satisfied the public’s exasperation with the attention-seeking politicos who simpered alongside their spouses on breakfast TV sofas. If he never gave interviews to the probing, incisive print and broadcast journalists – well, the vast majority of the public never watched such interviews, and those that did contented themselves with the speculation and gossip that poured forth from columnists in the quality dailies.
Braithwaite poured himself a large brandy and settled back in his chair, his fingers probing the gap on the arm where one of the buttons had dislodged itself from the leather upholstery. He picked up his phone from the desk, swiped to open it and tapped a number on his speed dial list.
“Gideon,” he said, “you watched it? Yes, I agree. Our boy did well. And we don’t need to worry about his background: all our ducks are in a row. Yes, they might be surprised at the speed at which he was parachuted in from nowhere. But when they dig for more, they’ll discover his background in MI5. And that’s their brick wall, their D notice. Sorry, chaps, we’d love to help out, but all terribly hush hush, don’t you know. And of course it contributes to our boy’s sense of mystery and heroism. We’re not exactly saying he used to be James Bond, but we’re not denying it either. But Gideon, we have an impending problem.”
He swirled the remaining brandy around in his glass, and swivelled his chair around to face the extensive lawn visible through the leaded window. A gardener trundled a wheelbarrow piled high with deadheaded roses.
“It’s the TV boys, Gideon,” he continued. “I don’t know how much longer we can hold them off. They’re demanding an interview.”
He listened to the voice on the other end for a while, before interrupting testily.
“Yes, yes, I know all that. And I know what we agreed. He may be able to manage PMQs by ignoring the question and dipping into his library of rhetorical soundbites – that’s what all Prime Ministers do. And we’ve got away with him not holding cabinet meetings, through the simple expedient of implying that there’s a secret inner cabinet, and no minister’s going to complain that they aren’t in it because that would be admitting they aren’t in it.
“But it would be quite impossible to expect him to stand up to a heavyweight interviewer. So we write another speech.
“We start off with a general lambasting of the ubiquity of social media, and the harmful nature of its forensic dissection of our innermost selves. Yes, you’re right, ‘vivisection’ is better. We go on to discuss the sanctity of privacy, man’s inalienable right to – really? Humanity’s inalienable right? I don’t think so, Gideon, it sounds too forced. Too PC. Well, we can come back to it.
“We then move on to reviling the ‘me’ generation, the plague of selfie-obsession – yes, I rather like that too. We decry the futility of Facebook, the idiocy of Instagram, the… er… torpor? Terror? What’s that? Yes, the tyrrany of Twitter. I like that.
“But then we end up slating the whole personality cult thing, which is the reason why our boy won’t give interviews. The job is bigger than the man, that sort of thing. See what I’m getting at? The public know he’s a master of rhetoric, but they’ll respect his wish not to promote himself personally. Churchill didn’t give interviews to the press, nor did Lloyd George, nor the Duke of Wellington, come to that, and I think people hanker for the times when politicians were more remote. It could work.”
He hung up, and swivelled his chair back round. He had to admit, his idea did seem to have been something of a success. The invention of the character, from the resonant name to the patrician appearance, was the creative part of the job; establishing his legend so it would stand up to scrutinty was much more arduous.
But why risk having the country led by a politician, when you could employ someone simply to speak the lines and then get the hell out of the way? After all the disastrous leaders, it that seemed what the country really needed was an acting Prime Minister.