Ted's last stand
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by Simon King



Heath left his room and strolled towards the corridor, where his understudy waited for him. This man looked devastated and haggard. He rubbed his fingers through his greased hair after surveying the august room. His curved nose and jutting jaw were his more distinguishing features. His black suit was crumpled and he carried a briefcase that overflowed with loose papers.  The tired civil servant waved tentatively at the prime minister, but soon reclined his head and sighed.

‘It has been a long hard winter,’ the secretary said.

‘At least the heating is turned on at Westminster,’ Heath promptly replied.

The country’s chief executive had a low guttural voice and spoke with a plummy accent that sounded slightly askew. This was because of his lower middle-class upbringing. It could also be attributed to his Oxbridge education.

‘Only just. I am bloody freezing,’ his subordinate replied.

The prime minister wiped the sweat off his brow and latticed his arms beneath his back. He stood in a rigid manner. His long tie hung over his crotch and his overweight stomach burst out of his white shirt. The leader cut an awkward figure and even looked nervous in the absence of cameras. His secretary did not notice his discombobulation; he was so tired he could scarcely stand up.

‘How many black-outs will occur?’ the boss asked.

‘Well, prime minister,’ the servant replied, ‘we will keep having black-outs if the Electricity Board keep going on strike.’ The secretary’s voice was also plummy. His manner of speech was so habitual that it did not need to be refined. However, the modulation of his voice was not good. His pitch was low and he lisped key words.

‘None of the lights will go off at Downing Street, will they?’ Heath asked.

‘We can’t discount that possibility, prime minister.’

‘Oh, that darn oil crisis!’ he groaned. ‘I had to start rationing our use of coal because it was so bloody expensive to produce. Now they keep going on strike! Well… what can we do about it? Where is the document? We can refer to that!’


‘The Industrial Relations Act.’

‘Well, I did not understand a word of it, dear boy. It is difficult to proceed with policy when you do not understand it.’

The prime minister curled his fingers into a fist.

‘We have had a pact with the unions for years,’ he said. ‘It has been productive. We must retain it.’

‘Prime minister…’ the secretary replied, ‘The unions have been hijacked by communist entryists. They are no longer a benign force.’

‘Still,’ Heath asserted, ‘we must not terminate this agreement. We must help government, unions and industry work together. However, the closed shop must not continue. We cannot tell people what to do. All actions should be voluntary. However, workers still deserve rights and entitlements’

‘We have gone through this before,’ his understudy quipped.

‘Well, we’re going through it again!’ the leader scowled.

Policy seemed muddled and hare-brained. It was difficult to reach a new settlement. Consensus politics had been smashed. Everyone was squeezed, prices had risen, productivity had stalled and unemployment had risen drastically. Yet both men were tired and wanted to sneak back into bed, as the rest of the cabinet had already done.

‘Is there anyone else I can talk to about this?’ Heath asked desperately.

‘Well, I am your employment secretary. My ministry has been seriously busy,’ the secretary replied.

‘Well, I am talking to you and I am getting nowhere!’ he snapped.

‘I think that we both need a good night’s sleep. In times like these we need support. We need to turn to our loved ones – our wives and our friends. Do you have anyone to talk to?’

The Prime Minister remained silent. ‘Can I have a chat with any other ministers?’

‘None. They are all asleep. They are all too tired,’ his understudy replied. ‘Look, you should go to sleep. You will wake up tomorrow and you will be able to deal with this. If you do not mind, I really need to go to bed.’

The Employment Secretary left him. ‘Can I speak with someone from the press?’ the defeated leader cried out.

‘The papers are about to come out,’ the vanishing secretary replied. ‘They are also busy and tired. I do not think that they will be especially charitable to you today.’ These words echoed across room.

The Prime Minister was left alone. Portraits of his predecessors hung across the wall of the stairway. They all posed with confidence. His own portrait, meanwhile, hung beside him. He lurched his head slightly and saw his immediate predecessor, who smoked a pipe and looked ahead with wry amusement. This man was now leader of the opposition and was poised to claim back power. One could tell from the portrait that this man was scheming, which was his major strength. He was appearing on sundry television programs at this very moment and claimed that he would strike a deal with the unions. After all, only the party of the proletariat could get the workers back to work.

The incumbent once more curled his fingers into a fist and brooded with fury. Everything about this man annoyed him, as he was meant to be the Prime Minister of substance and principle. This man was nothing more than a fixer, a purveyor of empty gimmicks. The technological revolution that this man heralded had evaporated into tame smoke, not white heat. Yet Heath knew that he boasted some considerable achievements, especially Britain’s entry into the European Community. Now it was all unravelling and his predecessor was once more hungry for power.

What does power do to a man? Right now the incumbent felt that the whole world was against him. The unions, the opposition parties, his backbenchers, the house of lords and the press were in a coalition and their aim was to depose him. There was one barmy member of his party who claimed the nation’s political and economic woes were solely his fault. It did not seem fair and it did not seem altogether democratic. The unions after the war had been staples of fairness and democracy, but they now seemed to determined to disgrace those values.

Maybe the Prime Minister was not fit for power. His body writhed as soon as he addressed a crowd or a television camera. At this very moment he would rather be sailing on a yacht, where he would be unperturbed by these warring rabbles. Otherwise, he would enjoy hearing the mellifluous sounds of a chorus. Politics was loud, frenetic and insincere. This was not his temperament.

Heath wandered over to his bedroom. A bust of Winston Churchill lay on top of the fireplace. He sat on top of a coronet chair and started to look back on his life. It was filled with considerable achievements. After all, he came from a modest background. He went on to Oxford, a career in politics, had conducted orchestras and he became prime minister. However, he had never had a wife or even a partner. Yes, he was a sad and lonesome man, but he also happened to be the most powerful man in the country. Others often thought about this dichotomy. Nonetheless, he was desperate to turn to a friend. All his friends were far away and they were troubled by problems that were his responsibility to solve.

He shuffled over to his grand piano, which he brought in as soon as he won power. He needed to play it, as it kept him sane.

He took out a copy of the Hammerklavier Sonata by Beethoven. The nation’s most powerful man could have been a concert pianist. Yes, that would have been a less chaotic career path. This grand piano was the first musical instrument to be stored in 10 Downing Street. Heath returned to it perennially. It brought him comfort and solace.

The Prime Minister hammered out the opening b major chords and accentuated them with discordant rhythms. He struck the keys with venom. He had in mind the coalition that was conspiring against him. They were the keys on the piano and he was pummelling them. This opening chaos was followed by a quieter interlude, in pianissimo. The Prime Minister closed his eyes and envisaged the sea and a wide open horizon. The gentle sounds smoothed his mind.

The chief executive stopped playing, since he realised that he must have woken up many of his colleagues. He had been playing loudly throughout, but he looked around and there was no-one to be seen. He had made a wonderful racket in Downing Street, which had gone by unnoticed. Everyone had chosen to ignore the effusive sounds of Beethoven. The leader of the country bowed his head and sighed. No one much cared for either his piano playing or his government. He was all alone in the quiet echo chamber of 10 Downing Street.



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