I used to think writing was easy. Writing House of Cards 29 years ago, I’d simply take the reality of Westminster and water it down a little in order to make it credible. But no amount of hosing can wash this much blood off the walls.
Assassinations, castrations, pillow conspiracies and public crucifixions – even the bizarre sight of Michael Heseltine denouncing treachery. I thought there were no surprises left, but I guess even old dogs must find new ways of chasing their balls.
Yet perhaps it was always that way. I remember as a 15-year-old being given a copy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. My heart sank. Then I read it and something exquisite stirred inside.
Here was the greatest man on earth, the most noble Roman of all, who was stabbed, hacked and bled to death on the steps of his own Capitol, murdered by his best mates.
Almost two thousand years later it was Maggie Thatcher’s turn, dragged out of Downing Street in tears with friendly daggers front and back. Now DC and Boris. Treachery is timeless.
But in many ways it’s also essential. Let’s face it, politics involves taking a shovel into the stables and seeing how much of the brown stuff you can shift, knowing that eventually you will be buried in it. Yet there’s nobility in there somewhere.
Leadership requires sacrifice, preferably of others but eventually of yourself. Can you remember the last time a Prime Minister retired gracefully? Arguably it was Harold Wilson. That was forty years ago, and even that was prompted by ill-health.
Six months, even six weeks ago David Cameron was seemingly untouchable, his ascendancy undisputed, talking of retirement when the fancy took him, yet in the end it was events and his best friends that took him. And already the assassins Boris and Michael, like Brutus and Cassius and Heseltine and Howe before them, have found there is no hiding place behind a bloodied cloak.
The lessons of history are remarkably consistent, only the means of killing a man have changed. We live in the Internet age. Jesus was betrayed with a kiss, Boris with an email.
Yet in politics, in the end, we betray ourselves. There is no such thing as complete political honesty. It’s a team game that requires compromise not only with our colleagues but with our principles, and sometimes with the truth. We draw a line in the sand, and vow so far and no further. Then the winds of change blow, the sand shifts and we lose track of where we are.
I watched Margaret Thatcher losing track. As happens with great leaders she grew increasingly impatient, inflexible, egotistical, both out of touch and out of time. She was never going to go quietly. It was to lead to Shakespearean tragedy, played out in tears of pain shed on the doorstep of Downing Street.
Cameron’s voice breaks during emotional resignation speechPlay!07:06
Fortunately for me, it also lead to my House of Cards, which in its various dramatic forms involves politicians murdering journalists. I’ve never actually known a Prime Minister to use high office in order to murder a journalist, although I suspect David Cameron might be looking at Boris Johnson and wondering if he’s still got time.
It’s not only we Tories who are capable of putting on a spectacular public display of self-destruction. Our colleagues in the Labour Party seem equally intent on pouring petrol over themselves. Oh comrades of little faith, pass me the matches! Thank goodness, then, for those nice Lib Dems, you might say – but goodness has nothing to do with it.
A century ago their leader was the adulterous, duplicitous, perjurous fraudster David Lloyd-George (although none of that stopped him being a great Welshman and war leader).
More recently their leader Jeremy Thorpe was charged with conspiracy to murder his boyfriend, and three years ago their deputy leader Chris Huhne was jailed for perverting the course of justice. By now you’re beginning to realise that the list is endless.
Politics is said to be the world’s second oldest profession, which takes most of its rules from the first. This is nonsense. It’s the oldest profession of all, and there is no evidence that a rule book ever existed.
Yet politics is soul as well as snout. There is nobility amidst the mire, men and women willing to face the inevitable storm for those things they believe in, trying to do their best for others, knowing that whatever success they might have will be passing. Most will find their place in history only in the footnotes of someone else’s memoirs.
Boris Johnson rules himself out of Conservative election racePlay!01:41
Despite the present turmoil, all is not lost. There’s still time for the players to remember that House of Cards is a work of entertainment, not a work of instruction. And if I dig deep enough, I imagine a whole new chapter beginning this week.
The Tory Party stops pretending that it’s nothing more than posh boys at play, feeble men will have joined Boris and Brutus in falling on their swords, leaving Mother Theresa in charge. The ship of state will go sailing on.
I can dream, can’t I?
IN QUOTES | House of Cards’ Frank Underwood
On power: “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties”
On democracy: “Democracy is so overrated”
On sex: “A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power”
On politics: “Shake with your right hand, but hold a rock in your left”
On hangers-on: “Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it”
On virtue: “Nobody’s a boy scout. Not even boy scouts”
On martyrs: “What a martyr craves more than anything is a sword to fall on. So you sharpen the blade, hold it at just the right angle, and then 3, 2, 1… ”
On rest: “I’ve always loathed the necessity of sleep. Like death, it puts even the most powerful men on their backs”
On ambition: “For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted”
On being President: “The President is like a lone tree in an empty field: he leans whichever way the wind is blowing”
On Vice Presidents: “There are two types of Vice Presidents: doormats and matadors”
On doubt: “There’s no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth”
On friendship: “Friends make the worst enemies”