The Gove of Christmas Future
Disclaimer: The below is a fantasy based on flimsily-constructed caricatures that may share the names of real people but, in a very real sense, bear no discernible relation to real people at all.
“Toss you for deputy?” asked Johnson.
“Keep it in your trousers” said Gove, unable to resist a flash of puerile, bonding wit.
“Well, we’ve got to do something. Tempus fugit, and that, if nothing else, is getting ripe.” He nodded at box behind him. “Heads or tails?”
“Oh, heads” said Gove, decisively.
“You win.” said Johnson, pocketing the coin with one hand, and dialling the Chairman with the other.
Gove watched, and pondered. This might be a mistake, but what choice did he have? Last year, he’d felt in control. The media had been full of his bright new re-commitment to once-tired environmental pledges, and his crackdown on EU-enabled puppy trafficking had worked like a charm while Johnson had all but disappeared from the front pages. The British public, which could be relied on to buy stories about dogs, preferred not to read about Libyan slave-markets, and the Gove star had been in the ascendant. He hadn’t had a plan, exactly, but since Johnson had hung up his mantle of cuddly leadership, Gove was determined somehow to nick it. But then, events had happened. And here they were.
January had been fine. Nothing much had happened, and the papers filled their pages with the complementary topics of detox and Brexit. Davis had handed out plenty more constructive ambiguity, which kept the commentariat busy, and Mrs May had, as usual, done nothing and said nothing that she hadn’t said before. Hammond still muttered about unplanned spending, but even the Treasury wasn’t talking to him now, and he could hardly get a quote in the FT. But then February had arrived.
Privatisation may be an unrivalled good, leveraging the sharp practice of the private sector to skimp on the public, but it has some disadvantages. One being that investors can’t be so easily muzzled as public servants and if they feel they’re losing out then they can, in theory, say so. Mostly they don’t, because they’re not. And if they are, a little gentle lobbying, if engineered correctly, can help find governmental ways to smooth the path to happiness, with nobody being the wiser. The ports had not done that. Or, rather they had, but nobody had paid them much attention. The Home Office had said it was a Transport problem, Transport had passed it to Business and Business had passed it back to the Home Office. Something had been done, and nothing had been done. And so the ports and, crucially, the hauliers, were miffed. Javid had, after a while, tried to get Hammond to let him promise something, but he wouldn’t, and complained to May who said she’d apprise herself and that was it.
It was all Khan’s fault, really. If he’d not weighed in about special treatment for London, the idea wouldn’t have been planted. But it had. The ports had gone scaremongering, which had spooked the hauliers, who’d started trying to rework truckers’ contracts, who had organised themselves, surprisingly quickly, into a quasi-blockade of the M25. May had immediately stepped Rudd up to the media plate and handed the practical side to the toad Williamson, who was objectionably delighted to have a project to work on, but neither were much use. There weren’t ever actual bread shortages, but by the time the hauliers went back to work, a week later, the couriers had run out of parcels and patience and were wilfully clogging up anything and everything they could. And once that was over, enough people had marched on City Hall for power to go to Khan’s head, and he was holding a stunt all of his own. A proper vote for independence.
Nobody knew how that would work out, least of all Khan who, unbelievably, had gone campaigning for some sort of EU protectorate status, without so much as a plan. May had been apoplectically mute, which was probably wise, but nobody else knew how to handle it. In Cabinet meetings, Johnson, who thought he knew a thing or two about London, reckoned Khan would never get popular support and then, when he did, said he’d never find the money. Hammond put him right on that, somewhat sharply. And then, at the end of April, it happened. London voted out. Or in. Or whatever.
Mrs May actually went to see the Queen, who’d gone to Sandringham. God knows what they said to each other. Gove imagined they’d have just stood and stared for a bit. And then May came back – a difficult journey if sections of the press were to be believed – and sat and stared for a longer while. Eventually, the Cabinet Office got jumpy and started swarming about like a hive of ants, chattering about Place B, which turned out to be Northampton, and ‘alternative government’. Legions of civil servants ventured nervously south of the river, to ‘liaise’ with the secretive folk, but that all came to nothing when it turned out the Met were on Khan’s side. Rudd was livid, but the only other silver lining was the irrepressible absence of Davis, who appeared to have gone suddenly native and bought a house in Belgium. The second phase of talks was, theoretically, happening, but not even the EU was was pretending it was. Attention was all on London now, with secessionists from California to Catalonia taking very careful note.
Even Parliament took notice, once it had returned from the Easter break, and debated the possibility of moving out. The government didn’t support this, pretending to judge it a matter for Parliament alone, but things were getting so twitchy in the constituencies, it was almost a done deal. Hammond reminded Leadsom about what she’d said about allowing repairs to be done and, though it turned out she’d said nothing of the sort, she said it now. And so, over the Summer break, it went to Manchester, leaving the machinery of government stuck in Whitehall , allegedly mired in feasibility studies on the advisability of relocation. Johnson went off on a twenty-nation whistle-stop aimed either at raising his profile or hiding it (it was never easy to tell what Johnson was up to). And Gove had stayed in London, trying to persuade his department to drop the idea of London as a National Park City and dream up a Polecat Charter instead.
Summer faded into autumn and so the Conference Season, which went surprisingly well in Gove’s opinion. May recycled her speech, this time with feeling, and the party faithful were delighted by the way the government had not handled the London problem. The shires were in their element, now the liberal elite had trapped themselves in their own irrelevant bubble, and the Captains of Finance were likewise, for exactly the same reason. The sunlit uplands spread across the visible horizon, and with Scotland on the brink of its own referendum, the yeomen couldn’t have been happier. Donors oozed, especially over Gove, whose personal coffers began filling again. Once more, he was being groomed for power in the shadows and Mrs May’s strength and stability, though still unquestioned, wasn’t quite the ticket any more. The party had bided its time in case she was playing a long game, but reluctantly concluded there was no hat and, because no hat, no rabbit. Still, Gove thought, there was plenty of time. He’d idly thought of starting maneouvres in the Spring, when attention would be back once more on the stagnancy of Brussels and the misery of economic forecasts. If he played things right, both would be left firmly at May’s door, making a leadership challenge more an act of mercy than opportunism.
But as December’s gloom descended, events overtook every hope. On the fourteenth, at eight o’clock in the morning, the City of London declared it had reached an agreement with the Crown, and members of the Eurozone, and would henceforth become an autonomous dependency, no longer governed by the Westminster Government. Up in Manchester, Parliament managed to hold a debate, but didn’t get as far as a vote. Hammond had disappeared, as had most of the Treasury staff, who may or may not have been in on it, and Twitter reported, in several million short accounts, that ATMs weren’t working.
Gove had, naturally, given up on polecats and gone to Number 10, assuming there would be a Cabinet meeting. But there was no May and there was no Johnson. Rudd flustered like a wet hen, Hammond brooded like a funereal heron, but neither said anything. Davis, with furrowed brow, counted the cash in his wallet and sucked at his teeth. But there was still no May, and still no Johnson. Tea and coffee came and went. Miscellaneous staff wandered in and out, advisers darting among them to deliver whispers to their ministers. But still no May and no Johnson. And then, the staff, the advisers, the minute-takers and bag-carriers all melted away. For half a minute, the ministers sat alone around the table. And then Johnson bustled in. “Gentlemen and Ladies. The barbarians are at the gate.”
There’s supposed to be dignity and process and a plan for everything. But with Parliament out of the way and Whitehall turning against its political masters, there wasn’t much time for niceties. Almost before Johnson had spoken the last word, ministers were being escorted into vans. As a minister, Gove had been on a few trips, but never before had he shared the back of a van with Rudd and Hammond. Neither had any talent for conversation but, sadly, that didn’t put them off. That was the trouble with seeming bright and sympathetic; you got talked at whether you liked it or not. But Gove reckoned there was nothing better to do. Not even polecat logos.
Place B was as unexpected as you’d expect. It looked exactly like a self-storage building on an industrial estate, apart from the snow. Gove was ushered into it, firmly but politely, and led to the indistinguisably door of an indistinguishable unit. Behind the indistinguishable door was the very distinguishable Johnson. And behind him was a polystyrene box, six foot long and three foot wide, that smelt neither of fish nor ice.
“Is that…?” asked Gove, pointing at the box.
“Mrs May is dead” said Johnson. “Happy now?”
“But is that…?” asked Gove, still pointing at the box.
“It may well be. No state funeral, though. And best we didn’t leave it behind”
“But what about her family?”
“Her husband works in the City, remember”
“Oh” said Gove. “But what do we do now? Shouldn’t we call a vicar?”
“There’s more at the stake than Mrs May, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
“That’s why I’m here?”
“Toss you for deputy?” asked Johnson.