Wednesday 10 March, 1976 (continued)
It was clear that nobody wished to be the first person to speak after Sir John had finished his announcement. Ted, sitting uncomfortably (in every sense of the word) in the Prime Minister’s chair, looked around at the assembled faces as the clock struck once for half past six. They were an exhausted bunch, and what little life they had left in them had been drained by the news they had just received.
‘I think,’ began Roy Jenkins – of course Roy would be the first to eulogise him, thought Ted – ‘that it would be appropriate to spend a minute reflecting on the loss we, Mary and the country have all suffered tonight.’
Another silence ensued. After a minute that felt like an hour, it was broken again, this time by Tony Benn.
‘The situation is very unclear,’ he said, gesturing with his pipe, ‘Sir John, forgive me, but even those of us who have a scholarly grasp of parliamentary and governmental procedure are at something of a loss here. With no First Secretary of State and no Deputy Prime Minister, who exactly is in charge?’
Sir John, standing by the door, remained still.
‘That is for you to decide, Mr Benn. I can offer no guidance on an internal Party matter. For the purposes of this meeting, Mr Short here is in charge, in his capacity as Lord President of the Council. However, I have to remind you that technically, given the death of the Prime Minister, the government has dissolved and a new one will not exist until a new Prime Minister is appointed.’
The table erupted at this assertion, and Ted massaged his temples. It was time to take control. He knew he was capable of this. He just hadn’t quite been ready to deal with the death of a friend, a power vacuum that he was expected to fill and a room full of egos all on five hours’ sleep.
‘Comrades!’ he said in a loud, clear voice. Surprisingly, the table went silent.
‘This is no way to behave,’ Ted went on, ‘I do not think Harold would look kindly on us idly arguing over parliamentary procedure when there is a country to be run. As I see it, the immediate priority of this cabinet – and I have no intention of adjourning it until it is achieved – is the selection of a figure who we can rally around and immediately send to the palace to kiss hands.’
That was more like it, he thought as he finished. Almost statesmanlike. Denis Healey jumped in.
‘I agree with Ted,’ he said, ‘bickering will not help anyone. What the country and the party needs are a uniting figure who can get us through this national trauma.’
‘I wonder who you have in mind,’ said Jenkins sarcastically.
At this, there was an ejaculation from Healey and the scraping of chairs as the two men nearly came to blows. The table erupted once again and it was only ten minutes later that any kind of order returned to the meeting.
‘Comrades,’ said Ted sternly, ‘this is an absolutely atrocious way to conduct ourselves. Now, regardless of our personal feelings for each other, what Denis and I have said seems to be the best way forward – we need to select somebody, and quickly, who can immediately succeed Harold and stabilise international confidence in our country and our economy.’
There were murmurs of agreement from around the room. Ted continued, warming up as he became more confident.
‘Therefore, I see no problem, given the circumstances, with using this meeting as an opportunity to elect a candidate who has the support of his cabinet colleagues so that the work of government can continue – this is what Harold would want, it is what the people want and it is what the economy demands.’ Ted felt proud of that particular tricolon as it left his mouth.
‘That’s all very inspiring, Ted,’ remarked Benn from the other end of the table, his pipe now nonchalantly dangling from his right hand, ‘but I have to protest in the strongest manner possible if any such undemocratic process is pursued to elect a Prime Minister of this country and, let us not forget, a Leader of the Labour Party. The NEC simply won’t allow us, a group of men they see as a cabal of self-interested careerists, to pick out one of our own without going through the proper process, which is a democratically-run leadership contest – and in our Party, that means an exhaustive ballot of the PLP.’
Ted bit his lip. In all the chaos the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. Benn was right – the NEC would never tolerate this, and constitutionally any such leader of the Labour Party would not be legitimate and could therefore not command a majority in parliament – and would therefore not be able to tell the Queen they could form a government. He felt a headache coming on.
James Callaghan spoke up, for the first time.
‘What if one of us were to become Prime Minister but not leader of the Party? No, hear me out: there could be an understanding that that person would go to the palace today, become Prime Minister because of an agreement with the PLP and the NEC to support him, and then be elected unopposed in a ballot of MPs at the end of today. That way we get a Party Leader and a Prime Minister inside of twelve hours and the country is better off for it.’
Healey slammed his fist into the table and spoke, his eyebrows threatening to engulf the room.
‘And who exactly should this privileged person be, that they do not have to face a contested ballot of MPs?’
Benn rolled his eyes.
‘Denis, at least be subtle about it. Everybody here knows that not one of us is going to tolerate an uncontested leadership election of any kind, not after we’ve all spent the two years since ’74 working out how to bid for the leadership when Harold eventually… went.’
He winced somewhat, conscious of his own poor choice of words. Healey, on the other hand, flew into another rage, accusing Benn of unjustly calling him callous towards the dead, telling Callaghan he was planning a stitch-up and that he wouldn’t let him. Ted tried to regain control of the meeting but found himself shouted down, until Michael Foot broke through the shouts with a truth that spoke louder than the angry attacks flying around the table.
‘Comrades, I do believe we are forgetting that we already have a Leader of the Party.’
All eyes turned to Ted. There were muffled murmurs of ‘of course!’. He suddenly felt very scared.
‘Or at least,’ Foot continued, ‘an Acting Leader. The only person in this room who has any authority to command the PLP is already sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair – I cannot be alone in thinking that perhaps you, Ted, are our way out of this constitutional quagmire.’
Ted turned to Michael cautiously. The two men were hardly allies, and Michael must have still remembered Ted’s victory over him for the Deputy Leadership in ’72. It could not have been absent from the back of his mind that if he had beaten Ted then, he would have been sitting in Harold’s chair now.
‘What exactly do you propose, Comrade?’ said Ted, slowly and carefully.
Foot arched his eyebrows and adopted a somewhat superior tone.
‘It appears that we are caught between three forces. The Civil Service and our moral duty to the country demand a Prime Minister be appointed today. The NEC will not allow any leader to be elected simply by a meeting of ourselves in the cabinet, and constitutionally cannot tolerate a rushed leadership ballot of the PLP - the process simply cannot be compressed to one day. Jim’s suggestion of the cabinet appointing a successor who then goes to the palace and, with an understanding from the NEC in light of the tragic circumstances and the need for unity, is elected as Labour Leader by an extraordinary ballot at the end of the day, is perhaps the best way out of that particular mess. However, as the recent fireworks showed us, this too is torpedoed by this cabinet itself containing a number of men who disagree on the matter of who this chosen successor should be. Is this compatible with everyone else’s reading of the situation?’
The cabinet nodded, some more than others. Sir John Hunt gave a slight nod from the door.
‘In which case, I can see one solution. Ted here must travel to the palace and become Prime Minister as soon as possible.’
Ted shouted in surprise at Michael’s frankness but was hardly heard over the indignation from around the table.
‘We just established we’re not having a coronation, Michael!’ bellowed Healey.
‘Comrades, please allow me to finish,’ replied Foot, keeping his cool, ‘as Sir John has kindly outlined, as Lord President of the Council, Ted has the closest thing to a constitutional mandate to travel to the palace. Is that right, Sir John? Did I understand you correctly?’
‘Yes, Mr Foot,’ Hunt replied, ‘First Secretary of State is the traditional role associated with being the “one in charge” after the First Lord of the Treasury – the Prime Minister’s real title – but Mr Wilson declined to appoint one when he formed a government two years ago, and did not appoint a Deputy Prime Minister, as some of the wartime and nineteen-fifties governments did. As Mr Benn mentioned earlier, without either of these roles the matter becomes more amorphous, but as I explained to Mr Short last night, as Lord President of the Council he is the obvious choice to fill this role. His role as Deputy – sorry, Acting Leader of your Party was also taken into account when I asked him to chair this meeting.’
Foot smiled. Ted narrowed his eyes. He thought he could see where this was going. As the clock struck seven, he turned to face Hunt.
‘Sir John,’ he asked, all eyes in the room firmly on him, ‘when will the press have to be told what has happened?’
The civil servant tilted his head to one side as he replied.
‘It is not seen as particularly feasible to keep the news from going out after noon. Questions will begin to be asked as early as ten o’clock, I would imagine.’
Ted nodded in understanding and returned his gaze to the men around him.
‘Comrades, I have a proposition. I move, as acting Leader, that I assume the position of Acting Prime Minister immediately, and hold it for the duration of the leadership contest which some of us seem to desire so much. I will then happily stand down in favour of the winner of that contest, who may travel to the palace and become PM properly. Is this acceptable?’
The various tired eyes around the room fell on Healey, Callaghan, Benn and Jenkins. Benn was looking straight at Michael Foot. The former Viscount Stansgate smirked and raised a hand in jovial objection.
‘I will personally support you, Ted, but I can see one problem with your plan.’
Ted scowled at him. What now?
‘Sir John will correct me, I am sure, but I do not believe there is any such thing as an “Acting Prime Minister”. One is either Prime Minister, or one is not. It’s rather a binary affair.’
Ted sighed and looked to the Cabinet Secretary for clarification. Sir John, visibly stressed by this point, nodded sadly. Swearing under his breath, Ted looked around the room. He was met with silence.
‘Well,’ he uttered, with an air of finality, ‘it appears we have been surrounded, Comrades. Painted into a corner by simultaneous concerns of constitutional procedure and the wellbeing of the Party. As far as I can see, we have only one option left. I must travel to the palace immediately, and inform Her Majesty that thanks to my position as Acting Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the House of Commons, I am in a reasonable position to command a majority in the House. I will accept her invitation for form a government, but, in the interests of democracy,’ he shot a look in Benn’s direction and then a scowl at Healey, ‘I will publicly commit to holding the post no longer than it takes to elect a new Leader of the Labour Party.’
‘You’ll be Acting Prime Minister in all but name, then,’ remarked Tony Crosland drily.
‘Yes,’ Ted replied, flatly, then turned to the Cabinet Secretary, ‘Sir John?’
‘My only concern is the continuation of stable government – and I can confirm that your solution would legally achieve that, Mr Short.’
Ted smiled at the obvious relief on Hunt’s face. He glanced at the clock on the wall. It was now ten past seven.
‘In that case, I suggest we make no further delays-’
It was Benn.
‘I can see that this is the best of an awful bunch of solutions, but I really think it oughtn’t go ahead before the cabinet has at least voted on it.’
‘Ever the democrat,’ muttered Foot.
Healey raised a hand as he spoke.
‘I will vote in favour, but I have one question – Ted, will you now rule out standing in the parliamentary contest? It would cause something of a stink if you were a candidate and PM.’
Ted’s eyes flickered for a moment. The thought genuinely hadn’t occurred to him. His star had been falling since the beginning of the decade. He didn’t have anything like the support needed to win. And yet, here he was, about to become PM thanks to fate, Harold Wilson’s refusal to appoint an official Deputy and the impossibility of cordial agreement between members of a Labour cabinet. Could he…? No. A ridiculous idea. Better to go down in history as a decent caretaker than as a humiliated, power-mad one who wouldn’t let go of the reins. All the same…
After slightly too long a pause, Ted gave his reply.
The Queen had probably never invited someone wearing odd socks to kiss hands before, Ted thought as the motorcade sped through Whitehall. Everything had happened so quickly since the vote in cabinet. Unanimous! He chuckled as he thought to himself that he had quite possibly just achieved the largest mandate of any Prime Minister ever. Technically. Before people had even lowered their hands, Sir John had sped over to him and informed him of a car waiting outside Downing Street. Her Majesty had been informed as the meeting drew to a close, apparently, and would be ready to kiss hands within thirty minutes. Ted had asked to make a brief telephone call to his wife, and had hurriedly and probably in a manner that made her think he’d been out boozing explained the situation and what was about to happen. He made sure she’d understood him when he said ‘and for goodness’ sake wear something nice’.
His train of thought was cut off by the Radio Four pips on the car’s radio. Sir John, apparently a man capable of arranging everything necessary for the handover of power with his hands folded behind his back while he stood in the corner of the cabinet room, had told him the 8 o’clock news would inform the country of Harold’s death. Ted unconsciously adjusted his tie and cast down his eyes. He felt a little ashamed that since that first drink in Hunt’s office, he’d not thought at all about Harold.
‘This is the Today Programme on BBC Radio Four. The time is eight o’clock.’
Ted could imagine the sweat on John Timpson’s brow.
‘Now, the headlines.’
Ted gripped his seat with his left hand. Timpson was faltering slightly. Out of the window, Ted could see a newsstand with a radio on the counter.
‘The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, has passed away, peacefully in his sleep, after a long night’s work at his desk. I will repeat that. The Prime Minister has died.’
A couple of people near the newsstand, the seller included, froze. One of them screamed, by the looks of it. Ted turned away.
‘Downing Street has issued a statement praising Mr Wilson’s years of service to the country and stressed that there is no cause for alarm. The cabinet met in the early hours of this morning and it has been decided that Mr Edward Short, Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, will take over as Prime Minister for the duration of the Labour Leadership contest which the party’s National Executive declared would take place this week. Mr Short is understood not to be standing in that contest, and is on his way to Buckingham Palace now to become Prime Minister. If you have just tuned in, I can confirm once again that Harold Wilson has died. Tributes are…’
Ted reached out and turned down the volume. He looked out at the London streets as the car continued on its way. No press, no crowds. He doubted it would be the same on the return journey. His cheek felt wet. He reached up to wipe it dry, and realised he was crying. A glance in the driver’s mirror told him the chauffeur was too.
‘He’ll be arriving at the palace at any moment,’ remarked David Owen, sipping his third cup of coffee. Roy Jenkins, sitting in his parliamentary office, did not answer.
‘…the Leader of the Opposition, Mrs Thatcher…’ Owen leapt across the room, turning up the radio.
‘This’ll be good,’ he said excitedly. Jenkins frowned.
‘…a great man who fundamentally believed in Britain, and whose death is a loss to men and women throughout the country. Mrs Thatcher also praised his wit, charm and tireless work ethic. The Liberal Leader…’
‘Bit tasteless,’ muttered Owen, turning down the volume again.
‘Hmm?’ asked Jenkins, his eyebrows raised.
‘Praising his “tireless work ethic” when the poor bastard gave out at his desk after yet another all-nighter. Press will have a field day with that, you watch.’
Jenkins simply nodded. Owen looked at him side-on.
‘You are going to stand, aren’t you, Roy?’
‘What? Oh. Yes.’
‘Good, because a contest between Benn, Denis and Jim is like having to choose between Stalin, Franco and Mussolini.’
‘Who does that make Ted?’ Jenkins asked, smiling weakly. Owen paused, thinking for a moment.
‘Chamberlain,’ he grinned.
Ted had met the Queen before, obviously. But never at this time of day – a quarter past eight, according to a clock that was more gold than timepiece – nor in circumstances quite like these. She looked tired. Ted wondered if such talk was treasonous. She spoke, drawing his mind back into the room.
‘I shall very much miss Mr Wilson,’ she remarked, somewhat distantly.
‘He was a great man,’ Ted offered.
‘Charming. Always very pleasant. I will remember him as one of my favourites, I should think.’
From the woman who had once been sovereign to Winston Churchill, that was praise indeed, thought Ted.
‘So your parliamentary colleagues, and the civil service, are happy with the arrangement you’ve described to me?’ the Queen asked. That was almost certainly a formality – Sir John would have telephoned ahead and assured the palace everything was kosher.
The Queen nodded.
‘Then we should act with haste. The country needs leadership, Mr Short. One has every faith that you will provide it with some.’
Ted blushed. What had got into him? He needed some sleep. He suddenly suspected that the Queen was waiting for something.
‘Oh!’ he exclaimed, got to his knees and kissed the Queen's hand. He thought he saw the beginnings of a smirk on the corner of Her Majesty’s lips.
‘Mr Short,’ she began, ‘I feel you ought to know that "kissing hands" is a traditional term and has not been done in a literal sense for quite some time.'
Ted opened his mouth in horror.
'Do not worry, Mr Short. These are extraordinary times. Besides, Lord Home made the same mistake. Now, so that we may continue, allow me to say this: Mr Short, I would like to invite you to form the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.’
Ted, feeling somewhat ridiculous and blushing furiously now, rose to his feet. It took a few moments to compute everything that had just happened.
‘That’s all, Mr Short,’ the Queen said, sweetly.
‘Yes,’ he stammered, ‘so I’m…?’
The Queen, for the first time since she’d been informed of Harold’s death, smiled broadly. It was refreshing to see such humility – one never got it from people who’d just won elections.
‘Yes, Mr Short. You’re Prime Minister now.’
Last edited by Meadow; May 20th, 2011 at 11:22 AM..