”This is how it feels to be lonely, This is how it feels to be small. This is how it feels when your word means nothing at all…” The six chimes of Big Ben echoed around Whitehall as the morning slowly broke. The first commuters were yawning their way down the streets, and only a handful of businesses had begun to open up. In 10 Downing Street, however, all the lights were on. With the best combination of purpose and dignified sorrow he could muster, the Prime Minister strode through the doors that led to the cabinet room. The folder under his arm felt oddly heavy, though it only contained a few loose sheets of paper. Staff gave him dutiful nods, some simply cast their eyes to the floor. Quite right, too. Today was a tragic day - an historic one, but a tragic one nonetheless. If anything, the level of calm throughout Number 10 was hugely impressive. The institution was living up to its reputation for absolute resilience. Finding himself outside the cabinet room itself, the PM paused. With a deep breath, and an adjustment of both his black tie and his posture, he stepped inside. “Good morning, everyone,” he said immediately, “thank you all for assembling so promptly, I know it can't have been easy, particularly in the circumstances. I think it's only right that we begin with... a...” The Prime Minister trailed off, unable for a moment to put his finger on why he had lost his train of thought. Something wasn't quite right. After a pause, he realised what it was. Nobody had risen from their seats. The Prime Minister tried and failed to avoid frowning. “Well, everyone,” he began again, but was interrupted by the scraping of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's chair against the floor. As the Prime Minister turned to look, the Chancellor was already speaking. “Nick, can I have a quick word?” George Osborne was staring straight at him. The PM frowned. “I don't know that now is the best time, George -” “Please. It'll only take a few minutes.” Something about Osborne's eyes told Clegg that he really ought to play along. Hammond was awkwardly rearranging his papers, while Gove was openly looking daggers in Nick's direction. “Okay. Sure. Shall we, er...” “Thanks. This way,” said Osborne, leading Clegg back out of the cabinet room and into a smaller meeting room down the corridor. Had this been pre-booked? Why hadn't their colleagues just left and let them speak alone in the cabinet room? And what was Sir Jeremy Heywood doing stood outside this meeting room? “George,” Clegg began as soon as the Cabinet Secretary closed the door behind them, “whatever this is, can we make it quick? I think it's important I speak to the Cabinet very soon indeed, and then I have to speak to the country as soon as possible after that, and -” “Of course.” There was a pause. Osborne was staring at the floor. Clegg frowned. “Well?” “The thing is, Nick,” Osborne began. “George, I really think –” “...you're not actually Prime Minister.” Silence fell heavily into the room. Finally, Nick broke it. “Sorry, run that past me again?” “You're not, in a technical sense - or any sense at all, really - Prime Minister.” Clegg was visibly confused. “But I'm Deputy Prime Minister-” he began before Osborne cut in. “And you remain Deputy Prime Minister. It's not the Vice Presidency, Nick, you know that.” “But these are extraordinary circumstances -” “- and the British constitution has withstood worse,” said Osborne firmly, “come on, Nick, there’s no bombers over the East End, we haven't got Eisenhower on the phone threatening to sell Sterling, and the Archduke of Austria-Hungary is very much alive.” “I don't think there is an Archduke of Austria-Hungary anymore-” “You know what I mean, Nick. And you know what the position of PM is based on.” “Commanding the confidence of the House of Commons,” recited Nick, getting increasingly irritated. Osborne nodded. “Yes. Without wishing to be too blunt, can you do that?” “As a senior member of the Coalition-” “A senior member of the junior party of the Coalition.” “Yes, yes, but -” Osborne looked at his watch. “Nick, I'll be blunt, this is a fucking awful day for this country, and for me personally, and no doubt you're going through a lot at the moment as well, but it's just not going to happen. Everyone in the Tory Party was utterly baffled when you turned up an hour ago and started acting like this - and I hear on the grapevine that some Lib Dems are confused too.” “Look, George, I know I'm just an interim PM, I have no intention of staying on once a new Tory leader is elected, but-” “You're not PM.” “'Acting Prime Minister', then.” “Doesn't exist. That's literally not a thing.” “George, your tone-” “No, Nick, your tone. I can't understand your behaviour. It's remarkable that the 'cabinet member with responsibility for constitutional reform' has such a poor grasp of the constitution.” Nick bristled. “George, I know how the system works. I know I have no automatic right to become PM in these circumstances. But the press don't. Well, maybe Oborne and Letts. But the public! The news channels! They'll be...” “They are about to be told that the Prime Minister had an embolism, Nick, I think they're going to have something else to talk about for a little while at least.” “But there'll be questions about chain of command. Who's in charge?” Osborne took a breath. “That is certainly a fair question. There was, as you know, an understanding that William would take over in the short term in a circumstance like this.” “Yes, of course,” said Nick quickly, “and William is on the other side of the world right now. Do you think I would have carried on like this if he had been able to-” “He's already on a plane. He'll be here in less than nine hours.” “Nine hours? Well, someone needs to –” “Someone needs to what?” asked George, slamming his hands onto the table. Nick took a step towards him “Someone needs to show the world that they're in charge.” “Can we please - please - have some kind of dignified period of transition rather than trying to jump into a dead man's shoes? Sam's still in the fucking building, Nick,” hissed Osborne, flaring up. Nick raised a hand. “That's not fair, George, you know perfectly well that I am simply doing what is required.” There was an icy silence as Osborne stared at him, then gave a grudging nod. “You're right,” he said quietly, “I apologise. But you asked who is in charge - well, the answer is 'the same people as yesterday'.” “George, David is dead.” “But the cabinet is still in place - at least for now - and thus the functions of government can continue to exist. On reshuffle days, we sometimes go ten hours without a Home Secretary. We can handle a few without a PM.” “But I... I, at least, have a mandate -” “Sorry, I have to stop you there,” said Osborne, “what mandate? Who elected you?” “The Coalition got 59% of the vote -” “The Coalition was formed after the election, Nick, you were there. And you got 23% of the vote. Labour got 29%. If you want to play the mandate card, Jeremy Heywood might as well be on the phone to Gordon Brown right now.” “That would be ridiculous-” “But he commands just as much of Peter Bone's confidence as you do, Nick. And the rest of the backbenchers. And, frankly, the rest of the cabinet.” “I am sure that Vince and Danny -” “You know what I mean, Nick. Two or three years ago, maybe we could have worked something out. Maybe. But now, with this ‘differentiation’ and your hissy fit ever since Lords Reform… you really think you could lead this government, even for a week?” Nick snapped. “Now you’re bringing petty politics into a constitutional crisis-” “I am not the one being petty,” growled George as he paced the length of the table, “you think I’d be causing such a bother if David had been assassinated? Some roadside bomb in Helmand? No. We’d be sat in a COBRA meeting, and I would be supporting you while you chaired it.” Nick nodded, then ran his hand through his hair. “I understand that, and I appreciate it, but… we’re a G7 power. We’ve got bloody Trident, for goodness’ sake. Even for a short while, we need a leader.” “But that's just it, Nick - we don't. Not really. If the Russians had decided to start lobbing missiles at Lincolnshire this morning, we might have a pressing need for a clear chain of command. But, between you and me, we both know the PM's job in that scenario is to answer the phone when Obama calls.” Nick held up his hands. “Okay. Alright. I get it. So why did everyone treat me like I was PM this morning?” “What?” “The staff. Everyone who knew about David – which is everyone in this building by now – called me ‘Prime Minister’ and wished me luck ‘in this trying time’ and so on.” “Oh. From what I hear, a combination of genuine ignorance and social awkwardness. Some of them were humouring you.” Nick sighed. Of course. At last, he surrendered. “What happens now?” he half-whispered. “We were trying to get William set up to make a broadcast from the plane. It doesn't look like it's possible. Ideally he'd have done something before he got on board, but the Chinese were apparently really awkward about it and it just took too long-” Nick wasn’t interested. “So then what?” As if he had been listening (and he probably had), Sir Jeremy Heywood’s head appeared around the door. “Gentlemen, I am informed that the statement is ready.” Nick looked from Sir Jeremy to George, and everything fell into place. “You.” George shrugged as Sir Jeremy disappeared again. “Just until William is back. I’m not even going to the Palace. Just a statement to let everyone know. Nick, if not me, who?” Nick held up his hands. “Fine. Whatever needs to happen. We can’t have Peter Bone getting upset, can we?” “No.” After a moment’s pause, George held out his hand. “Thank you, Nick. I appreciate this can’t have been easy. In other circumstances…” “I’m sure. But – more importantly – I’m sorry about David, George. I know you were close,” Nick said as the two shook hands. “Thank you. And likewise. I know he liked you.” There was, at last, nothing more to say. But on his way to the exit, Osborne paused. “There is... something else.” Clegg sighed. “What?” “Your Wikipedia page.” “What? My-” “It says you're Prime Minister now.” “Well, it was news to me that I'm not, I can't-” “Was it one of your staff?” Silence fell heavily on the room. Clegg tilted his head to one side. “Are you... what are you...” he began. “I'm asking because if it was, it could be... serious.” Another pause. This time, Clegg couldn't help but smile in disbelief. “Are you going to accuse my staff of a constitutional coup for editing Wikipedia?” Osborne replied quickly. “No, not at all -” “Then what the bloody hell are you accusing them of, George?” snapped Clegg, “this whole thing is absolutely ludicrous-” A low buzz interrupted Nick just before he could build up a head of steam. Osborne retrieved his vibrating BlackBerry. “Sorry,” he lied as he read the message, “looks like it wasn't a Whitehall IP that edited your page. Somewhere in Wales, apparently. Somebody called 'DrTron'?” “Never heard of them,” grunted Nick. “Well. Sorry again. I’ll see you back in there.” “George, can I... can I be next to you?” Osborne stared at him. “I don't think-” “It's just... to show the Coalition is still in place, and...” “I'm sorry, Nick. The backbenchers... I'm sure you understand.” Downcast and biting his lip, Nick gave a faint nod. “I'll go and inform the cabinet,” said Osborne quietly as he slipped from the room. The sun chose that particular moment to emerge from behind a cloud, and a beam of light poked through the window. Nick looked up at it, and out towards the Rose Garden. In his mind's eye he saw two lecterns, and then he heard laughter. Not from the next room - from somewhere beyond. “Did you really say that?” Nick was laughing, the press corps sycophantically joining in. “I’m afraid I did,” admitted David. “Right,” said Nick, and promptly feigned storming off. Cameron guffawed. “Come back!” he strained. Unconsciously reaching forward with his hand, Nick realised his eyes were wet. “Come back...” he whispered.