Today, she was choosing to wear her countenance of benign, relaxed contempt. It was, she found, a frontage she had increasing need to resort to as she aged. The nature of events, both today and in the recent past, had almost pushed her into a Thatcher-era full-blown scowl, but perhaps her age had also hardened her expectations. Certainly, though, the last few years had already come perilously close to constitutional upheaval. There had been mutterings in certain quarters that the coalition had ‘gone too far’, and even that it was ‘pushing it’. Someone, who must remain nameless had even stated, in a frank moment, ‘You just watch it’. Goodness only knows what hostages to fortune Charles had laid down with his letter-writing, when, inevitably, they were released under some sort of awful ‘rule’ in a few decades. Fixed-term parliaments, ‘write-in’ votes, both personal and party list (she shuddered) at elections, power of recall, MPs having choice over the nature of their oaths… it was so dreadfully middle-class, the fixations of the chattering classes, but adopted by a lot of metropolitan Tories in Mr Davis’ party (Metropolitan Tories! What would Alec think!) albeit hand-in-hand with the Liberals, who of course were always troublemakers. It was all rather brash, rather Americane.
And then when the coalition broke up, there came that dreadful, grotesque cattle market of the ‘debates’ – such a misnomer. All a huge shouting match, inevitable acrimony between Mr Davis and Mr Clegg over who was responsible for the demise of the coalition. This and that, the Tories wanted Britain out of the Euro, the Liberals had been irresponsible. Such a bore, so predictable. Mr Davis hadn’t endeared himself to people either. Such a rush with the unexpected dissolution! And such terrible chaos! It was ghastly. Such a terrible wave of disreputable - and so transparent – populism on the back of the economic depression. Mr Miliband had stood firm in the face of it, Mr Blair had approved of that. Yes, Mr Blair - all rather like a certain wave of misplaced emotion in 1997, was it not. A simulacrum of what had lead to this…
She sighed lightly, as there was knocking without. The door opened, and the gentleman usher poked his head round the door.
“Mr Adams, your Majesty,” he intoned, softly.
“Very good. Do let him in.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
She grasped the gilt arm of the chair and raised herself up to stand, as he retreated. She waited. After a short delay, Mr Adams briskly strode in, and at the appointed mark on the floor, gave the tiniest, most fractional, of nods. She offered her hand for him, which, after advancing, he shook. In truth, she never shook hands with anyone, she merely offered her hand, and they cupped it, very tentatively. Mr Adams, she found herself admitting, was no different in adhering to this unspoken rule.
He was the first to broach the subject of why they were here, like a nervous teenager delivering a chat-up line in a club.
“You must realise that I find myself in a difficult position here.”
Her hand twitched, imperceptibly at her side, before she took a fractional intake of breath.
“I – I would be lying if I said I expected to find myself in this situation when I first got into politics.”
“Yes. Of course. But we all find ourselves in strange positions now and again, don’t we.”
There was an uncomfortable silence for a few moments.
“My party, and the movement it represents, regards this as purely an empty formality.”
That was certainly the formula which they had agreed to, even in as many words, between them and her Private Secretary. But even formalities have to be observed. Perhaps Mr Adams didn’t understand, but she took it as unspoken an assumption as the sky being blue.
“Yes, of course. But shall we sit down?”, she said, as she gestured generously to the assembled seating.
Though alone, she found nothing threatening in Mr Adams. In truth, she found him to be rather like a very emphatic, but polite History teacher, probably at a secondary modern somewhere in East Anglia. The register of the full impact of the beard and the spectacles lead to her surreptitiously tossing a glance, as they motioned to sit, to investigate whether any elbow patches were present on his cheap suit – she wondered where one went to get suits when one was in Mr Adams’ position - though these sadly proved absent.
He sat, with his hands on his lap, as if worried that the gilt might infect him. Again, he was the first to speak.
“As I say – I never expected to find myself in this position.”
“Of course. But shall we return to the business of inviting you to attempt to form a government.”
“My party regards that as purely a formality. These rituals are hollow, they have no meaning to the Republican movement.”
We all have to observe the formalities, Mr Adams. Don’t you understand? Everything has to keep ticking over, the proper order has to be maintained.
“Of course, of course. But your party will also realise that very term encompasses something greater than it did a few months ago.”
“True enough I believe. There has certainly been a decisive vote against austerity and the banks on both sides of the Sea.”
She poured herself a cup of tea from a very elaborate silver tea service.
“I’m told that all parties have certain ‘coming of age’ moments, Mr Adams.”
He gave a rougeish smile. “That is what your Liberals believed after the last general election. But in as much as this is a historic, democratic vote for peace and self-determination throughout these islands, I would agree.”
“Is it not then something of an opportunity for your party? You have always stated you wanted to achieve a united Ireland through the ballot box.”
“That is what we have always campaigned upon. But we regarded these Isles united under Ireland as rather beyond the scope of our nationalism…”
Her lip curled a little at the edge.
“Perhaps a vote for a united British Isles, in a fashion, is not what you expected. I suppose it all rather depends upon perspective in a situation like this, does it not?”
“A united Britain and Ireland? That’s certainly one point of view. I daresay Peter Robinson has been placed in an uncomfortable position, in any event.”
“Quite. As I say, you must find yourself… under a certain amount of, pressure to, shall we say, seize an opportunity to influence events.”
He clearly had a certain innate opposition to ever admitting being under pressure from anyone, but there was something, at the instinctive level, that made her sense he understood. He would surely have not been human if he hadn’t been tempted to launch himself wholeheartedly into this, to embrace the process and not just the forms. Her private office had agreed with him that he would be given the opportunity of the commission to form a government, find it impossible to do on principle, and then, after a short grace period, refuse decisively. It would be trumpeted as a great act of self-denial, him being courted by all the power of the British state and turning it down, in favour of Sinn Fein holding the balance of power in the Parliament. For her, a great act of political even-handedness. But real life, she had found, had rather a way of making its own plans.
As indeed he had already said, he never expected to find himself in this position. It had indeed been a shock, after years of fruitlessly searching, that sections of the left had attached themselves to Sinn Fein as the force of opposition to austerity. But it had seemed so natural after what they had done in the Republic as the main opposition party – and likely the next government. They had acquired an aura of both radical chic and electoral credibility. The political deliberations of the republic had become an international economic concern, and he and his party subject of international focus. They were now not just a national factor in the Republic, but one of the leading European forces of opposition to austerity. Slowly, the left – lead by an awful rabble of Guardian columnists and the like of course - had flirted, then engaged in some heavy petting, and finally had launched themselves with gusto into the coitus of an organised pro-Sinn Fein write-in campaign throughout the UK. And all the time, at least until the debates, he had waved his hands with horror and dismissive, Ceausescu-like incomprehension at the prospect of Sinn Fein being placed into such a position. People were supposed to respect your electoral limits, your popular self-denial.
But once Gerrymania had got fully into swing after he had been so strident, so principled, so clear in the first debate - the arcane rules of the television broadcasters were that party leaders had to stand, so it had to be he, not Mr McGuiness - he had offered some concessions to the new reality. The complete proliferation of lecterns had lead to speaking time being constrained. And Mr Adams had talked a ‘good craic’, clear, simple and direct. You want an end to austerity, and end to Brussells’ diktats, vote for me. At first it had all been so tentative; this surge was certainly helping them in Ulster, people had said. It couldn’t harm their chances in the province, they’d said. Gradually he had begun appearing at anti-austerity rallies on the mainland. He had uneasily appeared on television screens in Irish bars, drinking pints of Guinness. He had announced his intentions to stand for election as an MP once more, as ‘the stakes were so high in this election’.
Suddenly, Gerry Adams had become the big media ‘narrative’ of the election – and goodness knows, didn’t the tabloids love that. It was only second to the Soviet Union re-forming and Stalin being reanimated. But sometimes there are moments of fortune, or chance, where even Heaven itself cannot stand in the way; both the British and European economies were in a tragic mess. The election result had shocked the world. It had shocked many of the people who had actually voted for Sinn Fein; a rag-tag of the angry left, the disaffected labouring classes, and Irish romanticists - and the ultimate product was that the Prime Minister had not stood a chance of re-forming his government with a majority in the new parliament. The notion of a grand coalition had been dismissed by Mr Miliband, though there were rumours that some had been willing to consider it, given the circumstances. In consequence, the leader of the second largest party - barely, for the new parliament was scattered and fractured so many ways - had consequently been invited to form a government…
He offered but the tiniest concession to the new reality.
“We have naturally been talking to the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the Greens about a joint anti-austerity front in the new parliament.”
“Of course. But if nobody could form a stable government there might have to be a second election. You could lose many of the gains you have made at this election.”
He eyed her warily.
“That could also place you in a difficult situation, could it not.”
She took a delicate sip of tea.
“The constitutional position of a defeated, or newly-installed, Prime Minister requesting an immediate second dissolution is ambiguous. There was a concern that Mr Heath might test it at one stage. I’m afraid I can’t comment on Mr Davis’ intentions. If all other options had indeed been exhausted, then, as you say, we could find ourselves in a difficult situation.”
He raised himself up a little.
“I think it’s right that I ask Morten to talk to the SNP as a matter of urgency over this issue. The new arrangement has to have stability; it has to be able to deliver.”
“But we are just observing the formalities, of course. We are a serious and responsible party. But an Irish Republican party.”
“Nonetheless, I’ll keep you fully informed of developments. I’m prepared to respect your position in this process.”
“Well, I think we’ve just about concluded this, then, have we not?”
“As you wish.”
“Do I – I hope you won’t be offended if I don’t walk backwards, but that I have absolutely no intention of doing.”
She sniffed a little at this lèse-majesté. Though one hardly imagined they would go full Disraeli, the fallout from the state visit had shocked them into a more sober position. She had so hoped that everyone would avoid grandstanding. Perhaps too much to ask after the raucous nature of their oath-taking for the new Parliament, but then again, that itself would have been been such an unthinkable step only a few years ago.
“Oh? Oh, no, that tradition was discontinued some years ago now, I believe it was due to concerns over health and safety. Only my equerry and the Marshall of the Diplomatic Corps routinely do it now. And the Lord Chancellor, of course.”
“Health and safety? Of course,” he said, with a smile and a flick of the head.
“Always a great concern.”
There was a small moment of enforced politeness, born out of his inability to determine if she was being sarcastic, before he rose from his seat, and she tentatively followed.
“Well, as I say – I’ll keep your office informed of developments.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I’ll be off now, so. Thank you,” he said, with emphasis.
She gave a tiny, China doll nod of appreciation.
“I’ll be back in touch. Shortly.”
“I hope you make the right choices for your party.”
“I hope my party makes the right choices for me,” he said, with a laugh, before they commenced the faux-shake routine once more, and the usher allowed him to affect his egress.
As she sat again, sipping her lightly cooling tea, she recalled some constitutional abstract she must have read at some stage. ‘It’s the good chaps who keep things ticking over with their instant fixes’. Leaving aside the gender issue, she thought the sentiment rather too cavalier for her tastes. But still, things had been set in motion, and proper order had been maintained, the formalities adhered to. What, she pondered idly, will the country say of it all.
What, for that matter, will Phillip say?