Title: A Matter of Finesse
Fandom: House of Cards
Rating: 12/PG (implied noncanonical m/m relationship)
Originally posted: Yuletide 2007 (also available at AO3)
Summary: In March 1979, Conservative Party whip Francis Urquhart is about to engineer the downfall of the Labour Government -- and he has no intention of letting an overeager young policy researcher muck things up. Pre-canon, implied (but only implied) Francis Urquhart/Tim Stamper.
Disclaimer: All original works are copyright of their respective owners; I lay claim only to this particular story.
Notes: The initial framing idea for 'A Matter of Finesse' is heavily based on the actual series of events that led up to the 1979 General Election, in which Jim Callaghan's Labour Government was turned out of office and replaced by a Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher. As a result, the events of this story take place approximately 11 years before the events of House of Cards. With a few minor adjustments to compensate for the fictional nature of the series, all of the parliamentary procedures and other political aspects of this story -- including the arcane legal and constitutional regulations of life and death in the Palace of Westminster -- are quite true and accurate.


A Matter of Finesse

- March 1979 -

It is a little-known fact amongst the general British public that their Members of Parliament do not actually have to be inside the Houses of Parliament to vote on a piece of legislation.

Most of the time, voting is a simple procedure that involves walking through the proper door and having a teller put a tick next to one's name on a list. A very straightforward process, very easy to track. The whips on both sides of the House prefer to keep it that way, and they are willing to overlook an MP's occasional absence under most normal circumstances. But sometimes, if a matter is especially controversial or if a Government has a particularly slim majority, less than a dozen votes may decide the outcome.

For these critical divisions, every single MP is required to be present.

As a result, on these occasions one may see some rather pathetic sights in the division lobbies and the Commons chamber as the ill and infirm are shepherded in to be counted. Gentlemen with reddened, streaming eyes slumped on the benches, trying to suppress hacking coughs. Ladies hobbling down the corridors on crutches, wincing with every step. Naturally, the whips are all apologetic smiles and soothing words for these most stalwart of the party faithful. But there are times when a Member of Parliament might be too sick even to get out of bed, let alone stagger out of home or hospital and down to Westminster. In these most extreme cases, the whips have one final card in hand -- a card only reserved for the most desperate of divisions where a government's very survival hangs in the balance.

In common parliamentary parlance, it is known as 'nodding through'.

Explained simply, the whips from both parties will come together and agree to allow the gravely ill MP to be bundled onto a stretcher and brought by ambulance to the Palace of Westminster. Once the ambulance is inside the palace gates, a whip will go out to record that MP as present for voting and 'nod through' his or her vote for the final tally. Indeed, the MP in question does not even have to be conscious to be counted as having voted.

In practical terms, it is even more simple than that. On this particular occasion, 'nodding through' means that as one of the more junior and therefore expendable of the whips of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, the Hon. Mr Francis Urquhart MP has been ordered to go outside and stand in the damp and the cold and the pissing-down rain to wait for the ambulance to arrive.

Common parliamentary parlance may call it 'nodding through' -- but at the moment the Hon. Mr Urquhart's term for this practice must remain unprinted in the interests of public decency.

***

I cannot, of course, disclose the name of the gentleman presently occupying the ambulance I have just exited, though a cursory glance through the most recent edition of Who's Who would produce several inches' worth of the most basic information about him. He was brought down from his constituency in the shires sometime earlier today, in this splendid new ambulance equipped with all the most modern technological devices.

Not that these devices appear to have done him a damned bit of good now, but at least it does show that private health care always has the aesthetic advantage over the National Health Service.

Regardless, his vote has been tallied.

Macallan, my opposite number, has already gone off to report as much to his superiors. Normally, I would never have agreed to trust the discretion of a Labour man with such a delicate matter, but there are two notable points in my favour. The first and most obvious is that everyone knows Macallan will be standing down at the next election, whether it happens tomorrow or three months from now. He has no interest in further promotion. Second, and rather less obvious, is the fact that he absolutely loathes our current Prime Minister. Something to do with a disagreement over devolution, or devaluation, or one of those other little tribal wars that mean so very much to comrades on the left and so very little to the rest of us. The long and short of it is that Macallan would gladly welcome the chance to send the man packing, even if it means toppling his own Government to do it.

And they may actually lose this one, if my information is correct. It may come down to a bare handful of votes, including the one of our man in the ambulance. If so, then I will consider myself a true humanitarian for having been the one to put this wretched wreck of a Labour Government out of its misery once and for --

'Urquhart! Urquhart!'

I close my eyes briefly -- Lord, give me strength -- and look round to see a young, dark-haired man hurrying towards me across the palace yard.

The young man in question is Tim Stamper, and he has acquired a reputation as one of the more tiresome of the up-and-coming crop of policy analysts in the Conservative Research Department. When he isn't writing reports that no one ever actually reads, he appears to spend the greater part of his free time trying to convince some unfortunate constituency association to consider him as a prospective candidate for an upcoming by-election. There are dozens like him in CRD, all jockeying for position as best they can. Most will fall at the first hurdle, but there is always that glimmer of hope that one day, they will eventually make it to the backbenches.

It is that glimmer of hope that makes them so useful to me.

'I don't have time to give you directions back to Old Queen Street, Stamper.' I spare him barely a glance; this is no time for social pleasantries. 'If you walk out the front gates and keep going straight, you'll find it soon enough.'

Stamper pays no heed to the hint as he jogs up to me.

'I wanted to find you first,' he says, breath coming fast. 'I had to know.'

'Know what?'

'Everyone's saying this is the one.' Stamper's pointed, ferret-like face is all eagerness, as full of wet-lipped excitement as a schoolboy about to peek into his very first pornographic magazine. He moves closer to me in a manner that apparently is meant to be conspiratorial but only succeeds in being rather too familiar for my comfort. 'Everyone knows it. Without the nationalists, Labour doesn't stand a chance -- '

'Only if I make it to the lobby before they lock the doors.' I move away from him, walking round the side of the ambulance. 'If I miss this division the Leader will flay you alive, and I can't say that I wouldn't be a willing spectator for it.'

'But surely -- ' Stamper begins, but whatever drivel he had intended to say is mercifully interrupted when Harold, the ambulance driver, pokes his head out of the side window.

'Mr Urquhart?' He glances up at the great clock that towers over all of us in the Palace yard. 'It's all right if we leave now?'

I shake my head. 'Five more minutes, Harold, if you please. Just to be on the safe side.'

Harold nods, somewhat reluctantly. 'We'll be going to St Thomas's straight from here, sir.'

Damn the man. Stamper is already at my elbow; he must have heard that.

'Fine, fine.' I half-wave one hand, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary. 'Give him my best, if he wakes up anytime soon.'

Harold opens his mouth -- and I brace myself for the inevitable question -- but then he closes his mouth, and merely nods once.

'As you say, sir.' He settles back into his seat and picks up his copy of the Mail, burying himself behind the headlines to wait for a few minutes more.

That was a very near thing.

I cannot spend any longer out here. The lobby doors will be locked in ten minutes, and it will take me approximately three minutes to reach the appropriate lobby. Dashing in at the last moment would be unacceptable, or at the very least, undignified. Ignoring Stamper, I turn and head back across the yard, towards the door that leads back to the Commons corridors.

He follows me, of course. Too much of a half-trained puppy to stay put.

'What was that all about St Thomas's?' he asks, hurrying to keep up with my stride.

'St Thomas's is a hospital. Ambulances are often seen going to hospitals. It is hardly an irregular occurrence.' I doubt that he would leave me alone even if I were openly rude to him.

'He's that sick, is he?'

'Something along those lines, yes.'

'You don't seem overly concerned by it.'

'Whether I am concerned or not concerned is entirely irrelevant at this juncture.' I open the door and step inside. 'I have neither the time nor the inclination to spell it out for you, Stamper.'

As the door shuts behind us, the low drone of monotonous traffic noise around Parliament Square falls away, replaced by the blessed silence of the Palace corridors. The silence does not last long, however, for Stamper is still rabbiting on in my ear.

'D'you think he would appreciate a card, or some flowers?' He sounds terribly pleased with himself for having thought of the idea. 'Bottle of good brandy, even? I know a few of the chaps over at CRD who'd club together for it.' He nearly trips over his own feet as I round a corner without warning, though even that is not enough to shake him. 'Or we could do a whip-round, see how many people we can get to spare a pound or two....'

I stop short, and so does he.

The corridors are empty at the moment, save for the two of us.

No one to see us. No one to hear us.

'Stamper,' I say quietly, without looking over at him, 'I really think it would be better for all of us if you let well enough alone.'

He moves a little closer, and out of the corner of my eye I can see him craning his neck to hear me better. 'What do you mean by that?'

I glance over at him, attempting to telegraph my meaning with an arched eyebrow and a deliberately flat stare. 'I mean that you would be better off using that whip-round to purchase a suitable wreath.'

I can almost see his little brain cogitating as my words sink in -- and yes, there it is, the wide-eyed shock and the sudden indrawn breath. But instead of taking it in silence like a man, he lets out a ghastly high-pitched squawk:

'You mean he's de -- '

Quick as a flash, I grab his arm. He barely has time to catch his breath before I've caught him in the back and spun him round, shoving his back against the wall and pinning him there.

'Keep your voice down!' I hiss, inches from his face.

Stamper swallows, but thankfully keeps his mouth shut. A thin line of sweat has broken out on his forehead.

'Listen to me, Stamper, and listen carefully.' I tighten my grip on his arm, just enough for him to feel it. 'The Palace of Westminster is a royal palace. The laws and traditions of this great country of ours dictate that only members of the Royal Family are permitted to die inside royal palaces. As a result, the last action of that most gallant gentleman was to cast his vote in this division, and he will regrettably depart this life whilst en route to St Thomas's Hospital. A sad but honourable end to a truly distinguished career.'

Stamper blinks at me; I can see a pulse start to beat faintly in his temple. 'But if he was--'

'He could not have been dead before he voted if he died en route to the hospital, could he?'

'But--'

'One would hope that you have at least a basic grasp of the fundamentals of human biology, Stamper.'

Stamper worries his lower lip with his teeth, looking for all the world like a fretful child.

'The Leader won't like it,' he whines softly. 'And if the press gets word--'

'The Leader will thank me for giving her one less thing to think about this evening.' I pause, only for a moment, before continuing in a far more serious and dangerous tone. 'And as for the press, do you think they will get word?'

By this point, I have his arm in such a grip that I am surely leaving bruises. And yet he doesn't flinch or try to pull away; if anything, he seems to be trying to hold as still as possible....

Well. How very curious.

Perhaps there is something more here than I originally thought.

Just to test my suspicions, I tighten my hold on his arm.

Stamper swallows, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. His breath is coming faster now, and even in the dim light I can tell that a flush has crept into his cheeks.

My left hand is currently braced against the wall, but I have no doubt that if I were to move it downward and to the right by about eight inches, I would likely learn more than I ever wanted to know about young Tim Stamper's unexpected penchant for a bit of rough handling.

Fundamentals of human biology, indeed.

Time, I think, for a minor change of tactics. A slight smile first, just to show that I understand him better than he knows.

'I would hate to think that you were untrustworthy, Stamper.' A touch of sorrow in my voice, as if the thought genuinely grieves me. 'Especially now that I know that there will have to be a by-election soon for a certain recently vacated seat. A seat that could do with a candidate who has sufficient bottom for the job -- and who understands the importance of keeping faith with the whip.'

He blinks rapidly, worrying his lip again. 'I...do you mean....?'

'Do you know what it means to be a whip, Stamper?' Without waiting for him to answer, I continue. 'It means that one's primary job is to put a bit of stick about. Sometimes you use the stick to herd your fellows, to push them gently in the proper direction. So gently, in fact, that most of the time they don't even realise you're there. But there are times when a whip must use the stick as it's meant to be used.' Another pause, more weighty this time. 'And that means six of the best to anyone who puts so much as a toe out of line. Do I make myself quite clear?'

Really, it is almost a laughable stereotype. Surely not every English boy who goes away to school, even one of the less distinguished ones, will end up a passionate devotee of le vice anglais, as the Continentals so cheerfully call it. But judging by the glazed-over, almost drugged look that has come into Tim Stamper's eyes, this is one instance where the stereotype seems to have been proved entirely correct.

'Yes, sir,' he breathes, a near-moan. 'Yes, of course.'

'Good.' I loosen my grip on his arm, though not enough to actually let go of him. 'So when you return to Old Queen Street in a few minutes, you will be as surprised as anyone else by whatever news you happen to hear about the passing of our party colleague.'

He relaxes a little, but the faraway look is still there in his eyes. 'Because...because he died on the way to hospital.'

At that, I allow myself to smile. A benevolent smile this time -- as if I hadn't just filled his head with far from benevolent thoughts.

'I think that you and I may be able to work quite well together in the future, Stamper...so long as you remember this little conversation we have had today.' Just a hint of teeth in the smile, now. 'I know that I shall.'

I leave him in the corridor, slumped against the wall and still struggling to catch his breath. He may need to find the gents rather quickly before anyone else sees him in such a state. By that point, one hopes, he may no longer be entirely sure of what he has just agreed to do -- or not do, as the case may be.

No matter. I have a division to attend, a by-election to plan, a Labour Government to fell, and a Right Honourable lady to speak to at her earliest convenience.

As they say, sic transit gloria mundi.


Return to the Master List
.