CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
ONE MINUTE TO MIDNIGHT
After some careful consideration, Edward Montford decided not to sweep into the Cabinet Room once his ministers were waiting round the table. Instead, he waited for them. They came in one by one. The sight of him killed conversations stone dead. Some offered an attempt at a cheery greeting. Others took their seats in silence.
Five Oxy's taken an hour earlier had put him deep into the zone. His mind felt almost separate from his fading body. He was the buzzard gliding over a summer meadow eyeing up its prey. How pathetic his ministers looked. Overblown and over promoted. Driven by desperate ambition. Utterly inadequate. He managed not to sneer.
The Minister for Transport completed the table with semi garbled words of apology. The door closed. The Permanent Secretary waited with pen poised. A few pairs of eyes looked straight at him. Most were staring at the polished surface of the table. The clock on the wall ticked away. Edward decided to let the silence stretch. Make the bastards twitch and shuffle. Make them wonder if they should be the one to break it.
After a long, long minute he broke the tension.
“Right. We best get on. Thanks for coming and all that. No agenda today ladies and gentlemen. I'm going to say some things and I don't suppose you're going to like any of it much. I will then make my recommendation as your Prime Minister. Then you will vote. If you accept my recommendations, we will proceed. If you reject my recommendations, I will resign with immediate effect and you can sort things out as best as you can. Am I understood?”
There was fear in the eyes now. Fear of something unfamiliar. Fear of strange ground. Fear of what was about to be said.
“Good. I would be obliged if you don't interrupt. Listen, absorb, vote. It really is that simple. OK? This morning I met with the CEO's of HSBC and Barclays. I tried to make a last minute intervention to persuade them to cancel their plans to close their London operations and move to Edinburgh. Quite frankly the deal I offered was embarrassing. I even offered the jumped up fucks a Knighthood. So did I get anywhere? No, I didn't. Not even close. We won't see them for dust.
'Next, I had a meeting with our colleague the Chancellor. I asked if there was any chance of finding any buyers for a new bond issue. There are no buyers, regardless of what suicidal rate of interest we try and bribe them with. There is no point in pretending we will survive without an IMF bailout. We won't. What we must do now is try to get our accounts well enough in order for them to give us house room. The measures we will need to take are horrendous. You best brace yourselves."
He repeated the list of hyper austerity measures he and the Chancellor had discussed earlier. One or two of the ministers looked like they were about to be physically sick. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions looked like he was about to have a heart attack. When Montford was done with his list, there was silence in the room.
“All clear so far? Good. So I will give you my recommendations which I expect you will find quite surprising. I recommend we don't go anywhere near the IMF. I recommend we reject any further austerity. Instead, I recommend a course of action which will put the nation's finances back on an even keel and enable us to sell our bonds again."
Christ, they looked funny. Their expressions were a mix of frantic hope and growing panic. Had Montford lost the plot? Or had he really found a way to save the day at one minute to midnight?
“Ladies and Gentlemen, over the last week I have had several meetings with the Chiefs of the Defense Staff. In one week's time, I recommend we take steps to re-establish the Union between England and Scotland. This will involve a short military operation which we expect to last less than 24 hours. I have been given assurances that such an operation will have a near 100% certainty of success. A night operation will take control of all army and air bases as well as key installations in Edinburgh. As soon as we achieve full military control of the Scottish capital, we will appoint a Governor who will exercise the rule of Westminster until the next General Election when Scottish MP's will once again stand for election to the British Parliament. I will not go into deep detail of the economics of the operation. In a nutshell, we will convert all Scottish Pounds into English Pounds at a rate of one to one. The Bank of England will absorb the Bank of Scotland. Scottish cash reserves will be more than enough to close off our deficit and a reunited Great Britain will be an attractive bet for the world's money markets."
He paused and took a careful sip of water.
“I know what you are going ask. What about the rest of the world? What reason can we possibly give for doing such a thing? I will answer these two points one at a time. There will be a clear reason. You do not need to know what it will be and how it will come about. I guess you will simply have to trust me. What will the rest of the world do? Well, I think we already know the answer. What did the rest of the world do when Turkey invaded Georgia? When Israel invaded South Lebanon? When China invaded Katanga? Nothing. So what will the rest of the world do when we re-establish the Union with Scotland? Nothing. Oh, there will be plenty of harsh words of course. But will there be any real action? I don't think so. And let us be realistic here. What action could possibly make our situation any worse than the one we face right now?"
He paused and let his eyes run around the table. He could feel the fear coming off them. And with a feeling of pleasant surprise, he realised he was loving every minute of this. Was this the same feeling so many other Prime Ministers had experienced, many from this very building? For this was nothing new. For centuries British leaders had sent ships and soldiers to all four corners of the world in pursuit of territory and treasure. Had his predecessors seen the same look of terror in the eyes of their Cabinets? Maybe. Probably. This why the job of a leader was to lead. And he now knew not a single one of them was about to speak up. He would do the talking and they would vote. The cards would fall.
“I have one last proposal. I believe the people of England will be right behind us. I intend to address them with absolute honesty. I will lay out the extreme austerity measures we have confronted today. And then I will explain why their Government has decided to choose a different path. No pension will be slashed. Nobody will have to pay £50 to see their GP. Nobody will have their hip operation cancelled indefinitely. And why? Because this Government has taken the bold decision to re-establish the Union and bring the wealth of these islands of ours back under one roof. I think we can expect a significant reduction in the riot problem, especially when we lower electricity prices and ease off on water rationing.
'However, the situation might well be rather different in Scotland. The Scots are not known for lying down and taking it. A firm hand will be needed in the first few months. We will ask the Scottish people to go about their business as usual. Go to work. Do the shopping. Take the kids to football training. Senior policemen and bureaucrats will be offered the simple choice of either working for the Union of facing a long period of house arrest. The vast majority will comply. Of course, they will. What choice will they have? One of the Governor's first edicts will be to implement an immediate 50% increase in police salaries which will go a long way to winning their loyalty.
'The situation on the streets might well be rather more difficult. Over recent months we have learned how hard it can be to keep control of multiple riots. Last night we trialled new tactics as I am sure you all saw. The new tactics failed. I believe the time has come to ensure we have rather bigger guns in our armoury."
Once again he raked around the table with his red rimmed eyes. And once again not one of them was willing to meet his gaze for more than a couple of seconds. He pushed on in his harsh, clipped voice.
“As soon as our operation begins, we will be at war. Our estimates suggest the actual war will to all intents and purposes be over in a matter of hours. By noon of the day following our attack, the Scottish Parliament will be padlocked closed and the First Minister and most of his cabinet will be detained. We will have full control of all TV and radio stations. We will have full control of almost every army base. We will have full control of almost all stocks of weapons. We will have full control of the Scottish air force. Essentially from a military perspective, the war will be over in a matter of hours. But there is another perspective. The political perspective. And the political perspective means that the war is only over when we say it is over. Why does this matter? I will tell you. After a few days, I believe there will be an upsurge in patriotism right across England. People are sick to the back teeth of becoming poorer all the time. They are also sick of watching Scotland on the news every night and being told how everything is booming north of the border. Think of all those pictures of cheering crowds thronging the streets when we declared war in August 1914. Think of all those Union Jacks which appeared when Thatcher sailed her Task Force south to the Falklands. This will be the same."
Another sip of water. He was rolling now. He was a Dreadnaught smashing through the waves. He was Panzer Army rolling over piles of corpses.
“Our colleagues in the House of Commons will cotton on soon enough once the cheering crowds appear on the streets of their constituencies. And once they cotton on, their principles will go straight out of the window. We will take advantage of this, probably ten days after the operation. We will return to 1914. Four days after declaring war on Germany, the British Parliament passed The Defence of the Realm Act. This gave the government huge new powers to crack down on all dissent. I propose we take the Act off the shelf and bring it back to life with a few tweaks to bring it up to date. A 2030 version of the Defence of the Realm Act will give us all we need to put down any opposition in Scotland. As a happy by product, we will also have many more options when it comes to dealing with criminality and disorder on our own streets. I expect the Act to remain in place for at least a year. It will give us time to re-establish control. Will we get a House of Commons majority? Of course we will. MP's will not dare go against the euphoria of their constituents. Look at Brexit. The House of Commons knew it was voting for economic suicide, but it didn't stop it from happening. The great unwashed wanted to give foreigners a kicking and their elected members did their bidding."
One last slow look all the way around the table. It was time.
“Right. There will be more detail later on. Lots of it. But you have the bones of my proposal. It is time to vote. If you vote in favour of my recommendations, the actions required to re-establish the Union will go ahead in seven days’ time. If you vote against, I will head outside right now and tender my resignation. Within two days I will be drinking gin and tonic in my family's home in Antigua. Either option suits me. So. A show of hands please.”
The hands went up one by one. All of them. And Edward Montford's grey face twisted into a semblance of a smile.
The die was cast.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
YOU HAVE TO BE BLOODY KIDDING
At the time Edward Montford called time on his historic Cabinet meeting, I was well into the third day of getting the Holbrooke story ready to roll as soon as the lawyers fired the starting gun. My eyes were dry and sore and caffeine was racing through my brain.
The editor had kept the Holbrooke team as small as possible to minimise the chances of things leaking. Little did we know MI5 had been listening in on everything we said for well over two years. We only discovered the extent of our goldfish existence many months later.
I didn't care a damn about how tired I was. Putting the story together was the thrill of my life. Well, it certainly was at that moment in time. Now? Now, not so much. In truth, there wasn't any great need for me to set myself such a brutal schedule. No matter what, I had another ten days to wait before we could finally let the presses roll. Basically, I was completely immersed in what I was doing. Obsessed even. Nothing else mattered to me. Not family, not Wendel, not sorting out my hair, not eating, nothing.
I was living my long cherished dream. And every one of those desperate lonely years in Blackburn and Hereford finally seemed like time well invested.
I was so lost in my keyboard I completely failed to notice the young guy in motorcycle leathers who was waiting patiently by my work station.
"Sorry. Didn't see you there. World of my own. Can I help you?"
"Yes. That's me."
"Package for you. If you could sign here......"
I signed and thanked and opened. It was a ridiculously large box for one small envelope.
A sheet of A4. Familiar handwriting. Wendel.
I know you must be seriously busy, but we need to meet. NEED. Remember the pub outside Leominster? We had a meal there last October. Turn right out of the car park and head towards Hereford. After 600 metres you will see a sign for a picnic area. Please be there at 11 pm tonight. Get Alf to drive you. Tell him I need him to follow all counter surveillance protocols. This is absolutely vital. Don't tell anyone about our meeting and shred this letter when you've read it. Sorry about all the cloak and dagger. You'll understand when we meet later. Oh yeah, don't talk to Alf in the office. Talk on the street.
See you soon
What on earth? I instinctively I looked around half expecting to spot some dodgy looking bloke watching me through binoculars.
Not surprisingly, there was absolutely no sign of any guy remotely matching my paranoid fantasy. All was normal.
I read the letter through again. There was something chilling about the bland but firm tone. I suddenly remembered Wendel from the first night we met. The stranger on the motor bike. A calm, soft voice. Almost bored. And then the blurring violence. All business. A mission completed with maximum efficiency. More or less every sentence chilled me. The capital letters chosen to emphasise the word NEED. 'Follow all counter surveillance protocols'. A picnic area at eleven o’clock at night. As in six and a half hours from right now.
I tucked the letter into my pocket and walked to where Alf was loafing uncomfortably on a sofa complete with lukewarm coffee and a Suduko puzzle.
"Alf, I'm completely frazzled. I need fresh air. Can you walk with me?"
We took the lift and stepped out into eighty five degrees of mid-afternoon heat. I led the way to a small park. A small bench was vacant. I took the letter out of my pocket and gave it to him to read. A slight frown.
"It's tight. We basically need to go right now if we're going to make the RV."
"Rendezvous. Do you need to get anything from the office?"
"Need to tell anyone you're headed out?"
"No. I can just go. Will it really take six and a half hours."
"It will if we do as Wendel asks and follow the full CSP."
I didn't ask this time. I managed to work the initials out all on my own. Counter surveillance protocols. But the initials troubled me. When men like Alf and Wendel started to speak in military acronyms, it was hard to feel good things were about to happen. But hell, what did I know? Maybe this was SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for SAS (Special Air Service) types when they were about to get down on their knees to propose to intrepid Scottish news hounds.
Full CSP meant three hours of winding round a maze of small North London roads We finally left the city and drove West and repeated the same procedure for an hour in Leominster.
We arrived at the picnic area at five to the appointed hour to find Wendel waiting for us next to his bike. One look at his face was enough to tell me he wasn't about to make an honest woman of me. Instead, it was a quick hug and a nod to Alf.
"You need some space, Wendel?"
"No. Best you hear this. If you choose to get the hell out of it, then that's fine by me. I wouldn't have recommended you to watch over Sam if I didn't trust you."
"As cancer mate. As fucking cancer. Come on. Let's sit in the car. I'm ready for some A/C"
'Air Conditioning' And yes, I know. 'AC' isn't military.
"Are we clean, Alf?"
"I swept this morning, but I'll do it again if you like."
"Yeah. Best if you do."
Alf pulled something small and electronic from his shoulder bag and carefully ran it over every nook and cranny.
Wendel lit a cigarette and took a long, hard draw. "OK. I'm just going to tell it like it is. This morning I got a call from the boss. I was up on the Beacons with the recruits. Drop everything and get to Stirling Lines. As in ten minutes ago. When I got there he was completely wired. Never seen him like that before. Forget the recruits. The selection was cancelled as of an hour ago. All candidates RTU with immediate effect."
"How many days had they done?" Asked Alf.
"Bit bloody drastic, isn't it? They must have been well pissed off."
I chipped in "RTU?"
"Returned to Unit."
"Anyway. He said I had new priorities. Get the guys to prepare their kit. One rifle and one revolver each. Tasers. Maybe a couple of frags. NVG. No uniform requirement. No rations."
"Night vision glasses."
"I asked him where the op was and he said he couldn't tell me. Not yet. I asked him how we would be getting there, how long was the duration, what language skills would be required, would we need any jabs. In the end, he got pissed off with punting out the 'need to know' line. He gave me a hard stare and then he said OK, fair enough. If he couldn't trust old lags like me, then it was all a load of bollocks. All he was willing to give me were some bare bones. The whole of the Regiment is about to be deployed. We won't need a boat or a plane or a chopper. No language skills. It's going to be a night op. Secure target areas and hold until the cavalry arrive. No fireworks anticipated."
I was starting to get a very bad feeling.
"I didn't nag at him anymore. Didn't need to. It's not so hard to guess. Civvy clothes. No sailing or flying. Securing and holding target areas. Are you with me yet?"
"My God. It's Scotland, isn't it? Edinburgh? You have to be bloody kidding. That crazy bastard Montford is actually going to invade us."
"Six days. Next Wednesday. Well. Early doors Thursday."
"Christ. Have you any idea how it will work?"
"I think so. I've been brainstorming it through. The boss seems convinced there won't be any fighting. Best guess? We enter the country as civvies, probably in ones or twos. I guess they will drop our weapons off from the sea. An SBS show probably."
'Special Boat Service.'
"There will be a target list. Barracks. Air bases. Maybe the naval base, though probably not. There should be no need for any fighting if they're not expecting us. It will simply be a case of getting the night watch into plasticuffs and taking control of the armoury. No guns, no contest. Not many soldiers actually live on base. Most have houses in and around Edinburgh. I guess other targets will be the airport, the Parliament, TV and Radio studios, maybe police HQ. If it was down to me, I would try to get as many members of the Government as I could into custody. Certainly the First Minister. Cut off the head and take control of all the main communication and command and control facilities. It will be more of a Coup than an invasion. The Scottish Army is basically made up of five Regiments. The Scots Guards are out doing peacekeeping in The Gambia so they are well out of the picture. The Argyles, the Borderers, and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards are all barracked in Edinburgh. Only the Black Watch are based out of town. They are up in Fort George. Inverness. I don't think they will be a part of the plan. When all is said and done, they are only 800 guys. What can they do against the whole of the English Army?"
"And what will they want you to do?"
"We'll all be given a target to secure. We will all move at the same time. Like I said. Secure and hold. If we take control of the airport, I would expect a fleet of planes to come in at dawn. The Paras probably. Complete with all the transport they need. By mid-morning they will be deployed on every junction. By then, the TV and Radio will be dishing out simple public information. No need to panic. Stay home. Await news. That kind of thing."
"Are you absolutely sure of all this?"
"At least 90% Think about it, Sam. It all makes complete sense. You've been telling me for months that your economics guys reckon the Government is about to run out of cash. They're certainly running out of water. And friends. And any kind of control of the streets. What do politicians do when they are in a tight corner? Find a nice little war to win. Get the flags out. And this little war has more going for it than most. There's plenty of cash and water to be had north of the Border."
"And Turkey and Israel and China have all just got away with doing exactly the same thing."
"There's more. Many of the riots are being kicked off by the EFP. And who do those little toe-rags blame for their shitty lives?"
"Us. The Scots."
"I'm afraid this whole thing is going to play out well. Montford will be painted as the complete fucking English hero. The saviour of the nation. I don't think there will be too many ready to shed tears for you guys and your Qatari pals."
I was lost for anything to say. What I was hearing was beyond comprehension. And from nowhere another truth crashed into my head.
"He knows about the story. That is why everything is moving so fast. Some traitorous bastard must have leaked. Who's going to give a damn about Holbrooke Securities once he invades bloody Scotland?"
My whole body felt ready to explode from a toxic mix of screaming emotions: rage, outrage, disgust, fear.
I walked away and for someone who made a living out of using words and hopefully getting them down onto paper in the right order, my response to Wendel's news was somewhat pathetic.
"Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck."
Deciding there wasn't any kind of worthwhile response to this, Wendel turned instead to Alf who had stood quietly through the whole thing working through one Marlboro after another.
"Look, I'm sorry to have got you into this mess mate. I didn't have time to come up with anything else. Everyone is on lock down from nine in the morning. This was the only chance I had."
"You reckon Sam's under surveillance?"
"Probably. I would be amazed if Box doesn't have their fingerprints all over the Holbrooke thing. They'll be wanting to do all they can to stay ahead of events. I reckon Sam's right. They probably already know where the Guardian people are up to."
"You reckon they know about you and Sam?"
Wendel gave a slow, grim nod. "Got to assume so."
"So that was why the only show in town was a courier and all counter surveillance protocols. Look there's no need to sweat it mate. You made the only call you could. I'm good with it. And you're right. I'm not about to shop you."
"Thank fuck for that. Cheers, Alf."
"Have you got a plan?"
"Maybe. Sam, you need to hear this."
I rejoined them as they both lit up. Wendel gave me a nervous sort of smile and launched into his pitch.
"OK. So this is where I'm at. Shit creek. I have no good choices. If I go AWOL and betray the plan to the Scottish Government, I will be betraying all the guys. The whole plan is based on absolute surprise. We're going in wearing jeans and T shirts with light weapons only. There is no air support. No artillery package. No drones. No armour. Nothing. Just a thousand guys with two guns each. If they know we are coming, they will chop us down. It will be a massacre. I can't be responsible for that Sam. You know this, right?"
"Yes. It's OK. I understand."
"On the other hand what Montford is going to do is a complete fucking disgrace. And of course, I have other loyalties beyond the Regiment. That fucker killed my baby brother and I want to do all I can to make sure he pays for it. Then there's you Sam. Don't worry, I'm not about to go all Hollywood on you. But as far as I'm concerned we're an item. I go where you go. And if some twat wants to invade your country, well I guess it makes me an honorary Scot. And last but not least, there's mum. Scotland gave her a home and now she feels safe. Which basically means I owe you guys big time. So. I have a plan. It's more or less barking mad, but it's the best I have been able to come up with at short notice. Want to hear it?"
It took him ten minutes and he was right. It was indeed more or less barking mad. He wrapped up with a shrug.
"So that's it. All I've got guys. Are you in or out?"
The speed of my "In" took me by surprise. And at that very minute in the thick, night air, I knew I would gladly share an elevator to the lowest pits of hell with this guy. What? I don't remember anyone saying I wasn't allowed to go all Hollywood.
Wendel and I both turned to Alf.
"Tell you what Wendel, you're some fucking man. You call me up to ask if I'm up for providing some close security for your girl and before I know it you want me to betray my country and stop an invasion. Of course I'm in you daft bugger. My great grandmother was Scottish."
For the next hour, Wendel nailed down the details of his more or less barking mad plan until we were all as sure as we could be of every detail. And then we parted. Alf and I drove back to London. Wendel returned to Hereford for his 9.00 am lockdown.
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