George Smiley walked into the safe house, free at last from the wintry deluge beyond. He climbed the stairs and opened the sliding doors to the second floor balcony. Shaking his waterlogged raincoat, he splattered the outside floor with rainwater. Then he struck the wall with his wide-brimmed trilby, and hung both items on a rusting hook hammered into the concrete at some point during 1977.
Things had been easier back then: altogether more mono than today. The task was to monitor the Russians, flush out their moles, stop the Labour Left from leaking secrets, discredit all social democrat fellow-travellers, and bury the evidence of paedophilia. Today’s litter-bin of quadrophonic treachery made yesteryear’s double agents seem like blatant conmen by comparison……infernal disciples dressed in flame red, the better to set off the jet-black of their cranial horns.
Smiley was due to retire in 2020. With bitter irony, he called it his Twenty-twenty Vision. No longer remotely clear who his real employers were, George nevertheless ploughed on. Much of his time these days was taken up with observing a hierarchy of sociopathy at work, and deciding – on the basis of that behavioural data – who to destroy. Those allowed to survive bore little or no relation to the white virgin snow; they were merely a lighter shade of grey…and not even pale grey at that.
The secret policeman allowed a remote camera to photograph his eyes, placed a palm on the pc screen, recorded his voice, and then typed in a password. He went to a welcome page, pulled down a list of options and selected ‘Display All’. Thirteen screens flickered into action. George muted twelve of them. The remaining tableau showed a gaggle of ministers filing into the Cabinet Room, their smiles radiating fake bonhommie. He looked at his ageing Bulova watch; as ever, the Cabinet Office was punctual.
In the old days, part of his job was to stop the hypocritical incompetence of the sovereign Executive from being observed by the Mob. In late 2017, every British mother’s son was aware of the serial – often surreal – unfitness of politicians for Office, but none of them cared a fig. So that was now another dimension of his job that had become redundant. Soon the entire function of miltary intelligence would be done by bots: bots programmed by the ignorant children of Blair, designed to watch over the flailing antics of the children of Thatcher. The blind watching the deaf.
Smiley’s sole concern was to ensure that the democratic vote in favour of Brexit was upheld by the British establishment. His brief was to act as an undetectable catalyst of Brexit’s destruction, an order the man from MI5 had accepted with visible enthusiasm, having immediately decided to do the opposite. George had stopped worrying about disobeying orders after Blair lied to the House about WOMD. Not himself one of the MI6 bumboys prepared to follow every Texan turn of US foreign policy, he made up his mind to believe that his mind was better than theirs. George Smiley thus became that most moral of oxymorons, a patriotic traitor.
He watched now as various Cabinet members played out their public roles in private session, each one aware of the others’ hidden agenda….alleged ambitions they had learned about by pumping the half-cut heads of whips and lobby correspondents. Despite himself, Smiley could not help but be fascinated by these adopted positions. For he knew perfectly well that the posturing would be the subject of a hundred leaks to various factions within the Conservative Party…..and the net result would be an anarchy of myths.
Boris Johnson expressed the concern of his constituents (about whom he knew almost nothing) in relation to final approval of the Brexit ‘deal’ by the Commons. His concerns were countered in a languid manner by Chancellor Philip Hammond, who suggested that perhaps the best bet for Johnson’s electoral franchise might be a second referendum, with a “straightforward” yes or no option on the deal struck. Hammond knew that BoJo feared such an outcome, but on the other hand knew equally that Johnson’s City mates would be happy with a soft Brexit….and The Blond Bonker himself would be delighted with any result that made him Party Leader.
Everybody knew where Boris Johnson stood on Brexit: loyally by the side of Boris Johnson. David Davis was a One Nation Tory of the old school, but even he had been beaten into a recycling cube by Brussels perfidy, Treasury sabotage and a Prime Minister increasingly known as Theresa Mayormaynot. He reported briefly on progress made, but took an unfair share of heckling and snidery along the way. Michael Gove spluttered as only he can, his schoolmasterly Scottish a burr in the side of all and sundry. Privately, he now believed a clean break from the tentacles of the European Union to be impossible.
Always the first item on the Cabinet agenda, the Brexit signalling flickered onwards: here a soft Brexiteer, there a Remainer, nowhere a clean, hard, honest Leaver. For such lay outside the Cabinet now. “Outside the tent,” as Davis put it, “pissing in”. The Brexit Secretary believed (as did the Spectator) that more Leavers should be in the Cabinet. May herself had been told by her whips that this would produce a leadership challenge.
George Smiley knew they were lying. He had himself invested some time and taxpayers’ money in the process of putting forward Jacob Rees-Mogg as a genuine threat to Theresa May. He was disturbed (but not surprised) to discover that Momentum was doing the same thing; but when his mole finally smuggled out a copy of the Left’s opinion poll about challengers to the Prime Minister, George was forced to twist some arms in the Conservative whips’ office. That made things crystal clear: Rees-Mogg was not a popular candidate beyond the maddest of the Tory mad, and Johnson was seen by many mainstream voters and political big beasts as unreliable. There was a maverick plot afoot in MI6 for Boris to career off a road somewhere full of drink.
The Brexit ball was batted round the table as if in a game of four-dimensional mixed doubles. The wrinkled MI5 officer watched them, already bored. Dense legislators too consumed with their own importance to realise that the real power lay elsewhere….in NATO and the Pentagon, in the Treasury and the Foreign Office, in the media and among the internet ISPs, in the security services and the Home Office. May had an inkling, of course. This made her dangerous. George did not like May one bit.
He pulled out a crumpled pocket pad, and flicked through several pages. Then he switched on Monitor 7 and woke up its microcamera.
The view from 7 always gave him a mild bout of vertigo. Hidden in an exposed metal beam above the main meeting room of an image management agency, the camera stared down at various heads. This gave Smiley a regular update on the rate of tonsorial hair recession among the Blairite Old Guard.
Flunkeys were placing notepads, pens and water jugs around the large rectangular table. The session – a weekly affair plus extraordinary gatherings in the event of events – always had the Fab Four, plus one or maybe two guests. The Four Horsemen as he called them were Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, David Miliband and Iron Mask.
Everyone in MI5 was intrigued as to the identity of Iron Mask: but after ten months of intense research, George still couldn’t be sure who the person was. His (or her) headgear was lead-lined, and the voice box distortion was beyond anything his surveillance contacts had. It removed, for example, any trace of regional or national accent, and changed its timbre automatically every time it was activated.
Smiley had narrowed the identity down to three possibilities: a CIA operative (Blair had always been close to the US secret service) a senior NATO-EU point man, or a prominent British royal. His own gut and a process of deduction had convinced him it was almost certainly Prince Charles: the heir to the throne’s public engagements and Four Horsemen meetings never clashed. Also, Charles was easily the most security-savvy Prince of Wales of all time.
Miliband kicked things off with a View from America. He reiterated his mantra that Wall Street didn’t want to be an active Remainer force: the banking firms were happy to deal with a City outside the EU – indeed, they saw potential in the arrangement. Campbell described briefly the campaign to convince Remainer MPs that the opposite was true; the Financial Times remained, he asserted, a useful ally. Blair reported back on the latest donations received from the Middle East. Casually – as if discussing the arrangements for an Annual Dinner – he confirmed that the slush fund was proving “highly popular among diehards” and “persuasive in the fight to get a binding vote of all MPs on the deal”.
Miliband smiled his satisfaction that Arab cash had caught May on the wrong foot the previous week. There was a brief silence before Iron Mask enquired about progress on the ‘New Centre’ project. Blair woffled for a couple of minutes. Campbell felt it would stay on hold until after “the inevitable” election. Miliband was obviously in the loop, but too far removed from the action to comment. Iron Mask pressed on the point: he/she was worried about wholesale deselection in the Labour Party if Corbyn won power.
Conscious of limited time and a degree of embarrassment, Tony Blair moved on to update the others on Operation Buster. Smiley shook his head slowly as Blair outlined “further encouraging progress”: even after forty-five years in military intelligence, he had never come across anything quite so breathtakingly gross as Buster.
The plot (allegedly hatched by Campbell) had been conceived originally as a plan to bribe DWP bureaucrats, social workers and private sector assessment officers into maximising the likelihood of early death among the poorest sector of senior citizens. It had since been expanded to encompass first, a campaign among private nursing homes to variously discourage voting among the inmates – or convince them that the staff could vote for them by proxy; and second, to stiffen resolve among DWP Ministers to stand firm against WASPI pension demands.
Blair circulated a statistical table showing how ill-health and early death among peak baby-boomers could produce what he called “obligatory abstentions” at the level of around 550,000 votes among those overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit. Campbell chipped in to say that several influential columnists and bloggers continued to write posts “heavily critical of the greed of those over 60”.
“The danger of course,” Iron Mask intoned, “is that this will further smear the Conservative Party and encourage more voters to see Mr Corbyn as the antidote”.
Miliband reassured him that a combination of Arab monies and MI6 contacts “will put paid to Mr Corbyn when the time is right”.
In his safe house, the remote observer nodded. He knew who the agents in Six were. He had no plans to intervene.
Once outside again, George Smiley walked back towards Docklands. The rain had moved on towards northern Europe. The slate-grey clouds were racing towards the horizon, to be replaced by a pleasing combination of clear blue behind puffs of white. But the wind was bitterly cold. He had never known such a cold start to winter. That meant more dead over 65s, and thus more pressure from the Four Horsemen to get a second referendum back on the agenda.
So this was Thursday. Monday last, his pet rogue in the FBI sent secure code confirmation that the State Department and McMasters were as one: the US would not stand for any solution beyond ultra-soft Brexit. The President, of course, was not considered to have the necessary clearance to know this. Smiley was still mulling whether to ask the Washington desk to leak this perfidy to Trump’s son-in-law.
Tuesday afternoon, George listened in to a working session of Labour’s inner circle. As usual, there was a screaming row in progress. As usual, it was a four-cornered fight. As usual, it was like being a fly on the wall of the Lambeth Council chamber at some point during 1976. He couldn’t decide what frightened him more: the idea of these water babies negotiating with Brussels, the deranged nature of their Chavonomics, the cynicism of the main players in Momentum, the naivety of the electorate, or the fate of Sterling should they ever achieve power.
In reality, they were no more or less repellent than the Government….or the Blairites, or the circle of Quislings around Clegg and Mandelson, or some of the nutters hiding in UKIP, or, or….all of the other whores. Whether they turned a trick for an ideology, a directorship, a pension or just more power to daub on a bigger canvas, it made little or no difference. No longer clear about who his real bosses were, he’d decided to be his own boss.
He was slightly more than a pawn – a rook perhaps, or a bishop – in a chess touurnament. Or maybe a die cast in a game of snakes and ladders. There was no such thing as checkmate, or a harmless grass snake, or a safe ladder: there was only the possibility of taking a knight or two, or giving a leg up to the least venomous insect.
The Arabs may be giving money to corrupt Remainers, but there was no shortage of East European, Canadian and Aussie money for disorganised Leavers. And Smiley himself was not above diving into his own slush (and hush) funds, if that resulted in sawing through the odd ladder – or beheading a viper here and there.
Wednesday brought some overheard Brussels phone call intelligence via the Greek and Hungarian secret services. The three-way conference linkup – between Angela Merkel, Mario Draghi and Emmanuel Macron – offered a conclusion without collusion: they were split on what to do next. The German Chancellor was bullish; she felt the UK political landscape to be almost anarchic. She argued for continuing to stonewall, in “the certainty” that neither major British Party could take a clear stand. Macron wanted to take the offensive, flood the UK with scare spin and then “shove” Westminster into a soft Brexit that could, over time, quickly lead to re-application for membership. “For once” he added, “I’m with Washington on this”.
Draghi pulled no punches:
“You’re pouring petrol onto hot coals. London is not Athens. May cannot control her Parliament, and the more pushy we get, the more voters move into the Leave camp. There is also the time question: we have a trade surplus with them, and loyal EU governments already know austerity is coming. Spain will struggle with that, and Italy will reject it. The East Europeans are digging their heels in.
“This is not the time for a big stick. We need to give ground, and be seen to do so. Then make our generosity contingent on a quick deal. This will take the wind out of the Leaver’s sails, and make State department pressure on May really count. If we let her win a battle now, ultimate victory will be ours. But if we overreach ourselves, we risk the failure of the entire project”.
Now he had all the information too hand, George Smiley knew what to do.
May had to be placed in an impossible position. There had to be an election. UKIP should be given all the help on offer….along with the Blair quadrant. Johnson must be eased into Downing Street. The election must produce another stalemate. The markets must panic. The EU must flounder.
It was time for the reset that should’ve happened in 2003. It was time to hunt around for sound allies. It was time for George Smiley’s finest hour.