This explosive first novel by former Downing Street insider Cleo Watson has MPs in a cold sweat
‘Hello, Mrs Daly?’
The woman turns.
‘Hi, I’m Eva Cross. We haven’t met before, but I work in the PM’s political office and wanted to introduce myself.’
‘Oh, hello,’ Susie Daly smiles warmly. ‘Nice to meet you. Isn’t this a lovely place? Is it your first time here?’
‘Well…’ Eva hesitates, thinking of an answer. She spent many weekends here at Chequers when her father was PM, but she’d really rather not discuss that.
Read for an exclusive extract of Whips by Downing Street insider Cleo Watson, which will be published by Corsair on 25 May, £20
‘It’s my first event, yes. I think, understandably, that the PM prefers not to be reminded of Number Ten when she’s here, so we rarely come.’
Eva surveys the crowd, groups of couples chatting animatedly. Not much of a retreat today.
Susie seems to have read Eva’s mind. ‘Yes, of course. It must be such a pain to have all of us here. Particularly with everything else going on. Now, Cross… you aren’t related to Percy Cross, are you?’
‘That’s right, I’m his daughter.’ Eva, suddenly wishing she had allowed herself at least one glass of wine today, hopes Susie isn’t going to reveal she has Percy on her fantasy list for a secret knee-trembler, which has happened more than people would guess. ‘Dad’s currently single, if you know someone looking for a challenge!’ She laughs hollowly.
‘Do you know, my father still buys all his books,’ Susie says kindly, noticing Eva’s discomfort. ‘He loves them. It must have been awful for you to go through all that rubbish in the papers.’
Eva takes a gulp of elderflower, shoving down a bilious little jolt of rage at her father. ‘It was.’
They stand awkwardly together, examining the shrubbery. As though sensing his presence is needed, the PM’s dog waddles over to sniff Eva’s hand, his tail wagging vigorously in recognition of someone he knows in the large crowd.
‘Oh, hello, boy.’ Susie rubs behind Dennis’s ears. ‘Is this the PM’s dog? He knows you.’
Eva squats down beside Susie, running her fingers through the dog’s thick fur. ‘Yes, this is Dennis. He has a basket in our office, so we know each other pretty well. It is generally a pleasure, but he’s very old so farts a lot.’
‘Poor chap.’ Susie strokes the greying muzzle. ‘Well, I think you’re just charming. Ah –’ She spots her husband walking past with two glasses of white wine and quickly straightens up. ‘Simon!’
Daly turns and abruptly switches course towards them, prowling guiltily, like a fox.
Eva gets in a quick ‘Hello, Minister’, knowing how much men with his ego enjoy hearing those words, before Daly heartily and, Eva thinks, rather guiltily says to his wife, ‘Ah, you’ve met Eva, have you?’
‘Yes,’ replies Susie. ‘And admiring Dennis. Isn’t he a sweet dog?’
Daly nods and then seems to suddenly become aware he is holding two glasses of wine. He holds one out to Susie.
‘No thanks, darling. I’m driving, remember?’
‘Oh crumbs, of course,’ Daly says, in the same slightly over-cheerful way. ‘I’ll uh… find someone to palm it off on to and find you a soft drink, eh?’
‘No, don’t worry, I’ll go and find something. You stay here.’
Eva and Daly watch his wife disappear, Eva searching her mind urgently for something to say. She doesn’t dislike Daly exactly but she knows he is one of the many people on manoeuvres against the Prime Minister. Coupled with his reputation for sleeping around Westminster, Eva feels very self-conscious all of a sudden about the two of them standing alone together.
Daly and Eva are both saved from struggling to make conversation by Millie Sackler striding over, pretending not to notice people staring at her well-presented bosoms.
‘Hello, Millie, how are you?’ Eva tilts her head to kiss Millie’s cheek.
‘Hi, darling, great to see you,’ Millie chirrups, accepting the second glass of wine from Daly. ‘Thanks, Si. I wondered where you’d got to.’ Before he can answer they are interrupted by Hendrick, the Education Secretary, practically popping with enthusiasm, trailed by his long-suffering wife.
‘Hello, hello!’ he crows. ‘How are we all?’
‘Hello, Rich, good to see you.’ Daly shakes his hand. ‘Stellar round this morning.’
‘Secretary of State. Mrs Hendrick,’ smiles Eva, watching out of the corner of her eye as a harried-looking man, his bald pate glinting in the sun, stomps over to them.
‘Oh, did you hear it?’ Hendrick said brightly. ‘Felt like I drew the short straw today! Ah, hello, Tim,’ he says to the man, who has now joined the group and is glowering at him. ‘Have you met my wife? Tanya, darling, this is Tim Bowers, the PM’s press chappie.’
Tim nods his head stiffly at Tanya and turns to Hendrick.
‘Interesting round this morning, Secretary of State,’ Tim bristles.
‘It was rather, wasn’t it?’ Hendrick grins. ‘I tuned in just in time to hear you get into your flow about whether the letter ‘y’ should officially be recognised as a vowel,’ Tim continues through gritted teeth, ‘which I don’t remember signing off on the government comms grid when we agreed your announcement on top-up tutoring. Unless, of course, you have your own secret grid full of unnecessary ways to make us look like total tits while the Leader of the Opposition lampoons us every day on food and energy prices.’
‘Tim. Matey,’ Hendrick spreads his fingers apologetically, ‘I was trying to get off the PM and Graham Thomas stories…’
‘You used a story about turning the alphabet Welsh as a dead cat?’ [slang for a dramatic announcement made to divert attention from a political problem elsewhere] Tim growls. ‘This was only one rung down from when someone forgot to type up the Home Secretary’s speech phonetically.’
‘Ah yes,’ laughs Hendrick, dancing from foot to foot. ‘When she said Führer instead of furore –’
‘Shut up,’ Tim hisses. ‘Has it occurred to you that a small fraction of the British public actually tuned in to hear you babbling like a f***wit this morning hoping to learn what the government is doing to educate their children better? What’s more, some of them, statistically speaking, are actually behind the PM and just want us to get on with the job of improving the country.’ Tim looks around at the silent group. ‘Well, those same people are now presumably scratching their heads, the only ‘y’ on their minds being why on earth the PM thinks she can appoint such an unutterable chump and remain credible as a genuine public servant.’ Tim drains his glass of wine and stomps off.
Daly, who has watched the scene with undisguised glee, raises his eyebrows.
- Eva Cross – daughter of former Prime Minister Percy Cross. She works in the current Prime Minister’s political office
- Percy Cross – former Prime Minister who had to resign in disgrace after being caught in flagrante in St James’s Park with his female personal trainer
- Susie Daly – wife of Simon Daly, MP. She has money and manners, is devoted to her constituency role and given to sensible dressing, much to his disappointment
- Simon Daly – ambitious MP and Parliamentary Under Secretary in the Foreign Office. Notorious for having affairs
- Dennis – elderly dog of current PM Madeleine Ford
- Richard Hendrick – rather hapless Education Secretary
- Tanya Hendrick – his long-suffering wife
- Tim Bowers – Prime Minister’s director of communications
- Millie Sackler – sexually voracious wife of George Sackler, MP for East Devon
Eva looks desperately at her feet, trying to avoid catching Mrs Hendrick’s eye, who finally seems to be enjoying herself. Hendrick himself stares mistily after Tim’s retreating back, silently mouthing the word ‘chump’. Within moments, though, he has recovered and spots an elegant couple stepping graciously through the party.
‘Ahhh, Eric! Clarissa!’ Hendrick chirps, turning to his wife and pulling her by the elbow behind him. ‘Have you met Tanya?’
Millie melts into a fit of giggles. ‘That was wonderful! That chap Tim is such a character,’ she puts a hand to her brow and surveys the crowd, ‘and quite attractive, in his own way.’ She sneaks a look at Daly, knowing this is exactly the sort of thing that nettles the competitive young(ish) thrusters who are in a hurry. ‘Such aggression.’
‘I meant to ask,’ Daly says firmly, before Millie can say anything else, ‘have you been to Chequers before?’
‘I haven’t, as a matter of fact. This is my first time,’ Millie lowers her head to take a sip of wine and looks at him through her lashes, ‘a virgin, so to speak.’
Eva valiantly pretends she hasn’t heard the exchange.
‘How about I show you around the house a bit?’ Daly takes Millie’s arm. ‘See you later, Eva.’
Eva watches them leave, wondering at their audacity.
Daly and Millie reach the Long Gallery. They look down, unobserved behind the stained-glass windows, at the party outside. It is cool and quiet indoors and all they can hear is the ticking of a couple of clocks and the murmur of the crowd down below.
‘That’s a very odd picture.’
Millie points at a pane of glass. ‘Those look an awful lot like cricket stumps.’
‘That’s right,’ says Daly softly, running his fingers lightly down her spine and over her bottom. ‘And those red things are cricket balls. Along here the different former PMs’ coats of arms are set into the window. This one is John Major’s.’ As Millie turns to look, Daly leans in and kisses gently along her collarbone.
She smiles impishly. ‘You naughty boy, everyone’s just outside.’
‘Exactly,’ he breathes into her neck, his left hand sliding around her waist, his right inching through the fold of her wrap dress.
Millie leans back into the frame of the window, bending her knee until her foot rests on the window seat and her skirt falls open a little. Daly’s fingers explore a little further and Millie hears a sharp intake of breath.
‘No knickers… did you miss the dress code?’ he whispers, kneeling down slowly before her.
In the grounds down below, the party in full swing, one of the PM’s protection officers nudges his colleague in the ribs and inclines his head at an upstairs stained-glass window, where the imprint of a pair of pale bum cheeks is undulating against the glass for anyone to see – if the guests cared to look up from their involved conversations.
Whips by Cleo Watson will be published by Corsair on 25 May, £20.
To pre-order a copy for £18 until 28 May, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £25