“Order! Order!! The Prime Minister to make a personal statement” intoned Mr Speaker stentoriously in a House of Commons chamber as crowded as for a Budget speech and as excited as for an election dissolution.
Max Kearns was a tall but slightly stooped, avuncular figure whose hair had notably greyed in the last year. He rose from the front row of the green benches, gripped the dispatch box with both hands, and looked at the baying Members of Parliament opposite.
With a barely perceptible glance, he caught the eye of one particular MP on the Opposition benches before commencing the statement that might decide his political future and the lives of many seriously sick citizens. Until eleven months ago, he had never expected to be Prime Minister and, until two days ago, he had never anticipated making this statement.
Labour's PM had stunned the nation with his premature resignation through illness last spring and the subsequent leadership election had been a bitter fight between the two party 'big beasts'. Max Kearns had stood in the election to put the case for a debate on a new policy direction but found himself the compromise candidate who came through the middle. His two most serious opponents were now his Chancellor of the Exchequer and his Foreign Secretary.
The media loved to compare a Prime Minister with a previous holder of the post and with him they had been all over the place. Many likened him to Margaret Thatcher as someone who was unremarkable in previous ministerial posts but became a radical as PM; others referred to him as a second Clement Attlee, a Labour leader with a quiet demeanor who was determined to transform the nation; while inevitably there were allusions to Benjamin Disraeli as the only previous Jewish premier.
It was true that he had surprised both his colleagues and the country with the transformational nature of many of the policies that he wanted to drive through, but he took the view that, now he had some genuine power, he was going to use it to bring about a redistribution of power and wealth in Britain's very unequal society.
His most controversial policy was the proposed introduction of a wealth tax. He had decided that, if it was good enough for France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Norway, Greece and India, a modest rate of tax here should not be the end of the world for the good burghers of Britain who were no doubt anxious to do their patriotic duty. The novel tax would both raise significant new revenues and clearly signal his vision of a more egalitarian society.
Before entering politics professionally, he had been a surgeon and another comparison the media made was to David Owen as Foreign Secretary, previously the most senior government post held by a doctor. His plan was to use the proceeds of the wealth tax to fund new drugs and treatments judged to be life-saving by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) but which could not be afforded by National Health Service Trusts.
If the very idea of a wealth tax infuriated the establishment on the grounds that people should be free to be as rich as they could achieve, a hypothecated tax angered his Chancellor who wanted absolute discretion on expenditure of the state purse. The public though backed the plan strongly.
The Right-wing section of the media – which, after all, was the vast majority of it – had savaged him. The inevitable screaming headline was “Mad Max!” Another in a similar vein was “Marxist Max!” In a non too subtle reference to his Jewishness, one had lambasted “Kearns demands his pound of flesh”.
An element of the media was clearly so determined to sabotage the wealth tax that it was plotting how its main architect could be brought down, since the arguments against the proposition itself were exhibiting little traction with the electorate, which seemed quite sanguine about the prospect of a few millionaires leaving the country and distinctly sceptical about the alleged impact on entrepreneurship.
The problem for such conspirators was that, although like anyone in public life Kearns was no saint, he was a man of evident decency and probity and so far all efforts to find some sort of scandal had failed miserably and expensively.
Until last week's Queen's Speech, when the Government had confirmed its legislative programme for the current Parliamentary session, his opponents had nurtured the hope that he would back off from the plan in the face of the media onslaught. Now they could have no doubt that he was in utter earnest and the assault was becoming ferocious and the search for a means to remove him from the premiership had reached new heights of intensity and new depths of illegality.
Then, first thing on Wednesday, his Parliamentary Private Secretary brought him a distinctly odd request: Conservative backbencher Rupert Forsyth-Jones had asked for an urgent and private meeting. He knew very little indeed about Forsyth-Jones except that, before becoming an MP, he had been a junior officer in the army. The man was new to the Commons and after all, he was on the other side. His PPS convinced him, however, that the Tory was a serious and responsible individual who would not ask for such an encounter if he did not believe it was genuinely of grave importance. The problem was that no such discussion could tale place at 10 Downing Street – the entrance was always covered by the media.
At noon, Max Kearns was enduring the weekly torment of Prime Minister's Questions. Once PMQs were over, he could linger and then slip away, using the underground passageway between the Palace of Westminster and Portcullis House under Parliament Street.
And so he found himself in Forsyth-Jones' paper-strewn office in Portcullis House at lunchtime on Wednesday. The Conservative MP - a tall erect figure with a good head of golden hair and a confident, praetorian manner - shook the bemused premier by the hand: “Thank you for coming, Prime Minister. Please take a seat.”
No sooner was Kearns seated than he insisted: “This will have to be quick, Mr Forsyth-Jones. Can we get straight to the point?”
“Of course. You must be wondering what I'm up to.”
Forsyth-Jones rounded his desk and took his own seat: “Let me cut to the chase. I was at a reception at the American Embassy last night. Not sure why I was invited – probably my record in Afghanistan. Anyway there was plenty of drink and not much food. Towards the end of the evening, I found myself in a corner with the Political Editor of the 'Sunday News' and he'd obviously had far too much to drink and his tongue was far too loose.”
“Not much new there then” commented Kearns sardonically.
“He was spitting blood about you and beside himself over your wealth tax.”
“Again, no more than I'd expect.”
Forsyth-Jones now leaned forward and lowered his voice gravely: “It became apparent to me that the 'Sunday News' wants to destroy you, to bring you down. And they reckon they have a story that will do it and they'll be splashing it this weekend. I thought you should know. I don't know what they think they have on you. There was no way he was going to tell me that. But I thought that you should be forewarned”
“That's very honourable of you.”
“Well, we do address each other as honourable member, do we not?”
“We do – but too often we don't mean it. I must ask you though: why would you be telling me this?” Kearns challenged. “I assume that you're as opposed to the idea of a wealth tax as everyone in your party.”
“Too right, Prime Minister – and I'll be speaking and voting against it at every opportunity I get. But I utterly despise character assassination in public life. Politics should be about the merits of the issue and not about the personality of the politician.”
“Couldn't agree more – and I appreciate your concern about a weekend revelation. But I don't know what I'm supposed to do when I have no idea what's coming on Sunday.”
The Conservative had an expression that combined puzzlement and pain. He concluded his report; “There were two expressions the hack used that stood out. He almost spat at me the words: 'We're going to blow the bastard out of the water'.”
“And the other?”
“He was beside himself with excitement over the headline they'd devised: 'Cover-up killer Kearns!'”
“Charming alliteration”, observed the Prime Minister. He thought for a quiet moment and then declared: “Thank you. Now I know what I have to do.”
The remainder of Wednesday and all of Thursday were even more than usually a whirlwind of activity of activity for Kearns. He cancelled all his scheduled meetings, held numerous discussions with advisers, consulted repeatedly with all those who would be affected by the terms of his intended pronouncement, and drafted the text of his Commons statement.
Inevitably, in the goldfish bowl that was Westminster politics, his revised schedule leaked and he had to confirm that he would be making a personal statement on Friday morning. There was frenzied speculation by the media as to what could be expected, with some predicting that he would withdraw the wealth tax idea and at least one anticipating a resignation. Normally many MPs would disappear back to their constituencies for a three-day weekend, but all the media excitement had induced almost all of them to remain in London and attend the session.
Standing upright at the dispatch box now, Max Kearns read out from the large and widely-spaced text:
“Mr Speaker, It has come to my notice that a certain Sunday newspaper is planning this weekend to carry a story about me that is intended to undermine my political standing and if possible end my political career with the more strategic aim of blunting my Government's programme of reform and most specifically blocking any wealth tax. So far, my office has not been contacted by the publication in question, but no doubt it intended to be in touch sometime on Saturday leaving me no time to prepare an adequate response.
In all the circumstances, I felt it right and appropriate to make a statement first to this House before I issue a news release and talk further to our friends in the media.
As the House is aware, before I was elected a member of this chamber, I was a surgeon working for the National Health Service at the Barfield General Hospital. On 12 March 1991, I conducted an exceptionally difficult operation on a seriously ill child, seven year old Jason Derbyshire. The chances of success were always slight but a mistake was made and the child died. Jason's parents brought a malfeasance action against the hospital and the Trust. This was eventually settled out of court with payment of compensation and agreement on a mutual non-disclosure clause.
Clearly the Sunday newspaper to which I referred earlier takes the view that I was guilty both of taking the life of a young child and of attempting to cover up my unforgivable act. I believe that it was the newspaper's intention to proclaim that the cover-up was designed to protect my political ambitions and prospects.
In the last 24 hours, I have obtained the permission of Jason's parents and a range of other affected parties to reveal to this House the truth of that sad occasion.
An appalling mistake was made in the course of that operation. That is why failure was admitted and compensation was paid. But the mistake was not mine. The anaesthetist Simon Foster made an error which triggered a sequence of complications which caused the death. By the time that the legal action came to a head, Mr Foster had been diagnosed with a brain tumour which was judged extremely serious. He may have had the tumour at the time of Jason's operation, Indeed it may even have led to the error in procedure.
A decision was made not to spell out the precise circumstances of Jason's death to his parents. The fear was that full disclosure would cause severe stress to Mr Foster which would undermine his treatment. Nothing could bring back Jason. Nobody wanted to cause another death. In the event, Mr Foster later died of his tumour.
This decision may not have been the right one – but it was made with decent intentions.
I conclude this statement by noting that, almost two decades after Jason's loss, there is now a new procedure for his condition which promises a much better prospect of success. It is very expensive though and has not been approved by NICE for use in our NHS hospitals. An hypothecated wealth tax would allow funding of such treatments and I reaffirm that it is the Government's firm intention to proceed with legislation creating such a tax as soon as practicable.”
The Prime Minister sat down to loud cheers and waving order papers from his own side and the odd aside from the muted Opposition benches.
After fielding a number of questions with relative ease, Kearns went behind the Speaker's chair to leave the chamber and immediately spotted his Defence Secretary – a cabinet ally – striding briskly down the corridor to join him.
“I think that went well” he declared. “Now I'm going to do the rounds of the studios and the 'Sunday News' will be forced to totally rewrite their one-time 'exclusive' and, even, with luck, drop it altogether. Forsyth-Jones certainly did me a huge favour. Did you find out anything that might explain why he did it?”
“I certainly did” the Defence Secretary announced. “As you may know, our friend Forsyth-Jones was part of the early deployment to Afghanistan. What I've found out is that he was leading a four-man patrol which was struck by an improvised explosive device with two of his men suffering injuries, one very severe.
A helicopter was summoned and was soon on the scene but by then they were under small arms fire. The other uninjured soldier left Forsyth-Jones to cover his two wounded comrades and raced to the 'copter to collect a stretcher for the badly injured squaddie. But, as he reached the 'copter, he was shot in the back and dragged aboard by one of the crew. According to the official report, the most seriously injured soldier was by this time dead and Forsyth-Jones flung the other wounded man over his shoulder and managed to stagger over to the 'copter, so that three of them got out alive anyway.”
“But what's this got to do with him helping me out?” asked Kearns.
His Cabinet colleague continued the story: “Well, it turns out that the soldier who was killed was the best friend of the one shot in the back who was evacuated from Afghanistan to Germany and actually recovered in hospital there. The trouble is that the guy with the back injury had previously been disciplined by Forsyth-Jones for excessive drinking and obviously took the reprimand very personally because he was convinced that Forsyth-Jones had left his mate to die.”
“Are we sure we know the truth?” queried the Prime Minister.
“I believe so” assured his colleague. “The army held an inquiry and the soldier whose life was saved by Forsyth-Jones testified that, whatever it might have looked like immediately after the IED went off, the most seriously injured soldier never stood a chance of recovery and was dead by the time he was left. The body was recovered the next day and the post-mortem corroborated the account.”
“OK – but you still haven't made the connection with me.”
“No – I'm coming to that. When Forsyth-Jones eventually stood as the Conservative candidate in the last General Election, his local evening newspaper ran a story about the incident based almost entirely on the misinformed and biased account of the soldier who'd had the back injury. It seems that Forsyth-Jones was standing in the constituency where the soldier's parents lived and the ex-squaddie thought he saw an opportunity to hit back at his former officer and halt his political aspirations. I checked with Party HQ and they consulted the regional agent. It seems that, though we didn't know it at the time, the young reporter who broke the story was a relative of the Lib Dem candidate in the constituency who was running a close second in the election.”
“And let me guess: the evening newspaper and the 'Sunday News' are both part of Global News Corp owned by our esteemed American media mogul Taylor Nelson.”
“You got it. So that's why Forsyth-Jones didn't want to let them have a free run at you this weekend.”
“But it's bit sick trying to turn a brave officer into someone who abandons one of his men to the Taliban. Didn't he take the matter to the Press Complaints Commission?”
“We've checked that. Yes, he did. After several months, he received a weak apology from the paper.”
The Defence Secretary looked up at the figure running down the corridor towards them and then added: “What are we going to do about regulation of the press?”
The Prime Minister nodded to his PPS who had now arrived by their side: “I have to get off to do my interviews. We might have to simply live with our so-called free press – but we'll have the chance to discuss that another time. Right now, let's get this wealth tax on the statute book.”
Published on 18 September 2009
To access all my short stories click here