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Read an extract from Whips by Cleo Watson


Whips by Cleo Watson

Westminster in the 2020s. In the SW1 bubble, politics moves fast, schemes are hatched and foiled within hours, and sex and power preside.

When Bobby Cliveden decides to campaign against the closure of her local mental health unit, she scarcely thought it would take her straight to the heart of the UK’s bustling political centre. She heads to London to work for her local MP, the ambitious Simon Daly, and moves in with her two old university friends, Jess, a new lobby journalist, and Eva, a junior Downing Street adviser. The three of them quickly become wrapped up in the political circus of glamorous parties, insufferable bosses and demanding workloads – and the desire to win. Beneath the headline-grabbing battle of a male-dominated leadership contest, they discover the secret, soft-skilled machinery behind so much political change at the very highest level of government: women.

Riotous and all too believable, Whips is a timely satire on politics and Party people. Watson takes us behind the doors of Number 10 and delivers a gripping tale of modern government, filled with intrigue and scandal. Whips delivers on every promise.


Scroll down to read an extract.


Whip (noun)

1. a strip of leather or length of cord fastened to a handle, used for flogging or beating a person or for urging on an animal.

2. a dessert consisting of cream or eggs beaten into a light fluffy mass with fruit, chocolate, or other ingredients.

3. an official of a political party appointed to maintain parliamentary discipline among its members, especially so as to ensure attendance and voting in debates.

Oxford English Dictionary


Author’s Note

There has been a fair amount of speculation in the run- up to the publication of this book about whether any of my characters are based on real people. I would like to state – emphatically – that this is a novel. The fictional men, women, media outlets and businesses I’ve written about have not been drawn from flesh and blood MPs or journalists etc. In the great universe of political and media misadventure a lot of crazy stuff has happened, far crazier than any fiction I’m capable of dreaming up, but I’d like to reassure the reader that any seeming inspiration from real events or people is inadvertent. Honestly, not everything’s about you.



Big Ben strikes 11 p.m. A Wednesday night in the House of Commons. Business for the day has finally finished and the draughty corridors carry only the occasional echo of unsteady footsteps. In the now empty Chamber, Members of Parliament spent the day as their predecessors did before them – perhaps one of the few settings left where this remains the case, if you excuse the modernising measures of TV cameras and microphones. They have debated, they have voted, they have legislated. They have slouched and yelled. Dust, disturbed by the day’s hot air, is settling once again onto the empty green leather benches. The ghosts of Churchill and Lloyd George and Pitt complain about the standards of modern oratory in the press gallery. A nesting mouse peeks out from behind the throne- like Speaker’s Chair.

On the Terrace by the Thames, groups of drinkers and smokers defy the cold in coats and alcohol jackets. Signals are misread or ignored. MPs who struggled to get dates at university now have carbon copies of the girls who rejected them sitting in thigh- grabbing distance, intrigued by their newfound power sitting on the Public Accounts Committee. Patient researchers persuade their drunk, toddler- like employees to stop spatting on Twitter. Cheerful informal audiences watch their friends play at debating. Someone, buoyed by the cheap wine and jovial surroundings, always says a little more than they mean to.

There’s only one topic of conversation. On Saturday, the beleaguered Prime Minister is hosting a summit of her MPs at Chequers, ahead of a last ditch vote on her China Trade Deal. Beneath the remarks of even her most loyal supporters lie layer upon layer of sub- plot, meaning and doubt. Her least loyal MPs, who have long awaited their opportunity to represent the government in a morning media round, are rather more gallows than humour. What drives them all, like feverish Italian spaniels sniffing for truffles, is power. They need to figure out where it lies and how they get it. What each of them knows, regardless of loyalty, is that a PM in crisis provides opportunity for all.

Also on the Terrace, feeling like prefects at a school disco, are government Whips, tired after a busy day of coaxing, pleading or threatening groups of MPs – their ‘flocks’ – to vote on government business. The bread and butter of their work now done, like the only sober people at a party they can make a study of MP behaviour: who has passed out yet again? Who is following that young researcher around like a puppy? Who is struggling to pay their bar bill? Who is unhappy – and loudly so – about the direction the Party is going in? The Whips are the canaries in the coal mine for prime ministers who want to hold on to power. Deafness to the mood music’s change of key can be premiership ending.

While the MPs are the actors, the scenes of Parliamentary theatre are set by its own stage crew. Cleaning, bar and catering staff, IT and maintenance teams, security workers and police officers, clerks and researchers. Beneath the crumbling facade of what the public see – and make no mistake, it is crumbling – they strive away in subterranean kitchens and hidden cupboard- like offices, even in the walls themselves, to make sure the show goes on.

Away from the chatter of the Terrace, the hot steam of the kitchens and the cloudy breath of the police officers guarding the gates, sit extensive corridors containing MPs’ offices, spread across the Parliamentary Estate. By day these are thrumming with activity as phone calls, meetings, emails and diaries are attended to. When the House sits in the evenings and most of their staff have gone home, MPs often congregate in each other’s offices, drinking and discussing ideas between votes, or quietly working through piles of correspondence alone – allegedly. Once voting is complete, the corridors steadily empty out like an estuary and Members head home or to the Terrace or to another bar, leaving an eerie calm.

Tonight, just after 11 p.m. on a Wednesday, one office is still occupied. Dimly lit by a single lozenge- shaped green lamp, a man sits at a large desk with his shoulders hunched forward, palms on the table, deeply absorbed in his exertions. In the few inches between his face and some documents on the leather- bound surface is a woman on her back, her FitFlop sliders braced against the arms of the chair, her skirt pulled up to reveal a convenient hole torn in the gusset of her flesh- coloured M&S tights. As ever, she is WhatsApping: gossip for journalists; instructions for her advisers and officials; congratulations to an MP for a speech in the Chamber she’s pretending she heard. The blue light from the phone screen, held aloft, picks out her frowning face and frizzy hair immediately recognisable in Westminster circles. Natasha Weaver MP, Secretary of State for the Industrial Economy and, in one of her colleague’s words, ‘the perfect example of the modern politician’s failure to fall within the Venn diagram of self- belief and self- awareness’.

‘Do you really have to text right now?’ her companion muffles irritably.

‘Yes, I do,’ Weaver sighs, continuing to tap. ‘Look, I’m pretty short on time so you can just shove it in dry if you want.’


The man continues, but pretty half- heartedly. Weaver rolls her eyes and starts squirming around a bit to cheer him up. Encouraged, the man responds by rising up to hold Weaver’s hands behind her head, so she drops her phone and her back arches. She grunts as the underwiring from her bra digs into her bosoms. The man immediately climbs on top of her. After some frantic effort, the lozenge- shaped lamp smashes onto the floor.

They lie there for a while, panting in the city light streaming in through the window. Once he’s recovered, the man gets up to put on his overcoat from the back of the door and turns to help Weaver into hers, but drops it in surprise. She is bending over the desk with her legs apart, her skirt still hiked up over her hips and her palms flat on the surface. Her body is twisted round so that her vaguely manic eyes glitter at him in the gloom.

‘Crikey. You’re insatiable,’ he mutters wearily.

Big Ben dutifully strikes midnight before they finally leave the room, a few minutes apart.

In a darkened window across the road, a silent figure lowers a long- lens camera and carefully stows it in the recesses of a backpack, wondering if Weaver will learn to close her curtains when she’s entertaining.


Part One

30th March

Nurses threaten strike action over pay/Car bomb kills 15 in Syria


The Prime Minister stares at the ceiling above the bed, watching the intricate cornicing become gradually clearer as the sun rises and the day begins. Although, yet again, she has barely slept at all, she finds that listening to the steady intonation of two sets of breath – her husband, Michael, next to her, and their aged chocolate Labrador, Dennis, on the floor at the foot of the bed – is comforting. She must stop grinding her teeth, she thinks.

The clock radio jumps into life. The female newsreader’s cool voice announces the headlines:

‘Good morning – this is the BBC news at 6 a.m., on Saturday 30th March. The Prime Minister, Madeleine Ford, is today hosting a lunch for Conservative MPs at Chequers, her official country residence, ahead of a final vote on her China Trade Deal next week. Party sources say that for Mrs Ford, who has already suffered two losses at the hands of her colleagues over this divisive legislation, this event is a last ditch effort to get their support. In response to a sustained slump in the polls for the Prime Minister, there are rumours of several letters being sent by Tory MPs to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Godfrey Singham, expressing their loss of confidence in her leadership. The letters are sent in secret, but should Sir Godfrey receive fifty or more – the threshold of fifteen per cent of the Parliamentary Party – Mrs Ford faces a vote of confidence and a threat to her leadership . . . ’

The sheets stir and a sleepy voice mumbles, ‘Oh, turn that off, will you? I was having a lovely dream about a dictatorship.’

Dennis thumps his tail on the floor approvingly.

‘ . . . Meanwhile, the Sentinel newspaper reports that the Transport Secretary, Graham Thomas, is coming under pressure to explain how his Easter trip to the Caribbean was paid for and how he spent his time in the region. The leader of the Labour Party has written to the Cabinet Secretary, calling for a full and transparent account from Mr Thomas, who insists the trip was for official government business followed by a private family holiday. However, photos have emerged overnight of Mr Thomas in a corporate box at the England cricket friendly, with Caspar Dubois, the French rail manufacturing tycoon, whose company was announced as the winner of the East London rail link contract three days ago . . . ’

‘Urgh, photos . . . ’ the PM groans, hitting the button on top of the radio. She takes a deep breath and cranks herself out of bed. ‘Shall I ask for a cup of tea to be sent up? I think I’ll go for a quick swim. Just to clear my head for later.’

‘Ooh, yes please.’ Michael pulls himself up against the pillows and fires up Wordle. ‘Will you let Den out with you?’

The PM picks up her swimming things, being careful not to disturb the outfit laid out for later, and moves to the door where Dennis waits patiently. They head downstairs, the early morning light hitting the antique carpets and priceless oil paintings that generations of British Prime Ministers have enjoyed at Chequers, the ancient grace and favour home reserved for their use for as long as they serve in Downing Street.

Chequers is a sanctuary, the most exclusive country house hotel imaginable maintained by Royal Navy and RAF staff. The housekeeper, Sally, is insistent that the team give the PM and her husband privacy. They could cartwheel down the corridors if they wanted to and nobody would know – or say anything, anyway. The cook makes hearty, homely meals that can be enjoyed at leisure. The study, where the PM works with Dennis dozing at her feet, is quiet and cosy. Even the Duty Clerks, who accompany her everywhere, closet themselves away in a small section of the house. Mobile phone signal at Chequers is poor and gives a perfect excuse to put off answering the constant texts until Sunday night. Here, not least in the stunning gardens, there is some space.

Only some space, of course. If the Fords venture out into the grounds they are carefully guarded by armed police officers, unseen and unheard but nonetheless quietly communicating over radios and roaming the telescopic sights of their rifles over the countryside. The Duty Clerks, smiling and polite as they hand over and collect papers from the iconic red box, are primed at any moment for the worst to happen: ready to patch the PM in on a secure line in the event of a major incident; ready to hand over her pristine black suit – which travels everywhere with her – to make an immediate statement in the event of the death of a member of the Royal Family; ready to alert the PM’s Principal Private Secretary, the Cabinet Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister in the event of her own incapacity or death.

The PM steps onto the terrace and listens for a moment to the birds singing. From the field of the neighbouring farm, lambs bleat tunelessly. She breathes in the fresh air, watching Dennis lollop off towards the flower beds, his crumbling hips struggling down the steps, and checks the bottom gate is shut – his eyesight is deteriorating and she worries he could wander off – before heading to the swimming pool.

The indoor pool at Chequers, a gift from the Nixon administration in the early seventies, sits alongside the terrace in a glass orangery. Although it raised eyebrows at the time – the Trust agonised over how to protect the integrity of a listed building and avoid snubbing such a generous gift from an American President – the pool, carefully incorporated into the old red- brick walled garden, with its sage- green painted timbers and shimmering glass ceiling, has become a favourite spot for Prime Ministers and their families.

After changing into her costume, the PM slips into the lapping water and begins to rhythmically breaststroke in strong, precise movements. As always happens when swimming – maybe it is just the sensation of being suspended in water – she feels the tension in her shoulders ebb away. Completing her regulation thirty lengths, she reaches the end of the pool and floats with her back to the wall, grasping the edges, feeling like a carved figure at the prow of an old ship.

She wants people to listen to her today, not whisper about the tell- tale signs of her cracking under the strain they are putting on her. It is something she feels particularly subject to as a female Prime Minister – what she is wearing and how she’s styled her hair. It constantly amazes her that being described as looking tired or careworn means something quite different when it refers to her rather than her male predecessors. It means weakness and a kind of undesirableness. As a result, she has swum carefully to keep her hair dry, her neck stiff.

On the other hand, if the PM wears anything at all characterful then she’s ‘OTT’. The idea of wasting time thinking of how to dress to please these people irritates her. Bollocks. She suddenly squats down in the water, pushes her feet against the wall and jettisons herself forward, torpedo- like, feeling the cool bubbling jet- stream rinse over her face. The next best thing to skinny dipping. As she bobs back up, her hair slick over her head, she feels a degree of calm and control come over her once again. Aside from these small bursts of rage, she’s lived with the white- noise feeling of dread for so long that she almost doesn’t notice it any more.



In the foyer of Tipperton Community Hall, Bobby Cliveden sits patiently on a plastic seat, her hands folded over the neat file of notes on her lap. With her slight frame and freckled, round face she is often mistaken for much younger than her twenty- four years and generally treated as such. It used to annoy her, but as she’s become more worldly she has often found it useful for people to assume she is naive. Bobby pulls her phone out and checks the time: 9.15. Weeks of chasing down Simon Daly MP – she’d eventually gatecrashed an interview he was doing with the local paper and shamed him into agreeing to a meeting – and he doesn’t even have the courtesy to be on time. Hovering somewhere between irritation with him and embarrassment for herself, she fires off a message to a WhatsApp group with her two closest friends from university, Jess and Eva:

He’s 15 minutes late! Do you think this is a massive waste of time?

Jess replies immediately:

Are you joking? You know the plan – start reasonably, then if necessary chuck in that you’re talking to a journalist about a campaign (he doesn’t need to know it’s just little old me from a regional paper – and the wrong region!).

Eva chimes in:

And don’t be afraid to turn on the water works. Men like him fall apart in front of a crying woman. Trust me, I know! Let him underestimate you . . .

Bobby doesn’t think that would be hard. She puts her phone away and peers at the tatty posters advertising local book clubs, mother and baby groups and the Brownies on the foyer walls. Frowning slightly, she stands up and smooths over one of the posters of a plain building set in a few acres of leafy, tree- filled grounds, repinning it neatly so that Stop the closure of Tipperton NHS Mental Health Unit is clearly visible to passers- by.

Bobby stares at the poster and wonders how many she has personally handed out. The mental health unit in Tipperton has been a linchpin of her family’s life for the last decade. She was about eleven years old when it became clear that her father was struggling with his mental health and became an in- patient. Stephen had joined the police force as soon as he’d left school and, once he’d married Bobby’s mother, had settled into a job in the county road traffic unit. He’d often joked about how being a traffic cop felt a bit like being a goalie in football: you’re either bored, sitting about with your speed gun, or stressed out of your senses dealing with an accident.

This theory was pushed to the brink when he attended the scene of a particularly bad accident, the car in question having veered off the road at high speed, crashed and gone up in a ball of flames. He was surveying the scene when he saw the paramedics pull the bloodied and blackened body of the driver out of the vehicle. He immediately recognised his own brother. Initially Stephen had been almost silent on the subject, angrily shouting, ‘Stop pestering me, Liz. What’s there to say about scraping your brother’s brains off his steering wheel?’ when Bobby’s mother pressed him. Then the regular nightmares began, with Stephen desperately trying to claw his way out of a burning car wreck, and were followed by whole days when he couldn’t get out of bed, exhausted after being too afraid to fall asleep the previous night. His colleagues became worried, as did his friends and family. He would disappear for hours at a time, with Elizabeth fearing the worst. He was put on sick leave from work, then eventually took early retirement.

Finally, when Bobby was doing her GCSEs, Stephen was persuaded to spend some time in the Tipperton Mental Health Unit after going missing for three days – Bobby’s mother had to threaten to have him sectioned under the Mental Health Act. She and Bobby found that terms like CBT, psychosis, PTSD and depression slipped quickly and easily into their casual dinner conversation. After a few late- night panicked phone calls from her mother in Freshers’ Week, Bobby had taken up a routine of coming home each weekend for the three years of university. After graduating, despite the promise of a job offer in London, Bobby had chosen to stay in Tipperton until the situation stabilised. Happily, Stephen is now in a routine of therapy and medication.

Bobby’s lifeline has been her friendship with Jess and Eva, who she met at Cambridge, and who, though far away, give her constant support and light relief. With Bobby’s weekend absences, Jess’s dedication to the student newspaper and Eva’s infatuation with the Union, they agree they’re unlikely friends. But with the same college, same course and same tutorial group they were pretty much thrown together. They’re very different people – Jess tenacious and tough; Eva charming and witty; Bobby sensitive and empathetic – but for whatever reason, their friendship works, their shared sense of humour, fierce loyalty to each other and a burning ambition doing the rest.

Jess and Eva’s progress – Jess as a journalist in Scotland, Eva as a junior government adviser in London – is a constant source of discussion between Bobby and her mother, and the time had felt right for Bobby to fly the nest too. But the mental health unit, which has become a critical part of the Clivedens’ lives, and the lives of dozens of local families who depend on it, is due to be closed. If this happens, Elizabeth will have to give up her job to drive Stephen to the next closest facility – over eighty miles away – or reckon with the prospect of simply leaving him there for weeks at a time. Practicalities aside, Stephen generally only takes steps forward these days, but this change in routine and existence could upset the delicate Cliveden family ecosystem.

Bobby is staying put and has taken on the task of starting the campaign to save the unit. For weeks, she has run petitions in the local community, spoken to clinicians and the families of patients and even headed small fundraising efforts. It’s only recently that she read that campaigning the government through MPs and departments – and the media, of course – is a far more direct route. With time running out, Bobby is in a hurry to pin down her local MP and get him on the case to advocate for the community.

The MP in question, Simon Daly, is driving down the high street to their meeting. Tipperton’s an all right sort of place, he reasons, but nothing like Surrey, where he was brought up. Okay, there’s lovely walking in the National Park and the pies are delicious and a pint is very fairly priced. It’s quite pretty when it isn’t raining. But there’s also the many pound shops and morris dancers and the estates of identical new builds on the edge of town. Regardless of all that, the good and wise people of Tipperton elected him as their MP – a pleasantly safe seat in this part of the world – and so anything they think is good, Daly thinks is good. Even football.

He pulls into the car park of Tipperton Community Hall, turns off the engine, and sits for a second, examining his handsome face in the rear- view mirror. The marathon training in aid of the local hospice is really paying off. He had been getting quite bloated from late- night glasses of House of Commons plonk on the Terrace, and clocking up his miles of jogging has the added benefit of looking like a good egg locally.

As ever, at the top of his mind is cash. Like so many in his position, he finds the life of an MP to be a pricey one. There are the obvious things like rent and travel, which he and his colleagues are careful to expense, but there are all kinds of hidden costs like raffle tickets and coffee mornings and donating to sponsored walks and knit- a- thons. He seems to be constantly getting money out of ATMs to give to somebody to bathe in baked beans. And he can’t even complain about it! To the average person, an £80,000 salary, plus expenses, is extortionate. MPs crying about struggling to balance their Berry Bros account would hardly expect an outpouring of sympathy from the public. Still, there is no denying that compared to his time as a solicitor at a top London law firm, the pay is measly. He’d given it all up to give something back by becoming an MP – he didn’t realise it meant giving the shirt from his back.

Daly exhales heavily and drums his fingers on the leather steering wheel of the Audi, thinking of the cheery air he now needs to put on all morning. He hates this kind of stuff, even if he knows he is good at it. So much of his life in his constituency is spent fobbing off people or stamping on inconvenient problems – local maternity wing closure, ugly solar panel planning applications, petty disputes of one kind or another. The list is endless and he is constantly hit with the uncomfortable reality that his need to be liked by everybody can’t be matched by the amount of money or time to go round.

This bothersome issue with Ms Cliveden is nothing new. He cringes in his seat, thinking once again about how it makes him look to have a mental health unit close in his patch, but the harsh reality is that he doesn’t really want to kick up a stink. He really wants a new A- road – it was the cornerstone of his selection to become the Parliamentary candidate – and it’s really much cleaner to focus his energy on one department – and the Treasury, of course. It is also the case, though he will never say this is a factor, that his strongest supporters and biggest donors in the constituency are pretty much all pro- closure in private – some of them vehemently so. His most generous donor, Jeffrey Cuthbert of Cuthberts, a local developer, is the most strident on the subject and has often made the observation that people like to say the NHS is bloated and that small cottage hospitals need closing to merge into proper, state- of- the- art facilities with every feasible therapy and treatment – unless it’s their own. Regardless, the local paper is now sending his office questions about this on a daily basis, and there is a growing local social media campaign. Time to take care of it.

Leaving the leather- clad sanctuary of the car, Daly steps into the hall through a side entrance and finds Moira, his trusty constituency office manager, making tea in a small kitchen. Six years ago he’d inherited Moira from his predecessor. Now in her early sixties, she has worked for the Tipperton Conservative Association for nearly twenty- five years and makes Daly’s government role of Parliamentary Under Secretary (a junior minister, known as a PUS) in the Foreign Office possible by running the part of his job that he’s actually been elected to do, while he travels the world. Mrs Muscle, he calls her privately. Does the jobs you hate.

‘Moizy, darling, you look sensaish. The new diet is really working.’ Moira rolls her lilac- shadowed eyes and gives an irritable shake of her head, which makes the mass of yellow hair on top of it wobble. ‘Has that Roberta Cliveden woman arrived yet?’ he asks, leaning against the counter and selecting a biscuit from a tin.

‘She’s been waiting in the foyer for nearly twenty minutes,’ Moira says tersely, filling a milk jug. ‘I need you to get it over with quickly because we have to talk about staffing before all your other meetings. We’re absolutely racing through people down in Parliament. They’re either incompetent airheads or they just . . . leave.’

Daly hates the judgemental tone she uses, the old trout. She can’t have it both ways – she voted for the smooth, young Simon Daly as the Conservative candidate along with the rest of the Association. He’d promised they’d get an eventual Cabinet minister. He didn’t promise to be Tipperton’s answer to Mother Teresa.

Like many of his fellow MPs, Daly lives a strange, double life. Within the boundaries of the constituency of Tipperton, he is the dutiful husband, son- in- law and local representative. When Parliament is sitting during the week, Daly stays in London and travels abroad frequently as part of his Foreign Office job. As a result, bar a few weekends and patches of the long Parliamentary recesses, Daly lives as a freewheeling bachelor, with every conceivable perk. There have been girls. There’s no point in denying it. But he’s not an idiot – all consensual and cheerful and completely hidden from his wife, Susie. Besides, he’s such a small potato as a PUS that there’s no real scrutiny of his behaviour. Yet.

Daly gives Moira’s thick body a glance. Nag, nag, nag. He is sick of her being on his case. He is the MP: he has the star quality, the knack of charming everybody, the ability to get away with things that a wrinkled old spud like Moira can’t. On life’s silver screen, he is the lead actor – Moira is just in a supporting role. Maybe even an extra.

‘So anyway,’ Moira continues, ‘I’ve lined up some candidates and I want you to read their applications and decide who you want to speak to before this lunch—’

‘Aha, yes!’ interrupts Daly, delighted to have a new topic of discussion. ‘With the Prime Minister. Ever been to Chequers?’ When she doesn’t answer, Daly shrugs and pulls out his phone. ‘Whatever, yes . . . ’ he sighs, ‘great.’

He moodily crams a second biscuit into his mouth as he scrolls through his messages and smirks at a new video on his ‘Legislative Lads’ WhatsApp group of a porn star popping a champagne cork out of her vagina: See you at Chequers. Here’s to a corking party.

‘I’m serious.’ Moira turns to face him, hands on hips. ‘Since Annie resigned,’ she raises an eyebrow, ‘the Parliamentary team is completely snowed under. Do you know there is a backlog of fourteen hundred emails? I had Lucy on the phone yesterday at her wits’ end. She is seriously worried someone is going to speak to the Ombudsman or something.’ Moira looks directly into Daly’s bored face. ‘Simon, this Graham Thomas stuff has really spooked everybody. There is an important lesson here in having a well- run office. The silly old bugger has had so many warnings from the Parliamentary Standards people – things like these returns do actually matter. All he had to do was tell his team what he’d been up to so they could write it up. It hardly gets noticed if done properly.’

‘Yes, yes . . . Damn shame Annie left us so abruptly . . . ’ muses Daly, thinking of Annie’s lithe figure. Moira stares at him, baffled that that is his key takeaway from what she’s just said. ‘Still,’ he says airily, brushing the crumbs off his fingers and putting his phone away, ‘we must struggle on without her. I will return shortly to fulfil all your wishes, Moiz.’ He winks from the door. Moira, not for the first time, gives his retreating back the middle finger.

Bobby is skimming her notes when she hears a door open.

‘Ah, you must be Miss Cliveden,’ says Daly, striding over and flashing a winning smile. Bobby stands and offers her hand, taking in his sleek hair and tanned face.

‘Nice to meet you, Mr Daly. I’m Roberta. But I prefer Bobby. Anyway, thank you for your time.’

‘Please,’ Daly gestures to a desk and chairs at the far end of the hall. As they walk he looks at her sideways. She looks barely out of school, he thinks with a smirk. I can’t believe I was worried about this campaign.

‘So before we get started, tell me a little about yourself,’ he twinkles, pulling a chair out for her to sit down.

‘Well, I grew up here,’ Bobby picks up the cup of steaming tea that Moira has placed in front of her, ‘and then since graduating from university—’

‘University! Good for you,’ Daly chips in, ‘somewhere local?’ Daly himself went to Oxford, where he studied PPE. An essential stage of the assembly line for future Prime Ministers. He casts an eye over Bobby. Hull, most likely.

Eva’s text flashes before Bobby’s eyes: Let him underestimate you.

Bobby pauses for a moment then continues. ‘Since graduating from university I’ve been temping at some local businesses, tutoring and helping my mother care for my father, who is a sometime resident of the Tipperton Mental Health Unit, and – as you know – I’m campaigning to keep the unit open.’

Daly nods seriously but says nothing.

‘Anyway,’ says Bobby, ‘we need your help and seeing as my letters and calls have gone unanswered I’ve come to see you in person.’

‘And, uh . . . tell me more about your campaign.’ Daly leans back in his chair and puts his hands behind his head. She really is cute. All thoughts of Annie have now gone.

‘Well, Mr Daly—’

He waves the formality away. ‘Please, call me Simon.’

‘Well, Simon,’ Bobby says evenly, taking a deep breath, ‘as you’re aware, the unit caters for people with all kinds of mental health needs. My father, for example, has been in and out of there for nearly a decade. He was a police officer and has PTSD and depression. Some of his fellow patients have addiction issues, childhood trauma, schizophrenia . . . It’s a complicated picture. Some patients need to stay in a ward for a while, many are day patients and live locally like my dad and some just come in as and when. It isn’t exactly a secret that there simply aren’t enough beds to go round nationally, so the resource here is precious.’ Bobby opens her folder. ‘I’m sure you’re aware that the unit was built through a PFI contract twenty- five years ago, and it’s coming to an end next year. The NHS Trust has concluded that it can’t continue to keep it running. The nearest facility after ours is an eighty- mile drive away, which is hardly feasible for local families.’ Bobby sits back in her chair and shrugs her shoulders. ‘I keep trying and failing to find ways to keep it open and time is running out. The contract collapses imminently. So I’ve come to you.’

Christ, this is tricky, thinks Daly. He is tempted to ask why the NHS Trust doesn’t think carrying on the unit is viable, but already knows it is from repaying the massive debt owed to the PFI contract consortium who built (or in this case converted a listed building) and maintained it. He knows those things are a bad business and honestly doesn’t have a clue what to suggest.

‘And how can I help you?’ asks Daly, his eyes idly roving over the neatly typed papers on the table. ‘Did you know my wife was studying to become a therapist when I met her? It is an issue very close to both of our hearts.’ Doesn’t hurt to look a bit clued in.

‘I didn’t know that, but I’m so glad you’re keen to take an interest.’ Bobby smiles at him. ‘Truthfully, I’m not sure where to begin. I’m new to campaigning. And policy. But I suppose it would help if you lobbied the Secretary of State for Health – plus perhaps the Chancellor and Prime Minister – to help. Maybe ask them to ring- fence money for these units across the country. I doubt we are the only place facing this problem.’ Bobby speaks faster, her enthusiasm blowing away her nerves. ‘Perhaps they could make these buildings protected spaces. Or we could persuade someone to buy the building off the NHS and the government could create a tax break for property owners who lease assets to these kinds of facilities at a reduced rate? I’m sure as a government minister with such an interest in this your help would—’

‘Now, Bobby,’ Daly interjects. ‘This campaign of yours is extremely impressive and I’ve followed it with interest.’ He pauses, scratching his chin as he thinks about what to say next. ‘You should be very proud of yourself. I’ve already spoken to the Secretary of State for Health who insists it is a local decision—’

‘But you’re the local MP.’ Bobby tries to keep a tinge of irritation out of her voice. ‘Surely this matters to you?’

‘Of course it matters!’ choruses Daly, looking hurt that she could so badly misunderstand him. ‘It matters to me greatly. But if the NHS won’t change its mind and there’s no more money to fund the unit, then we’re talking about a likely change in the law here. The government has a limited budget and an extremely full legislative agenda . . . ’ he trails off. ‘I can of course write to everyone I can but,’ he smiles sadly, ‘I can’t really do anything more than that.’

‘Well . . . ’ Bobby can feel her frustration threatening to bubble over. She has been trying to track this guy down for months. He could have told her this ages ago and now the clock is running down. ‘Well, I don’t quite know what to do now.’

‘Like I say, you’ve run a fantastic campaign,’ Daly claps his hands together and rises from the desk, ‘something to be really proud—’

‘Could I ask you for some advice, Simon?’ Bobby asks abruptly, the plan she’d made earlier with Jess and Eva leaping into her mind. Daly raises his eyebrows. ‘I was contacted by a journalist yesterday, who is extremely interested in what we’re doing.’ Bobby sees Daly’s eyes widen. Bingo. ‘They seemed to think it is a bit of a human interest story for them. All very emotive. They think it might be worth doing something nationally.’ She gestures at the documents on the desk.

I bet they do, thinks Daly.

‘Anyway, I’d sort of agreed that they can come up here and talk to us about it.’ Daly’s sense of unease grows. ‘And . . . ’ Bobby glances at him sideways, forcing a small wobble into her voice. ‘And now I feel like I’ve led them down the garden path . . . ’ She sniffs loudly. ‘All I’ll be able to tell them is the unit is going to close and I’ve let my dad down.’ She slams her small fist on the table and is surprised to notice real tears come to her eyes. She lets them pour out. ‘I’ve wasted all this time since Cambridge for no reason!’

Daly thinks for a moment. He is so absorbed that he almost fails to register the word ‘Cambridge’. Hull, indeed. Maybe he should attend the Parliamentary unconscious bias training after all. Anyway, one story is hardly going to scupper him. Everyone has to sit through a sticky news cycle from time to time. He can ride this out.

‘Don’t worry, it’s just one journalist,’ he says, mainly to himself.

‘Well, that’s the thing,’ Bobby sniffs, seeing exactly where Daly is going, ‘they’re talking about a whole campaign around it. They’ve got behind hospital closures before and,’ she searches her mind for something plausible, and lets out another sob, ‘they’re doing a big push on mental health this year.’

Daly immediately jumps up and steps around the desk, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket. He kneels down and hands it to her, thinking fast. Problems, problems.

‘Don’t worry, Bobby,’ he says kindly, patting her on the shoulder. ‘I’ll help you.’

‘But,’ she sobs, ‘if the campaign isn’t going anywhere, this journalist will think they’ve been called up here for no reason . . . ’

Oh, they’ll have a reason, Daly says to himself. A government minister, who has made mental health treatment for victims of conflict abroad a core part of his brief – and which he speaks so feelingly about at the despatch box – simply nodding through the closure of a centre that caters for the most vulnerable right here in his constituency without a fight . . . the story writes itself.

‘Now, Bobby.’ Daly wills himself into action, his eyes roaming around the room, grasping for an idea. ‘Now . . . ’ He hears a cupboard door close in the kitchen and thinks of Moira working away in there and a thought strikes him.

‘Bobby,’ he clears his throat and holds her by both shoulders, ‘I’ve got a plan.’

Bobby looks at him in full Bambi mode, her watery eyes hopeful.

‘What we’re going to do is this. You’re going to come and work for me in Westminster. Move down to London and, uh, really take this campaign to where it matters.’ He clears his throat loudly while his mind continues to race ahead, troubleshooting as he speaks. ‘We can tell this journalist that we’re going to fix this local issue and take it national’ – so in the meantime they can politely shut their pie hole while we work it all out, Daly thinks – ‘and change the law!’

There is a stunned silence. This is the last thing Bobby had expected to happen. She just thought she could push Daly into writing some letters and do some mild cage- rattling. She’s always had a pretty dim view of politicians and it has certainly never occurred to her to work for an MP. Not least a Conservative MP. And definitely not this Conservative MP. But this seems like the only way to save the unit. She can keep her eye on this slippery character and come home as much as she did at university . . . and her mother does keep saying that she wants her to use her degree properly . . . But does she really want to work for an MP? Well, a small ambitious voice niggles at her, Daly is definitely one to watch. Who knows where this could lead?

‘Th- thank you,’ she stutters, ‘thank you so much. I . . . I . . . I’d love to.’ Bobby begins laughing, wiping her eyes.

Daly’s face floods with relief and his bounce instantly returns. You son of a gun, you’ve done it again.

‘Of course.’ He pats her shoulder and moves back around the table. ‘Moira!’

Moira pokes her head round the door.

‘Moira, the brilliant Bobby has agreed to come and join my Parliamentary office – could you call Lucy and let her know?’ Daly grins broadly. ‘Moira is a total hero and makes everything at this end tick. Lucy is the Parliamentary office manager, in London. There are some forms and things I’ll expect you have to do but Moira and Lucy will help you with all that.’

Moira smiles tightly, casting her eye over Bobby’s athletic frame, taking in her glossy brown hair and slim legs.

‘Well, that is good news, Simon. You are a dark horse, I must say: I wasn’t even aware this was a job interview . . . What would you like me to say to the other seven people we’d shortlisted? And I’d love to see Bobby’s CV and references. She must be an impressive candidate to have been taken on so fast!’

Daly’s grin stiffens. ‘Well, Moira, I know talent when I see it: you’re my Tipperton office manager after all, so clearly I only work with the crème de la crème of administrative staff.’ Moira doesn’t smile. ‘Bobby recently graduated from Cambridge – more sciences than classics – but hardly the airhead, don’t you think?’ Daly gabbles. ‘And, as you say, we really need a sharp mind and attention to detail . . . Cancel the others, there’s a love.’

Daly turns his back on Moira’s hard look.

‘Oh, Bobby, you must also speak to Moira about standing as a Parliamentary candidate. Moira’s done it loads of times, haven’t you, Moizy? Stood in some absolutely dreadful places. Keeps trying, though.’ Moira stares at her feet. ‘Still, we’ve all got to have something that gets us out of bed in the morning.’ Daly winks at Bobby, who ignores him. ‘So . . . how soon can you start?