Is The Three-Card Trick part of a novel?
No. The Three-card Trick is a short story and stands alone. I am still working on Accounting for Murder: Old Money. I hope to finish it soon, but I want to make it as good a read as possible, rather than publish a poor version. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy this short story. I think it’s fiction, but I sometimes worry…
THE THREE-CARD TRICK
In the Spring of 2015, in the House of Commons Tea Room, Arthur Anderson was sitting alone at a table, stirring his tea and looking for the umpteenth time at his watch. He had been a Member for only four years, having spent most of his life making money. However, he was already a junior minister in the coalition government. He was frustrated that only cabinet ministers and a few key figures in the party had been invited to the mornings’s special meeting at Number Ten. Lib-Dem members would be excluded, as the PM wanted to talk about strategy for the election that would have to be held later that year. Arthur was looking forward to hearing all about it before lunch from an old school friend who was always at the centre of things.
Arthur ordered a fresh pot of tea and scanned the familiar faces as senior colleagues began to enter the room. He spotted Sir Bertram Baring and caught his eye. As he accepted the proffered cup of tea, Sir Bertram said, “Morning Arty, thanks. Wish it was something stronger, but it’s too early even for me.”
“That bad, was it, Bertie?”
“I’ll say. The PM’s worried that when the General Election comes, we’ll have no message to attract voters.”
Arthur sipped his tea, looking confused. “Message? But we can show how we’ve turned things around. Begun getting the country out of the mess the last lot made. Trust us with the economy and all that.”
“Yes, but he feels it’s not enough. We’ve no purpose, other than staying in power.”
Arthur smiled. “That’ll do for me.”
“Yes, but not for the public. If we’re not careful it’ll seem as if austerity is all we can offer. We’ve got away with it so far, but it won’t work forever. It’s not as if we’d cleared the debt or got rid of the deficit. So if we try to spend money on anything to buy votes it’ll look as if this austerity wasn’t necessary in the first place.”
Arthur looked more confused. It was something he had never questioned before. He asked, “Wasn’t it?”
“How the hell should I know? It doesn’t matter now. We are where we are. We just need some ideas. The other lot keep coming up with ideas. So do the Lib-Dems. I’m afraid they’ll make all the running, end up as senior partners in this coalition.”
“Oh! You don’t really think so, do you?”
That was something else Arthur had never thought about before. His friend said, “You never know. The thing is, most of our people don’t go into politics because of ideas. It’s power they’re interested in. We’re politicians – not philosophers!”
“I’ll say. I’m waiting for a chance to get into the cabinet. Anyway, what sort of thing does the PM want? Another war?”
“I certainly hope not. No. We just need to put our thinking caps on.”
A poor-quality rendition of Land of Hope and Glory sounded. Arthur looked at a text on his phone. Turning his attention back to his companion, he said, “Just a reminder I’ve got a meeting with Brian Box. Remember him from school?”
“What – old Brain Box? I remember him all right. Always coming up with the most ridiculous impractical ideas. A professor now, isn’t he?”
“Yes. We’re on a committee on the environment. His chaps have done a load of research that he’s keen to tell me about. Have to go now.”
Arthur left Sir Bertram to finish the pot of tea and look for ideas. He almost missed the old days before teabags, when they said you could look for inspiration in the tealeaves.
A few weeks later in the House of Commons bar, Sir Bertram was sitting at a table with Charles Carrington-Carmichael MP. They stared morosely into their glasses. “I can’t believe it’s as bad as this, Chas. Nobody’s got an idea worth speaking about.”
“I know, Bertie. The only ones who had anything to say in cabinet talked a load of bollocks. How the hell they got elected, let alone into the government, I can’t imagine. The trouble is, I’ve nothing better to offer, except things that sound like I’ve had a preview of the Labour Party Manifesto.”
Sir Bertram looked suspicious, “Have you?” Charles smirked. They both laughed. Arthur Anderson came in and sat with them.
Sir Bertram said, “Evening Arty. You know Charles Carrington-Carmichael, don’t you?”
“Yes. Evening Chas. I hear you’re going places these days – and fast.”
“I hope so, but I’m afraid none of us is going anywhere but down if we don’t come up with an idea or two soon.”
“Oh? What no luck so far? Well, I might be able to help you there.” The other two
looked sceptical but invited him to elucidate. He said, “You know I had a meeting with Professor Box? Well his chaps have produced a lot of policy ideas to help the environment. They showed me a lot of facts and figures about global warming and damage to the atmosphere. It’s frightening.”
Charles said, “You’re not going green, are you? I thought you had something to help us, not something to depress us further.”
Arthur replied, “Say what you like, it’s serious. I think we need to adopt a whole raft of related measures to do our bit to help the World deal with the issues. Here’s a copy of the report they gave me. It’s got recommendations and the stats backing them up.” He fished the report out of his briefcase. The others moved close together to peer at it.
After a couple of minutes, Sir Bertram said, “You can’t be serious! Nobody’s going to accept these measures.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows and spread his hands, palms forwards. “Yes, but look at all the figures. Old Brain-box has got science on his side. We can’t just rubbish it.”
Sir Bertram nodded and sighed. “All right. Perhaps he’s got a point, but it’s a turn-off. Never mind whether it’s right or wrong.”
They looked at Charles, who furrowed his brow and shook his head, saying slowly, “Hmm. I don’t know. If we presented it in the right way it might work. Emphasise quality of life as being just as important as money when it comes to your real standard of living. It’d be a positive message rather than just knocking the opposition – fun as it is – or offering just more of the same old austerity.”
Sir Bertram stared at his empty glass. “Well, you could be right. If the opposition say they can generate more growth, we can make it look as if they’ll be generating more pollution and so on. But can we really sell it to the party, let alone the public?”
Charles said, “I’ll bet Sam Stock can. They don’t only call him Laughing Stock, although he is a bit of a comedian. Some people call him Slippery Sam. He could sell ice-cream to Eskimos.”
Sir Bertram smiled and asked, “Could he sell green policies to Tories? Let’s go and find him. I know where he’ll be at this time of night.”
They went to a gentleman’s club, of which all three were members. A steward helped them find Samuel Stock, advisor to certain leading politicians. He was chatting quietly to a couple of friends who both recognised and acknowledged the three newcomers. After some small talk, Sir Bertram asked to borrow Sam for a few minutes. Sam led them into a small side-room. On the way, he sent for a round of drinks. Once there, he moved a card-table aside and gave them his attention. After Sir Bertram had explained the problem and Arthur had gone into some detail about his proposed solution, Sam stared for some time at an old print on the wall, depicting a street scene from the eighteenth century. Eventually, he said, “Well, you don’t ask much, do you? You want me to tell you how to sell the green agenda to the PM and the cabinet?”
The others looked at each other and nodded. He smiled and said, “I suppose you could always try the old three-card trick.”
Arthur looked lost, while the other two laughed. He asked, “What’s that?”
Looking at the others, Sam said, “Tell him, will you?”
Sir Bertram explained, “We produce a report for the PM. We list several possibilities, most of which we write off pretty swiftly. Shouldn’t be difficult with some of the barmy ideas we’ve heard. Then we present the top three suggestions for consideration.”
Charles said, “It makes it look as if we’re offering the PM and the others a choice.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows. “But you are, aren’t you? Doesn’t that mean my plan for the environment has only a one in three chance of being accepted?”
The others laughed. Sir Bertram sipped his drink for a moment before explaining, “That’s where the trick comes in. You see Option One is always more or less ‘do nothing’, whilst Option Two is something you know is not going to appeal to anyone – something you should have dumped early-doors with the other rubbish. That leaves Option Three – your preferred plan – as the only game in town. Get it?”
“Oh, I see! You are a slippery customer, aren’t you, Sam?”
“Yes. Now all you need is to put together a list of wacky ideas and pick out the one to be set out as Option Two.”
Charles added, “And a way of dressing up the ‘do nothing’ option as if it meant ‘do something’ obviously.” The others nodded and muttered their agreement.
Sam said, “I’ll leave those matters with you gentlemen. I have other things to concern myself with tonight.” With that, he returned to his two earlier companions.
About a month later, Arthur was again sitting alone in the tea-room, when Sir Bertram and Charles entered, looking miserable. Arthur asked, “How did it go? Oh! Not well, I suppose?”
Charles slumped into a chair, saying, “That’s to put it mildly. What a bunch of idiots. Incredible!”
Arthur asked, “What? Did they throw the lot out and ask for something sexier?”
Charles clenched his fists, resting them on the table. He opened his mouth and shut it without any sound coming out.
Sir Bertram sat down next to him, shaking his head. “No. They picked the wrong card. Option Two. The worst idea you could imagine.”
Arthur stared at him, open-mouthed, before saying, “Never! You can’t be serious.”
Charles recovered his composure sufficiently to say, “I wish the PM hadn’t been.”
Arthur looked first at him, then at Sir Bertram, “So you mean…”
Sir Bertram spelled it out. “In our election manifesto there’s to be a promise of a referendum on leaving the EU.”