“Now, let’s go through this one more time,” sighed Seumas Milne, holding up two glossy photographs. “This one is Ant, Jeremy. And this one is Dec.”
“Ant,” he repeated, slowly and deliberately, “and Dec.”
The Labour leader stared long and hard at the images with lifeless, glassy eyes.
“Come on Jeremy, you said it before while I was giving you your bath,” cooed Milne, encouragingly. “Don’t be shy – it’s only John.”
A long, protracted silence descended upon the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition’s wood paneled Westminster office as the old man gazed unblinkingly at the two photographs.
“Jeremy, please,” said Milne, a note of desperation creeping into his voice. “Say it for your old friend John. Ant and Dec.”
A pained expression played over his face as he stared into the listless eyes of his leader. The eyes he had first looked into at a Connolly/Sands Commemoration in 1987. The eyes that had once gazed over the splendour of East Germany in its pomp. The eyes that had, where countless others had failed, charmed Diane Abbott into crossing the racial divide.
The heavy silence was broken as five deliberate clicks echoed around the cavernous office. John McDonnell stepped out of the shadowy corner he had been lurking in to stand ominously at Milne’s side.
He placed an icy hand upon the shoulder of Corbyn’s Head of Press. “Good effort, Seumas,” he murmured, gently. “But let’s not kid ourselves, shall we?”
Milne flung McDonnell’s hand off his left shoulder and rose from his chair, trembling with rage.
“He can say it, John, he can say it,” he yelped. “He’s just shy because you’re here staring at him. We went through everything this morning – Ant and Dec. Dermot O’Leary. Claire Balding. Naga Muncharuggy, or whatever she’s called. He knows them all. He even recognised his own reflection in the mirror this morning. We’re making such progress.”
McDonnell sighed and glanced down at Corbyn, who was now fast asleep in his wheelchair with his head tipped back and his mouth wide open.
“Not enough progress though, Seumas,” he said, sympathetically. “It’s all well and good him saying these things to you while you’re scrubbing his back, but how is he going to say them in front of hundreds of people if he can’t even say them in front of an old comrade?”
Milne winced and directed an exasperated shush at McDonnell.
“John! Don’t say the ‘C’ word in front of him. You know what happ….”
But it was too late. At that moment, the old man shot bolt upright in his wheelchair, sending his tartan travel rug flapping down onto to the floor.
“Comrade?,” he croaked, drowsily. “Comrade?”
“Jeremy, go back to sleep, it was just a bad drea….”
“Comrades!,” yelled Corbyn, in a stentorian tone. “The European war has been raging for more than eighteen months. And as each month, as each day of the war goes by, it becomes clearer and clearer to the masses of the workers that the Zimmerwald Manifesto expressed the truth when it declared that phrases about ‘defence of the fatherland’ and the like are nothing but capitalist deception.”
“Now look what you’ve done,” groaned Milne, gathering up his master’s travel rug and wheeling the ranting old man towards a side door to an anteroom.
“It is becoming more evident every day,” screamed Corbyn, waving his arms wildly as Milne hurriedly pushed him towards the door, “that this is a war between capitalists, between big robbers, who are quarrelling over the loot, each striving to obtain the largest share, the largest number of countries to plunder, and the largest number of nations to suppress and enslave.”
McDonnell waited patiently as Milne disappeared into the anteroom with the old man. After a few minutes of muffled yelling, banging and scraping, Milne emerged with his suit in disarray and his face drenched in sweat.
“I had to give him one of his jabs,” he muttered, pouting. “He’s sleeping now.”
McDonnell nodded disinterestedly. He had helped himself to the chair behind Corbyn’s desk in Milne’s absence and was enjoying an absorbing dip into his copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.
“Look Seumas, we all appreciate what you’re doing for Jeremy,” he said, the slight hint of a smirk developing on his face. “But let’s face facts – he’s not quite ready to be let loose at the hustings events yet, is he?”
“But someone is bound to notice what we’re doing sooner or later, John,” hissed Milne, pacing anxiously. “We just about got away with the Victoria Derbyshire thing but I’m sure a few people smelled a rat. I mean, he didn’t mention his love of manholes and drain covers even once. The real Jeremy would have spoken passionately and at length about the Victorian Crapper covers at Westminster Abbey.”
McDonnell raised a conciliatory hand towards the greying husk of a man that was Seumas Milne and smiled. “Point taken. But listen – great news. The same guy will do it again for twenty quid and three litres of Frosty Jack,” he said. “He’s cheap and he solves a problem. Think of him as a sort of Shami Chakrabarti minus the hassle of getting him into the Lords at the end of it all.”
“Are you absolutely sure that none of the lookalike agencies have anyone a little bit more reliable. A little bit more presentable?,” said Milne, still pacing.
“They are some perfectly good likenesses, Seumas,” mused McDonnell, idly fondling a chunk of the Berlin Wall on Corbyn’s desk. “But what it boils down to is authenticity. None of the agency candidates could quite pull off the classic ‘shabby’ Corbyn look quite like my man. The whole thing is more likely to come crashing down if ‘Jeremy’ turns up in a sharp suit and starts speaking in coherent sentences.”
Milne paused and rubbed his chin frantically. “I just don’t know how comfortable I am with sending a man you found living among the bins around the back of Pickles Sandwich Bar to another hustings event,” he said. “It was bad enough when we had to draft him in to do Prime Minister’s Questions and he started rambling on about apprentice solar fitters.”
McDonnell rose from Corbyn’s chair and buttoned up his suit jacket. “Don’t worry Seumas. This derelict of ours is really growing into the role. We just give him a few cans of Dutch courage, let Owen Jones brief him for five minutes, send him out there and nobody’s any the wiser. Not even Diane has cottoned on yet. She took ‘Jeremy’ for a KFC the other day and came back full of chat about an exciting new public health policy plan they’d dreamed up between them.”
Milne slumped down at his desk, dejected. He could feel the hot sting of frustrated tears welling up in his eyes.
“Stay strong for socialism, Seumas,” chirped McDonnell, giving a little clenched fist salute as he sauntered towards the door. “For the greater good. For Jeremy.”
“I suppose, John,” sighed Milne, returning the salute. “I suppose we’ll laugh about all this one day, when the red flag of communism is proudly hoisted above Downing Street. When we’re deciding which work camp to send Owen Smith to. When the country is basking in the confiscated wealth of anyone who earns over £24,000 a year. When the people are joyous because of the three-day working week imposed by Jeremy. When we can abolish the Conservative Party. When we can turn its headquarters into a Palestinian embass….”
At this moment, a faint, reedy cry of “Seuuuuuummaaaas!,” stopped Milne’s impassioned speech in its tracks.
“Seuuuuumaaaaasss!,” it came again from behind the door. “It’s leaking again. I can feel it. I can feel it on my legs.”
McDonnell grimaced and glanced at his watch. “I’ll leave you to it, Seumas. I’ve got a CAGE meeting to get to in half an hour.”
“I’ll have him ready for the Sky News debate next month, John. No more doubles – the public will see the real Jeremy,” said Milne, a steely determination in his voice as he snatched up a packet of baby wipes from his desk and made for the anteroom door.
“Seuuuummaasss! It’s on the back of my ankles now. I don’t like it.” The shouting from behind the door had now become a panicked scream.
“Absolutely Seumas, absolutely,” smiled McDonnell, with a wink. “You’re doing a great job with him. Top class.”
© DH 2016