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The Whistleblower by Robert Peston

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1997. A desperate government clings to power; a hungry opposition will do anything to win. And journalist Gil Peck watches from the sidelines, a respected commentator on the sport of power politics. He thinks he knows how things work. He thinks he knows the rules.

But when Gil's estranged sister Clare dies in a hit-and-run, he begins to believe it was no accident. Clare knew some of the most sensitive secrets in government. One of them might have got her killed.

As election day approaches, Gil follows the story into the dark web of interests that link politics, finance and the media. And the deeper he goes, the more he realises how wrong he has been.

Power isn't sport: it's war. And if Gil doesn't stop digging, he might be the next casualty...

Read Online The Whistleblower by Robert Peston Book Chapter One Free. Find Hear Best Thriller Books And Novel For Reading And Download.
The Whistleblower by Robert Peston

Read Online The Whistleblower by Robert Peston Book Chapter One

Monday, 3 March 1997

LL THAT INTERESTS ME is the narrative, the story, and who controls it. As a glory-seeking journalist, I sometimes reveal scandals. But more often I try to find out what the powerful in politics and business are planning, so that I can reveal it before they have the opportunity to impose their interpretation, their spin. In my more pretentious moments, I justify what I do as empowering ‘the people’ to make up their own minds about how they are governed. Most of the time I am just having fun, pissing off ministers, chief executives, their minders, putting their secret schemes on the FC’s front page. If London is a collection of villages, I am the pedlar who wanders between the communities of politicians, financiers and businessmen, trading nuggets of information until I have enough to tell a tale that you’ll pay to read. Britain’s capital is vast and claustrophobically small. Everyone who matters knows everyone else who matters. My job is to eavesdrop, then share it with you.
Tonight, I have an appointment that I hope will furnish me with a grade B scoop. Not something wholly unexpected, but in this time of general-election fever, a nugget that will sizzle at the top of the front page of the influential newspaper that pays me to make mischief. So on this windy wet evening in early March, I am pedalling south-west down Shaftesbury Avenue, past Formica-furnished Chinese restaurants and all-night supermarkets, rainwater cascading down my cycle helmet, blurring my contact lenses. The English winter is blowing itself out with a cathartic storm that is sweeping the pavements clean. Commuters struggle with umbrellas, black cabs’ headlights are the mournful eyes of the hounds of Andersen’s Tinder Box.
I swerve left to avoid the mirrored surface of a water-filled pothole, right around the stationary 38 bus. Fiennes and Binoche are snogging on the side for The English Patient. I catch the driver’s eye. It’s a superstitious thing I do, giving thanks that he didn’t swing out and flatten me. He stares, just for a second. He’s wondering why on earth I would be out here under these curtains of water. I only half notice the rain because I am plotting how to land my mackerel; a story about the new darling of British politics, the prince of hope, Labour’s immaculately groomed and smooth young leader, Johnny Todd.
I know something is up, that Todd is planning one of his trademark policy coups, because my calls to his advisers are not being returned. My hunch is that they’ll want to announce whatever it is on Thursday morning, to set the agenda for one of the last Prime Minister’s questions before the looming election. Which means they’ll place it on Wednesday night in friendly newspapers – via the political hacks who take their dictation – to set the agenda for the Today programme the following morning. It will be a wheeze to woo the right-wing press, to reinforce Todd’s big claim that his party of the left won’t punish success and the successful. Or maybe Todd will wrap himself in the Union flag.
One Nation, that’s the conceit he wants to steal from the Tories, I mutter, as I glance left at the oncoming traffic, weigh the odds, and swerve right into Dean Street. It’s only when I am heading to the junction with Old Compton Street that I curse my risk assessment: I could have skidded under the wheels of the approaching Mondeo.
My obsession is blowing up all politicians’ best-laid plans, regardless of party or ideological allegiance; to nick the information first, interpret it in my own way and blitz it on the FC’s front page. My reward? The knowledge that when the FC first edition drops, my scoop will prompt night editors to ring up my rivals, pissed or asleep, to bollock them for missing the story. To earn this joyous Schadenfreude, I have to deploy shameless skills of persuasion, to persuade one of Johnny Todd’s colleagues that I know more than I do and that I’m doing him a favour by listening to him. It’s a spiel, but it usually gets me there.
I shoot across Old Compton Street, checking traffic in both directions. The revolving door of The Groucho Club is on my right. Even in the pissing rain, the vagrant who always asks for neither more nor less than 50p is in his spot next to the entrance with his right hand outstretched; no anorak, sodden in a fraying brown polyester jacket, flowery shirt and purple-stained flared trousers, new when Bolan was God. ‘Gimme 50p,’ he says. ‘Fifty pence for a cup of tea.’
I blank him as I slide the U-bend of the steel lock around the stanchion of a street sign and then guide it between the spokes of my front wheel and around the bike frame. I attach the top bar of the lock, turn the key, and give it a close inspection to make sure the bike is secure. I wiggle the top bar to check it really is set properly. Even when done, I panic that I haven’t locked it properly. So I wiggle it again. And again. And once more. Definitely done.
I walk to the door.
‘Gimme 50p.’
My loose change is in my trouser pocket, underneath my silver Gore-Tex waterproof trousers. I wriggle my fingers inside the elastic waist. The first coin I feel is – 50p! An omen. I drop it into his palm, careful my fingers don’t brush his.
The storm is hushed as I go through the spinning door into the club’s low-ceilinged vestibule. I remove my helmet, peel off the protective outerwear and check myself in the mirror. The wide-lapelled, oversize-cut jacket and matching grey trousers – Dries Van Noten – have kept dry, though there’s a bit of annoying damp around the collar. My top two shirt buttons are undone, and my round-toed shoes from Trickers are scuffed. I’m unkempt, by design, just messy enough so that not everyone can spy my vanity.
‘Hi, Gil,’ says Petra, the jolly guardian of the signing-in book. She gingerly takes my wet outer coat and trousers, holds them in thumb and forefinger as far from herself as possible, and drapes them on a hanger to drip in the cloakroom behind her.
‘I’m expecting a guest,’ I say. ‘I’ll be in the downstairs bar.’
As I push open double doors into the long drinking room, the chatter crashes over me. It’s 8.15 p.m., still too early for Jools Holland to be at the upright piano that stands between the bar and the club restaurant. I grab one of the fat sofas by the front window and while I wait, I check my pockets: two Nokia 2110 mobile phones, one for normal, one for special contacts; and my pager. I am obsessive about always being reachable. It’s not uncommon for me to have three conversations on the go: one on each of the mobiles and another on the office landline. My editor dines out on tales of me ringing him and then putting him on hold. I should be embarrassed, but no, I am flattered.
Silver Nokia in the left pocket, blue Nokia in the right. And in my right trouser pocket . . .
Nothing. I should feel the familiar bulge of the pager pressing against thigh, instead there is just a crumpled handkerchief. I pat myself all over, left pocket too. It’s not there.
Could it have fallen out when I was cycling? That seems unlikely, given all my clothes were sealed by the Gore-Tex outerwear. Could it be in the pocket of the wet-weather overtrousers, or the back pouch of the waterproof jacket? I wouldn’t have risked it. I check every pocket again, and a third time. I know I look mad. And then I remember. The 50p. The pager must have spilled out then when I was handing it over. It was raining so I wouldn’t have noticed when it hit the ground. I run for the door. It’s still pissing down and there’s nothing on the wet pavement. The beggar has vanished.
I can get another pager, but that’s not the point. I hate it when things aren’t where they should be, it’s an itch to scratch. To calm myself, I chant one of my spells. It has to be short, and repeated a specific number of times (three and seven are normally good; five works sometimes too, as does saying ‘times infinity’). Under my breath, I say, ‘If it’s gone forever, that’s OK.’ Then I mutter it twice more. Relief steals over me.
I’ve been using these rituals to cope since I was in my teens. I never trusted my parents to have locked the front door or turned off the gas. I would press the knob on the hob seven times, making an indentation in my finger, and then stare at it. I would do this at two in the morning, when everyone else was asleep. Mum and Dad never noticed. But my sister Clare would come down to find her anxious little brother and steer me back to bed. It was Clare, when we were both at university, who gave my rituals a name; she asked me how I was coping with my ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’. Clare usually knew more about me than I did.
In The Groucho’s vestibule, I have one more thing to do. I descend the narrow staircase to the men’s room. In the cubicle, I take a pinch of lumpy white powder from the cling film I’ve repackaged it in and begin a little ceremony with a Barclaycard on the top of the cistern. I am an unusual user; when strung out and unable to focus, this stuff calms me.
Two and a half snorts later, I’m myself. It is a wonder drug. Back upstairs, Petra tells me my guest has arrived; she shooed him to the bar. Tony Cannon, the Labour MP for Preston, is sitting by the window on the sofa I nabbed. He’s my age, mid-thirties, though I carry it better. His skin is rough, the colour and texture of cottage cheese, eyes deep in his greying sockets. His suit is a size too big. Unlike mine, it’s not a fashion statement. My grandmother would have told him he needs a good meal. Actually, what he needs to do is cut down the substance abuse. His red eyes dart like a cornered rabbit, obviously a line or two ahead of me.
‘What do you fancy to drink?’
‘Flippin’ ’eck Tony. You have become the living embodiment of Todd’s Modern Labour.’ I catch the eye of the waitress.
If Todd is an abrupt rupture from Labour’s past, Tony Cannon is an evolutionary link. Perhaps the last authentic working man at the top of Modern Labour, complete with never-pressed C&A suit, he left school to become a train mechanic, then an organiser with the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
The champagne arrives and I swap it for my gold card.
‘Here’s to Keir Hardie,’ I toast.
‘Keir isn’t testing well in focus groups,’ he says grimly.
‘How’s Johnny?’ I ask, aware that I am treating Tony Cannon like the boy at school who was interesting only because his sister was hot.
‘The supreme leader is in the peak of health.’
Johnny Todd is the closest thing to Hollywood that British politics has seen since, well, ever. Cannon is Johnny’s ambassador with the trade unions, trying to allay their fears that Todd’s programme to make them electable is a despicable attempt to turn Labour into a red-tinged Tory party. Some of my colleagues in the Lobby see Cannon as Todd’s useful idiot. More fool them. Cannon has acute political nous and he is part of the Labour movement in a way that Todd never could be. Theirs is a relationship based on mutual need.
What matters most about Cannon is that he knows pretty much everything that is happening inside his party. He is one of a small clique on this island at the fulcrum of knowledge. Some are bankers and corporate brokers, others are in the despised industry of PR; a handful are in politics. I’ve found and cultivated them. The innate snobbery of my journalistic colleagues – and indeed in the group that surrounds Todd – mean few take him seriously. When he leaks, no one suspects him. Perfect.
I grab a fistful of The Groucho’s stale Twiglets from the small bowl on the table and stuff them in my mouth, brushing my fingers together to remove the stickiness. ‘Much going on, Tony?’
He lowers his voice and leans across the table. ‘I’ve got a big scoop for you, Gil: there’s a bloody election coming. So yes, there’s a great deal going on.’
The election date hasn’t been announced. But the maximum five-year term for Parliament is almost up. Everyone who cares knows that the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Ramsey, will go to the country at the beginning of May.
‘Have you seen today’s Mail?’ he asks. Course. I read it at quarter to seven this morning, along with every other paper. Cannon pulls a battered copy out of his bag and spreads it open.
WHO’S IN CHARGE? says the headline. Below it, there’s a photograph of two men standing outside an office building. One is Todd. To his left, in a brown corduroy suit, is Dennis Kenilworth. Kenilworth has his muscular arm around Todd’s waist, like a wrestler’s clinch. Johnny is wearing his trademark grin, but here it is the forced smile of a prisoner in a hostage video.
Cannon turns to the Mail’s leader column. Johnny Todd may promise a break from the past, it reads. But yesterday the Labour leader was photographed arm in arm with the most militant socialist in Britain, Mr ‘Strike first, negotiate later’. If this is the company he keeps, how can we be confident that Labour in power won’t yet again revert to its true colours of crushing the enterprise that pays all our bills and taxing all of us till the pips squeak?
‘Johnny almost blew the roof off HQ when he saw that,’ Cannon says. He closes the paper and puts his drink on Kenilworth’s face, ringing it like a target.
‘What do you expect from the Mail?’
‘The truth would be a good start. Feels like the last election all over again, tabloids killing us with vicious scaremongering about our income tax plans.’
‘Don’t be so neurotic. Your lead is huge.’
‘Don’t let Johnny hear you say that.’ He actually scans the room. ‘He’s convinced the Tories will turn it around – with the help of your lot.’
‘What do you mean, my lot? The FC said it was time for a change.’
‘I mean Breitner. The Globe.’
He’s winding me up, deliberately. The Globe is a tabloid, a megaphone for the views of its owner, the South African-born billionaire Jimmy Breitner. My paper, the FC – the Financial Chronicle – is one of the most respected business papers on the planet. Breitner owns us too, but our editorial independence is sacrosanct. Or at least, that’s how I persuade myself it’s OK to work for him.
‘Tax nightmare if Labour wins. We never recovered from that.’ He takes a slug of champagne. The glass looks small in his hand. Five years ago, the Conservatives snatched a win in injury time. Of course Todd is paranoid. Only losers aren’t.
But my thoughts are focusing. Tax nightmare? That’s the second time he’s mentioned tax.
‘When are you announcing that you won’t increase the basic rate of tax?’ I bluff, as if it’s a widely known fact.
‘Fuck off.’
Classic Cannon: a non-denial denial. Time for my first educated fib.
‘Thursday, I’m told.’
‘How the fuck do you know that?’
‘But what really interests me is what you’ll do on the top rate of tax.’
‘Now you can really fuck yourself.’
I smirk. ‘OK. But there is another story I am working on that would be of interest to you.’
Cannon takes the bait. ‘What?’
‘I’ve got a recording of a senior T&G official telling me that Johnny promised to put your friend Kenilworth in the House of Lords.’ I don’t have such a recording. But there are rumours Kenilworth is in line for a peerage if Labour wins the election. ‘BROTHERS IN ERMINE – not a bad headline.’
‘You’re not really going to write that?’
‘Why not?’
‘It’s not true.’
‘I have the recording.’
He stares at the picture of Kenilworth.
‘But obviously I am more interested in your tax plans . . .’
‘We haven’t made any announcements.’ He snaps a Twiglet in half and crumbles it into splinters and dust.
‘Todd can’t leave himself vulnerable on this.’
‘So he’ll say he’s not putting up the basic rate. Right?’
‘I am not confirming that.’ But he’s also not denying it.
‘If I run that, will I look stupid?’
Cannon looks at his empty glass. Even with coke and champagne in his system, spilling party secrets is not second nature. He sighs.
‘You won’t look stupid.’
And there’s the story. BASIC RATE WON’T RISE UNDER LABOUR GOVERNMENT. Not too shabby. Admittedly I prefer finding out when a cabinet minister has fiddled his taxes, or a civil servant has been entertained in a lap-dancing club by a private-sector contractor. But this is real news. Probably the splash.
I knock back the rest of the fizz, and my hand’s already halfway in the air to attract the attention of the young waiter whose manner suggests she is doing me a favour by taking an order. But I am also thinking I should get to the office to write this up.
Cannon is folding his copy of the Mail. That story really got to Todd. He’ll want to make a big noise, something that’ll force the Globe and the Mail to re-evaluate their assumption that he’s a socialist wolf in a Hugo Boss suit.
I turn to Cannon. ‘What about the top rate of tax?’
He lifts his hollow eyes. ‘What about the top rate?’
‘What will Todd say about that?’
‘You’re a piece of work. You’ve got a story with the basic rate.’
A Labour party promising that taxes won’t go up for nurses and teachers is important, but neither brave or all that surprising. But a pledge not to go after the incomes of bankers and stockbrokers? That would be sensational. It would be Todd sticking two fingers up to those Labour members and trade unionists for whom it is a moral duty to at least put the rich on warning that Labour is out to get them.
‘In terms of symbolism, tax on higher incomes, that’s more important for Labour. Todd is desperate to have business on side so he’ll promise not to increase the top rate. Now I think of it, it’s obvious.’
Cannon says nothing.
‘You’ve gone quiet,’ I say. ‘Let’s be clear, Tony, if you tell me now that it’s not true, I won’t run it.’
‘I am not saying anything.’
‘So you’re not denying it?’
He stays silent.
‘Look. This conversation is not happening. We both know that. But to repeat, if I write that on Thursday Todd will set out that the party’s manifesto will include promises not to increase either the basic or top rate of taxes, is that my career over?’
I am beginning to get the telltale adrenaline surge from landing a big exclusive.
‘I wish it was. But not this time.’
‘OK. Wow. Thank you.’
‘Do me a favour, Gil.’ He leans forward. ‘No fingerprints. And be a bit vague on the timing.’
‘No problem.’ I have the story. I can be magnanimous.
It is 9 p.m. I need a polite way to end the conversation so I can ring my news editor and see if there is any way to shoehorn the story on to the front page for the second and third editions. I hate sitting on a scoop – there is always a danger that someone else will get the story.
But Cannon is already getting up. ‘I think I’ll make a move,’ he says. ‘Back to the barricades.’ He looks as dejected as ever, despite the booze and drugs, and heads for the exit.
I start composing the story in my head. But it’s interrupted by the habitual nagging voice of self-protection. How do I know I haven’t been played by Cannon? Maybe he always planned to give me the story for reasons I can’t quite fathom. Maybe he wants to damage me by telling me a pack of lies – again for reasons I can’t quite see right now. The problem with being scoop-obsessed is that there are risks – risks of being manipulated, or just getting stuff wrong. I play the percentages. There are no guarantees I’ll be right.
But mostly I am, I remind myself.
I leave the bar to ring Mary Nichols, the FC’s news editor, in the underlit hall by the reception desk. Just then, the Nokia screen lights up, accompanied by the distinctive plinkety-plink ringtone. I register the digits. It is a phone number I know as well as my own, but I haven’t seen for months. I hadn’t expected to see it for a few more.
My thumb hovers over the keypad, moving between the green button and the red. I don’t want to take this call. Even if I wanted to speak to her, I need to phone in the story. I can’t waste time.
But then again, she never rings at this time. Maybe it is something important. Fuck. I’ll give her five minutes. I press the green button.
‘Hello, Mum.’

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