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We went to Westminster to learn how to lie


It's safe to say that Frank Underwood is not a man averse to lying and scheming.

“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties. Never regret" and "For those climbing to the top of the food chain there can be no mercy" are two of his choicest phrases, while his core credo is summed up with the statement: "Democracy is so overrated."

But, while Frank Underwood is a dramatic creation, there's no doubt that he was inspired by the very real experience of his creator, Michael (now Baron) Dobbs, former Chief of Staff for the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. Originally Francis Urquhart, he was the star of Dobbs' 1989 novel, adapted into a four episode BBC series which ran in 1990, before being resurrected by Netflix in 2013 for three highly successful seasons (and counting).

Another man who would know a thing or two about the insider dealings of politics is Denis MacShane, the Minister of State for Europe under Tony Blair's Labour government; but also one of those involved in the MPs' expenses scandal, eventually being sentenced in 2013 to six months' imprisonment for false accounting, after submitting false receipts for £12,900.

Without spoiling too much, there's no doubt that Frank's loose sense of morality has not done him any harm when it's come to propelling himself up the greasy pole of politics, so we journeyed to Westminster to find out from Dobbs and MacShane exactly how to lie and scheme your way to the top.

Frank Underwood

Frank with Russian President Viktor Petrov in House of Cards Season 3

Do you have to screw people over to get to the top?

Dobbs pulled no punches on this aspect. "Do you have to lie and screw other people? The answer to that is actually yes. Politics is not about honesty and openness and truth. It's about getting things done. I always compare it to a game of football: the object of the exercise is to beat the other side, you've got to score more goals than they have... Very often in politics, the choice is not between right and wrong, it's two different types of wrong. Because there's no easy solution, there's no popular solution and you just have to make a choice that is going to, in your judgement, perhaps do less damage. You're not there as a cardinal, you're not there as a priest - you are there to get things done."

Conclusion: Forget honesty, it's a results business

House of Cards Talk

Michael Dobbs and Denis MacShane

Just how ruthless do you have to be?

Dobbs neatly summed this up, remarking that politics is essentially a zero-sum game.

"In politics, it's all about other people, because it's a very competitive business. If you are to succeed, it means that somebody else has to fail - that is the nature of the business. You stand for election and it's entirely consistent with being a good politician and actually being a decent politician that you've got to beat somebody else into the ground."

So far, so Tarantino. And, while it was clear that Gordon Brown was not a much-loved politician, it was generally assumed that he was a reasonably nice guy underneath it all. Not so, according to MacShane. 

"[Brown] was a master schemer... he put his people into every ministry so there was always a Brown guy. For example the first minister of Europe in 1997 - Doug Henderson - he was utterly ill-equipped to be Europe minister, but he was a loyal Brown acolyte. Blair gave Gordon that slot because it wasn't important - he was going to run Europe from No. 10, and as a result, Doug, who would have been a very good minister in trade or maybe defence, after a year was so useless he had to go. So in fact Brown just sacrificed a man who'd been utterly loyal to him for 15 years in order to play games with Blair."

Conclusion: don't be afraid to throw loyal people on the fire to get ahead

Gordon Brown

Brown: A "Master schemer"

How Do You Tell a Bare-Faced Lie?

Both Dobbs and MacShane were very keen to stress that they believed that most politicians believe the lies that they tell: an obvious example of this being the 'lie' of Weapons of Mass Destruction that was a major reason for the West invading Iraq.

As MacShane put it, "Politics has enormous capacity for self-delusion and self-persuasion... I'm sure that Tony Blair never deliberately lied, but by the same token he never listened to the million people out on the streets saying 'don't do this'... he developed four or five different arguments for why they were getting into Iraq, none of which were entirely consistent - I'm sure he believed every one of them."

Meanwhile, he also invoked the example of Churchill during the dark days of World War II, when an isolated Britain looked doomed to defeat.

"Any objective analysis of where Britain was in the summer of 1940 would have been 'make peace, let them walk on for a few years... and we won't have to go out and die". That was the truth, so he invented a lie that Britain could "fight, fight, fight". He had no idea that the Americans were going to come in, he had no idea that Hitler would be so dumb as to invade Russia, but he believed then his own [story] - is there such a thing as a "truthful lie"?" suggests MacShane.

This is all very well, but what about actually having to tell a proper lie, right to someone's face. What's the secret?

But, when pressed on having to tell outright lies to people, Dobbs explained: "When I was chief of staff of the Conservative Party, I was known as Westminster's baby-faced hitman. Why? Because I had to do some dirty jobs. You had to move people around, you had to fire one or two people. And they may be very good friends that you've worked with for very many years. We were making arrangements, we'd make our decisions and trying to be fair... I remember one of them came up to me and said "I hear rumours that you're going to fire me, is it true?" and I couldn't possibly tell him at that stage... because we actually hadn't made up our minds finally, but even if we had, it would have been entirely the wrong thing, it would have been improper to tell him that, at that time. But was it the truth? No, it wasn't entirely the truth. Politics is much like life, sometimes you tell white lies for a greater need."

Conclusion: If you believe what you're doing is for a greater good, lying is clearly not that difficult

Michael Dobbs

Lord Dobbs back in his 'baby-faced assassin' days

How do you get to the very top?

Dobbs, having written four books on Churchill, was absolutely unequivocal about this. The people who get to the top are usually fairly damaged people.

"Great people, great politicans are uncomfortable people. They're not nice people, they're not patient people, they're out changing things, they're obsessive, they are driven and that's the only way you get to become great. Not like being nice like the rest of us. But actually by being hellbent on getting something done and being exceptional. And that makes them very uncomfortable people to be around... looking at the politicians that I know, this private shame, or private flaws - the flaws that Churchill had, his extraordinary relationship with his father... the personality flaws that Margaret Thatcher had - that is a huge part of the explanation as to what makes them obsessive and drives them on to do a job that, frankly, no other sensible person would do."

MacShane then clarifies that, "very few of us would actually enjoy going on holiday with most politicians."

Interestingly, both Dobbs and MacShane were concerned that the current trend of 'one strike and you're out' witch-hunts are not doing the world any good when it comes to 'training up' new leaders.

As Dobbs puts it, "If you expect your great leaders to act like the rest of us, as choirboys - you ain't going to get great leaders. Because what you want are people who have got experience and have perhaps learned from their mistakes."

Conclusion: You need a character flaw, something to prove, and total focus

Churchill Statue

Winston Churchill's statue on Parliament Square

So there you have it. If you want to follow in the footsteps of Frank Underwood, you need to forget honesty, screw over loyal people, have a manic sense of focus and drive, be flawed, and believe your own lies.

They really should start teaching that in schools. Although given the makeup of the current government, perhaps they already do at Eton...

House of Cards Season 3 is out now on Blu-ray & DVD

(Images: Netflix/Rex/Dave Fawbert)



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