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Ivory Tower: a new sitcom set in Westminster

[A bench in St James’ s Park, a young man and woman in their mid-20s sit down and open their lunch boxes.]

Helen: How’s yours?

John: Ham and cheese.

Helen: No, your new minister.

John: She’s only been in once to pose for a photograph with a red box. How’s yours?

Helen: Oily fish

John: No, the minister.

Helen: I was talking about the minister.

John: Oh.

Helen: We still aren’t sure if she is the minister. No one has told us, and she doesn’t know.

John: We think ours is the minister, at least she’s sitting in the minister’s old office.

Helen: You have to stop calling him the minister. He’s gone now, he’s just another backbencher.

John: Someone should tell him that. He’s all over Twitter posting about research this and innovation that.

Helen: He’s in denial.

John: Apparently, there was one guy over at transport who kept turning up at work for weeks after he had been sacked in a reshuffle.

Helen: Did no one speak to him?

John: The story goes that he had been on a foreign trip during the reshuffle and missed all the newspapers. Number 10 didn’t tell him to his face.

Helen: Obviously.

John: He didn’t know he’d been sacked for a fortnight. When the permanent secretary eventually told him, he refused to believe him. He ended up going to a conference in Bratislava still believing he was minister for bike lanes.

Helen: It affects us all in different ways.

John: I think I’m coming to terms with the universities and science brief being broken up. Maybe, it’s a good thing.

Helen: For you.

John: What does that mean?

Helen: It’s alright for you, science is Cummings’ favourite thing. You’ll be hobnobbing in No. 10, while I’m checking press releases about what Gavin Williamson reckons about free speech.

John: We don’t even have a minister. We’ve got a parliamentary under-secretary of science. We are in the Vauxhall conference of ministers.

Helen: You’ve been sent to Vauxhall?

John: No, it’s a football reference.

Helen: Yuk, really?

John: It’s the league below the lowest league. It’s non-league.

Helen: I don’t think it’s called that anymore.

John: The National League, whatever, it used to be named after its sponsor Vauxhall.

Helen: We don’t have that anymore.

John: The league is still there. It’s just called something else.

Helen: No, Vauxhall, I think they’re moving to Germany.

John: Better not arrange any ministerial trips to Ellesmere Port soon.

Helen: It’s Labour, doesn’t matter.

John: Anyway, it’s much riskier if Dom takes an interest in your department.

Helen: It’s Dom now, is it?

John: You know that he wants to get his hands on the science budget.

Helen: I’ve seen you at the Friday briefing, sitting down the front, wearing a beanie hat, pretending to take notes on your iPhone.

John: It’s a Galaxy notebook.

Helen: You used to say, if the minister says anything worth remembering, you’ll remember it.

John: Dom is different.

Helen: Ooo, must be a man crush.

John: I’ve got to be careful. He might get rid of me if I don’t fit in. Look what happened to Sabinsky.

Helen: Do you have an unhealthy interest in eugenics?

John: No. You know what I mean.

Helen: Sabinsky was one of his chosen few. Maybe you should get into theories of racial intelligence.

John: I can’t do that.

Helen: Why not? Dom might like it.

John: I’m writing the department’s equality and diversity plan.

Helen: Are we still going to have those after Brexit?

John: We are committed to employing staff from under-represented groups and diverse backgrounds.

Helen: Like me.

John: You don’t come from an under-represented background.

Helen: I’m from the North.

John: You went to the University of York and your mother is the head of an academy trust in Chester.

Helen: I know how it feels to be left behind.

John: In the Wirral?

Helen: There are rough bits of the Wirral.

John: Such as?

Helen: Ellesmere port could be losing its car factory.

John: I need to keep onside with Dom, you know that Spads are here today, gone tomorrow. Not all ministers will stand up for their Spads like Javid.

Helen: He stood up for them by resigning.

John: Quite, he refused to get rid of his advisers.

Helen: When he resigned, they sacked all the Spads any way.

John: True.

Helen: Have you seen any of them?

John: I saw Brian outside Embankment tube station.

Helen: Was he getting the district line?

John: He was busking.

Helen: Oh… at least he’d had experience of that at the Treasury.

John: Anyway, I’m not going to get into eugenics. I don’t have time, I’m preparing the business case for associate membership of Horizon Europe.

Helen: I’ve got to do the same for Erasmus+.

John: Got any good lines I could use?

Helen: I’ve got to show how membership of Erasmus will benefit Conservative voters in the north east and midlands.

John: Are they allowed to say that?

Helen: They don’t call it that, they say, “how will it contribute to levelling-up?”

John: And what’s your answer?

Helen: Historically, participation in Erasmus among students in the North East has been the lowest in the country, so we must make sure the door is kept open to improve that situation.

John: Eh? Because no one in the North East goes on Erasmus, we must keep Erasmus open for people in the North East not to go on it?

Helen: Exactly.

John: Did they believe you?

Helen: No, they want to see some numbers. Data, data, data, it’s all about data now. What do I know about data? My degree is in history. I can hardly remember my Netflix password.

John: Where are you going to get the data from?

Helen: I’ll use the figures from Durham University and say it is a pilot sample.

John: That’s not very representative.

Helen: It is of the kinds of people going on Erasmus in the North East.

John: Good luck.

Helen: Erasmus changed my life.

John: What? Four weeks sitting in the main square in Clermont-Ferrand, drinking rosé and taking selfies of you and your friend Susan in berets.

Helen: No, on the plane back I met a girl who told me about exams for the civil service.

John: I don’t think I’ll get away with that for the Horizon business case.

Helen: What are you going to say?

John: The threat of new viruses from China means we must continue to collaborate with laboratories across Europe.

Helen: Corona?

John: Huawei

Helen: Think they’ll go for that?

John: Gavin Williamson would have. The new minister probably will. I think she’d believe me, if I said we had to collaborate with Laboratoire Garnier.

Helen: Maybe you underestimate her.

John: I think the reason she hasn’t been into the office is because she’s at home binging on a Brian Cox boxset and cramming back copies of New Scientist.

Helen: At least she’s making an effort. Mine just asked me how she could download this Office for Students that everyone is talking about.

John: At least she is a minister. You’ve still got a minister for universities.

Helen: She might as well be the minister for Inveraray kirk for all the influence she has.

John: Has she asked yet, why can’t everyone go to Oxford and Cambridge?

Helen: First question.

John: Have you shown her the map of other universities in England yet?

Helen: I put it in her red box on Wednesday.

John: What did she say?

Helen: Is there really such a place as Bishop Grosseteste?

John: Every time.

Helen: Then there’s the Augar review.

John: Are you still doing that?

Helen: She’s quite plummy and calls it the Ogre review as if it’s a report about giants.

John: Do you remember? Two years ago this week, we went up to Derby to launch the prime minister’s “major review” of funding.

Helen: Ironic that your minister is the MP for Derby now.

John: Might as well be the MP for Abu Dhabi, for all the say she’ll have about UK science.

Helen: I think I fancy a change.

John: What? Had enough of the oily fish?

Helen: Maybe, I’ll have a nice salad instead tomorrow.

John: Got to get back to Europe.

Helen: Me too, Erasmus+ won’t apply for itself.

John: I thought we’d got Brexit done.

Helen: Sorry, thought you were being serious for a second.

John: See you at the Friday briefing?

Helen: If you bring your telescope and can see us little people at the back.

John: Get yourself noticed.

Helen: They wouldn’t notice the DfE if I turned up in a Steve Bannon T-Shirt and waving a make universities great again flag.

John: That’s not a bad idea. Can I borrow that?

Terms of reference: this is a free email for fun on a Friday, it should circulate widely like matrimonial advice from a government adviser on reddit. Want to pass on data for the Erasmus+ business case? Want to say hello? Email ivorytower@researchresearch.com