Ivory Tower: we unlock another episode of our Whitehall based sitcom
A bench in St James’ Park, a man and woman in their 20s sit two metres apart
Helen: Do you regret it?
John: No, I really enjoy working for my minister.
Helen: No, I meant coming into Westminster today? Hardly seems worth the risk.
John: I live in a no-bedroom flat with a professional trombonist as a neighbour. I’m delighted to be back at work.
Helen: Not exactly essential travel though is it, writing a speech for the minister to give over a Zoom call.
John: Your last one didn’t go down well.
Helen: My version was re-written. I did try to explain to her that it was supposed to be a widening participation conference.
John: Universities minister wants less people to go to university, that’s a new twist.
Helen: David Willetts would be spinning in his grave.
John: If he were actually dead.
Helen: Well, obviously.
John: Doesn’t your minister think that it sounds a bit…
John: Well, how can I put this…just a teensy bit, right-wing?
Helen: She is a Tory, from the home counties.
John: It’s a bit nasty party, though, isn’t it.
Helen: I think that’s a very unfair comparison. You’ve lost the argument.
John: I said, “nasty party” not “Nazi party”.
Helen: Sorry, you’re sitting miles away. Every third word gets lost.
John: Just like being on Zoom, then.
Helen: Now, she wants to follow through with her success as a public speaker.
John: What next? Telling the vice-chancellors’ conference that greed is bad? Telling the NUS that pubs will be closed during fresher’s week?
Helen: The secretary of state’s office re-wrote the speech.
John: What did you have originally?
Helen: This government does not place a cap on aspiration and wants a highly skilled graduate workforce ready to face the many unknown challenges of the post-Covid era.
John: And that became?
Helen: Too many people are having fun at university by recklessly indulging in studying things they like. If they want to do that, they can do it at the local FE college.
John: Give her time, she’s a new universities minister. They all start like this and six months later they are granting university status to the local dog’s training programme.
Helen: I can’t even organise campus visits at the moment, to distract her with a few goody bags of university pens and hoodies.
John: What you gonna do?
Helen: Don’t know, maybe I don’t want to get on trains to Westminster anymore.
John: Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?
Helen: Was that you?
John: No, I don’t have access to that account. I’ve got the T-shirt though.
Helen: The Tweet-shirt as we call it. Can you send me a link to where you order them?
John: They’re out of stock at the moment. Apparently, lots of Spads are going to wear their Tweet-shirt underneath when Dom does his super-forecasting away day.
Helen: They’ll all be at home on Zoom, though. It’s hardly Spartacus’ rebellion. Anyway, what’s your minister got you doing?
John: I’m looking at entries to the pampered pets competition.
Helen: Any good ones?
John: There’s one from number 10.
Helen: Of Carrie and Dilyn?
John: Of Dom and Boris.
Helen: How did your R&D roadmap land?
John: One piece in The Times, a few column inches in The Guardian, nothing even in the FT. Seemed to get overlooked after your minister said there were too many poor people getting degrees.
Helen: She didn’t quite say that.
John: She might as well have. Number caps, “the right grades”, “end the system of arbitrary targets”. The only thing she didn’t do was blow an actual dog whistle.
Helen: She said, “social mobility isn’t about getting more people into university”.
John: No, one or two of them can win X-Factor or become footballers.
Helen: Are you pleased with your roadmap?
John: More than four times the investment Boris announced in Dudley, and I can’t even get a mention in the FT.
Helen: Aren’t you excited by a dual carriageway on the A1?
John: By the time it’s finished, Scotland might be allowing people to cross the border without quarantining.
Helen: By the time that one’s finished, you’ll need to show your passport at the Scottish border.
John: You don’t think there would be free movement across the border after independence?
Helen: It would be the border with the EU, so no.
John: I’d forgotten about Brexit, now you’ve depressed me.
Helen: Where’s the can-do spirit of Global Britain?
John: It’s not that, it’s the fact that I’ve got to write all these alternative plans, which might not ever get used.
Helen: A bit like an academic preparing next year’s lectures.
John: Got to do all that, plus set up the roadmap task groups, write the R&D people strategy, put together an innovation advisory group, and all the rest of it.
John: Apparently, Boris got very excited when he was told there would be an Office for Talent based at Number 10.
John: His exact words were, “bingo bongo, but don’t tell Carrie”.
Helen: They do know that you can’t run a nationwide visa service from the cabinet office?
John: I don’t think they do. I think Dom wants to individually approve every application.
Helen: And weed out the weird ones?
John: So he can offer them a job in Downing St.
Helen: You know the old industrial strategy?
John: Which one?
Helen: The Greg Clark one.
John: The beige one? That’s still kind of the new one, but we don’t really talk about it.
Helen: Yeah, the Theresa May one. Isn’t there £4bn of it still unallocated?
John: Yes, think so.
Helen: Well, if you can’t spend the £4bn from three years ago, what makes you think you can spend £22bn in five years?
John: That’s why we have a roadmap.
Helen: So, you can work out priorities?
John: No, so no one will ask that question.
Helen: Now that the travel restrictions are being lifted, will you go and see your mum?
Helen: Why not?
John: She lives in Leicester.
Helen: Ah, sorry.
John: She’s delighted to be lockdown again. She’s more upset that she can’t find Fawlty Towers on Netflix. How about you?
Helen: I don’t have Netflix.
John: I meant seeing your parents.
Helen: We are going to go on holiday together.
John: Where to?
Helen: The Wirral.
John: Don’t they live in the Wirral?
Helen: It’s a staycation.
John: Don’t you want to get away?
Helen: I’ve been applying for jobs.
John: I meant on holiday but go on…
Helen: I’m fed up. I’ve been locked inside a shoe box for three months, writing speeches for a minister who hasn’t stepped inside a university since she was 21, firefighting for a government whose incompetence is only matched by its dishonesty, and I hate, absolutely hate with a passion, MS bloody Teams. I want to run through a field of wheat or drive all night to Durham without stopping to pee.
John: Oh. Sorry, I didn’t know you felt that. Still the pubs are open tomorrow.
Helen: I’d sooner lick the cutlery from a care home canteen.
John: You’re serious then.
Helen: If I have to explain one more time to Gavin Williamson what a conditional unconditional offer is, I’ll scream.
John: You’d think as an ex-fireplace salesman, he would get that.
Helen: So, I applied for a job.
John: Job, singular?
Helen: Yeah, there’s not much out there at the moment, obviously. Unless you want to be a track and trace bounty hunter for Deloitte.
John: What’s the job?
Helen: Communications officer at Public Health England.
John: Does it come with its own poison chalice or do you have to supply that along with your own PPE?
Helen: It’s only a 12-month contract.
John: I’ll be surprised if Public Health England last that long.
Helen: What have you heard?
John: Didn’t you get the memo from Dom? It’s now government protocol that whenever any new policy initiative is submitted to Downing St, a list should be attached of potential fall-guys for when it all goes wrong.
Helen: Yeah, I saw that. We’re calling it Operation Yellow-Belly.
John: I saw the one from Matt Hancock’s office, PHE was top of the list.
Helen: Who was second?
John: Matt Hancock.
Helen: Maybe, I’ll just stay at the DfE.
John: That’s the spirit. You just need a refreshing 14 days quarantining at your parents’ house. Then you’ll be right as rain.
Helen: The rain, that’s also been getting me down.
John: It’s Britain in June, what do you expect?
Helen: It’s July, actually.
John: Man, I really need to get out more.
Helen: Right, back to the office for some tired re-heated vegetables.
John: I thought you’d had lunch.
Helen: I have. What are you doing this afternoon?
John: Explaining to Alok Sharma what quantum computing is.
Helen: I’ll see you next week.
John: It’s going to take a lot longer than that.