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Ivory Tower: our Whitehall-based sit-com returns, and not a moment too soon

A bench in St James’ Park, a man and woman in their 20s sit two metres apart…

Helen: Are we legal now?

John: Your minister having a judicial review?

Helen: No, this, are we allowed to picnic in the park?

John: Have been since 8 March.

Helen: Where have you been then?

John: Working from home.

Helen: What have you got today?

John: Cuts.

Helen: Global Challenges Research Fund?

John: No, I mean cold cuts in a sandwich. It’s a five-week month, we’re not paid until Wednesday. What have you got?

Helen: It was a salad, but like everything else at the DfE, I think it’s turned.

John: How many days since the last U-turn?

Helen: If you count the testing delay when re-opening schools, 18 days.

John: A departmental record.

Helen: What brings you in then?

John: Cuts.

Helen: I thought we were going to be a science superpower.

John: Me too, I didn’t realise they meant Brezhnev-era Russia.

Helen: What’s going to happen?

John: We’ve all to go over to the Treasury and wait for an hour in a corridor, before someone comes out and tells us there is no money left.

Helen: Do you have to go over to the Treasury for that? Couldn’t they tell you over Zoom that there’s no money.

John: The Treasury prefers Teams.

Helen: Yeah well, I’d sit in a corridor for an hour in that case too.

John: What’s Gavin got you doing?

Helen: Bootcamps.

John: I thought things were different after Dom left.

Helen: No, digital skills bootcamps, as part of build back bitter.

John: Is that the world-class, German-style further education system?

Helen: No, we don’t talk about that anymore.

John: So, what’s this?

Helen: Lost your job in the theatre? Ever thought about being a data processor? Yes, I have thanks, that’s why I went to work in the theatre.

John: Gavin’s next job could be in cyber, he just doesn’t know it.

Helen: And then there’s Turing.

John: I thought that was the British Council.

Helen: Who do you think they phone every five minutes with questions. Do we have a deadline? Do we have an application form? Do we have a judging panel? What are the criteria? When are people going to get paid? On and on it goes.

John: Seems like a good scheme though.

Helen: It’s designed for someone working two shifts at Tesco with caring responsibilities, while trying to do a degree, to go to Australia for a month, half of which they’ll spend in quarantine. There’s as much brains behind it as an episode of Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway.

John: At least it’s British.

Helen: Saturday Night Takeaway? God, I need to get out of the house.

John: No, Turing. We’ve taken back control of student exchanges.

Helen: By not allowing anyone into the country.

John: Quite, it’s what people voted for when they were expressing their legitimate concerns about academic mobility.

Helen: Worst thing is my minister is going to do some Zooms about it and wants me to get her a flag for the background.

John: You can borrow one of mine if you like.

Helen: A flag? They’re impossible to get your hands on in Whitehall at the moment, everyone wants them.

John: Yeah, we’ve got lot’s over in BEIS. We are forever sitting ministers in front of the Union Jack while they tell business people that a 40 per cent drop off in trade with our biggest market is just a blip.

Helen: Where did you get them from?

John: I ordered some online. Just google “Loyalist Regalia”. There’s a place in Glasgow that usually supplies the Orange Order but has a lot of surplus since the marching season was cancelled last year.

Helen: Wow, that’s lateral thinking.

John: Yeah, the company would probably have gone bust since football stadiums and Masonic Halls have been closed for a year. But they’ve pivoted to online sales and now supply most of Whitehall.

Helen: Maybe I could order something from Belfast.

John: Don’t try to order anything from Northern Ireland, have you seen the paperwork?

Helen: Good point. I need a big one, she’s made that clear.

John: I’ve got just the one for you. If you fold it properly you can’t see the writing.

Helen: What writing?

John: It says, “Chelsea FC. Head-Hunters on Tour”. But no one will notice.

Helen: Thanks. What’s happening with Arpa, then?

John: Aria. It’s changed its name.

Helen: The Advanced Research and Innovation Agency?

John: The Advanced Research and Invention Agency. Obviously, Innovate UK has first dibs on the word “innovation” and of course Arpa, sorry Aria, has nothing whatsoever to do with Innovate UK or UKRI or anything that’s ever been thought of before, so we came up with ‘invention”.

Helen: Inventing? That’s what eccentrics do in their shed.

John: There have been many great British inventions.

Helen: Clockwork radios, salad cream, Milton Keynes.

John: The steam engine, the hovercraft, the thermos flask.

Helen: Do we need an £800m government agency to re-invent the wheel?

John: Just think what Charles Mackintosh or James Wyatt could have done if they had been backed by Aria.

Helen: They could have invented raincoats and kettles at the taxpayer’s expense?

John: They could have invented Facebook or Twitter.

Helen: Are they putting something in your tea over at BEIS?

John: You need to get with the programme, time to move on and jump on board the Global Britain bus.

Helen: Is that one of those buses Boris likes to paint out of old wine boxes?

John: If you are going to be like that, I’m not going to lend you, my flag.

Helen: Sorry, please can I borrow your flag?

John: No.

Helen: Pretty Priti Patel please with sugar on top?

John: As long as you promise to bring it back, the minister is doing the round of news studios on Sunday and wants to look like the Duke of Wellington or something.

Helen: Didn’t the actual Duke of Wellington quit the Tory benches in the Lords?

John: Interesting fact, the actual Duke of Wellington—the same one—in 1974 stood as the Tory candidate in Islington North, now Corbyn’s seat. He came second.

Helen: Good knowledge. What are you doing this afternoon?

John: Once we’ve been told by the Treasury that there is no money, we’ll go back to BEIS and try to find £2 billion down the back of the sofa to pay for Horizon Europe.

Helen: Why did they go for that in the end but not Erasmus?

John: Dom was keen.

Helen: But now Dom’s not here.

John: And now the Treasury is less keen.

Helen: So, what are you going to do?

John: Rummage through Greg Clark’s old desk and see if there are any fivers knocking about.

Helen: Seriously though, what are you going to do?

John: Reprofile, Reprioritise, Re-imagine.

Helen: More cuts, then?

John: Yeah, it will need to come out of the science budget.

Helen: Meaning cuts to existing programmes and to researchers’ contracts?

John: Maybe we could send them over to your digital boot camps.

Helen: Only if they have their own Union Jacks.

John: So much for science superpower.

Helen: There have been British superheroes though, haven’t there?

John: Like who?

Helen: Banana Man.

John: Danger Mouse and Penfold.

Helen: They were more kind of secret agents, no?

John: Speaking of Banana Man and/or Penfold, when do you want to pick up Gavin’s flag?

Helen: Email me when you are back from the Treasury, it will be nice to visit the BEIS hive.

John: OK, will do. When do the pubs open?

Helen: 12 April.

John: [sighs] Back to the grindstone.

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