Ivory Tower: further exclusive access to the diaries of the education secretary
7am, the phone rings in the hall downstairs. I run through the house in my dressing gown shouting, “Don’t answer it! Don’t answer it!”
“Why not?” asks Mrs Malthouse, who’s in the kitchen making tea.
“It’s them,” I say.
“British Gas?” she asks.
“No, the government press office,” I say, catching my breath.
“But you work for the government,” says Mrs M.
“They’ll want me to go on the Today programme to talk about growth,” I say.
“And?” she says.
“I don’t do growth. I’m in education,” I tell her.
“Have you joined the Anti-Growth Coalition?” she says, smirking. “You do live in a north London townhouse.”
“I’m not going on the radio to defend something that is going to be reversed by lunchtime,” I tell her.
“Isn’t that what you used to do for Boris?” she says. I think she is enjoying this.
“Let Mogg do it,” I say, sipping my tea for comfort.
“You are being silly,” she says, and the phone rings again. I look at it anxiously, but she picks it up.
“Yes, I see…That’s bad news, I’ll let him know. Thanks for calling,” she says, returning the phone to its cradle.
“Well?” I say, looking at the floor.
“The car has failed its MOT. It’s going to cost a fortune,” she replies.
“Oh, that’s wonderful news. Thank you, God!” I say, toasting the almighty with my mug of tea.
Mrs M sighs and goes upstairs.
First day back in the department after the party conference recess. I’m meeting with my ministerial team.
“The important thing is to show competence,” I tell them. They look at me blankly.
“No U-turns,” I say.
“Are you talking about us or the government?” asks Kelly Tolhurst, the schools and childhood minister.
“But we are the government,” says Andrea Jenkyns hopefully.
“Hee-haw!” says Jonathan Gullis.
“Wouldn’t we need to announce some policies before we could U-turn,” says Diana Barran, minister for the school and college system, unhelpfully.
“We’ve got lots of policies,” I reply, rooting around the papers on my desk looking for one.
There is a long pause while I continue searching.
“This is more awkward than a Liz Truss interview,” says Kelly.
“Forgive me,” I say, continuing to look for my briefing notes.
“Have you got Peppa Pig in there?” jokes Diana.
“Oink, oink!” snorts Jonathan.
“I’ll give you a policy,” says Andrea. “Ban Harry Potter degrees.”
“Cancel Harry Potter? Where have I heard that before?” asks Diana.
“What about free speech?” I say, finding my notes. “And what have you got against Harry Potter?”
“It’s anti-British social Marxism,” she says, confidently.
“According to my notes here, left by Michelle, we are pro Harry Potter because a university put a trigger warning on one of the books,” I say, confused.
“Quite right too. No one should be studying for a Harry Potter degree,” says Andrea.
“Are we doing a U-turn?” asks Kelly.
“We don’t have any policies and we are still managing to U-turn?” asks Diana.
A long pause follows.
“I’ve got a question,” says Diana, breaking the silence.
“Thank God,” I say.
“Well, we’ve got a schools and childhood minister, a schools’ standards minister, and a school and college system minister, but no universities minister. To be honest it was more of a statement than a question,” she says.
“Andrea is the universities minister,” I say, checking my notes.
Everyone looks at the floor.
I have a cross departmental meeting with the Home Office. Suella Braverman has a much nicer office than me.
“Glad you could come. Got something to tell you,” she says, briskly.
“No small talk?” I say, hopefully.
“There are too many international students bringing children into the country to prop up low-quality degree courses,” she says.
“Are you sure? Because what I’m told is…” I start.
“Some of them aren’t even children. They are adults disguised as children, working illegally, and plotting extremist attacks,” she says without batting an eyelid.
“I don’t think that’s right…” I say.
“They come in here, on student visas, six at a time sometimes,” she carries on.
“Even the Chinese ones? Because they’ve got a one child policy,” I offer.
“Don’t get me started on China. Apparently, they are installing coded messages in the 5G,” she says.
“No, that’s something else. Look, the truth is only postgraduate students can bring in their families, and most of them are only here for one year. It’s the PhD students who stay longer,” I tell her.
“Yes, there are too many international PhD students with large families swamping our educational system and claiming benefits,” she says, firmly. “Now what was on your list?”
I look at my notes, “Err… I was wondering about how we were going to meet our targets for recruiting the brightest and best doctoral researchers from across the globe,” I say.
She looks at me suspiciously. “Global doctoral researchers are different from international PhD students, right?” she asks.
“Probably,” I say.
“They’re not from China, are they?” she says, alarmed.
“Some are from Hong Kong,” I say, flicking through my notes.
“This is worse than one of Liz’s interviews,” she says.
It’s my weekly one-to-one with Jacob Rees-Mogg over in the business department.
“People keep asking me about Horizon Europe,” I say.
“Ghastly thing, Christopher, do not give it a second thought,” he tells me.
“I’ve got a question, though,” I say. He arches an eyebrow.
“What on Earth is going on?” I say.
“Christopher, Christopher, allow me to explain. His majesty’s government takes the view that association is an accession that was agreed at the point of egress. Concomitantly, accession to association should be guaranteed by our disassociation. However, our exclusion from association is currently the result of a perceived dissociation from our egress agreement. We would very much like to associate in concurrence with our succession from dissociation. However, the terms of our disassociation and egress are being used to frustrate our association. This is a result of confusion over whether association is guaranteed by our terms of disassociation or whether association should only come after all the terms of disassociation have been met by our egress. It couldn’t be clearer,” he says.
“Obviously,” I say, beginning to sweat. “So, why haven’t we… associated?” I say.
“The French do not understand,” he says, sniffily.
“They are not the only ones,” I say, relieved.
“British science is in safe hands,” he says.
“Wasn’t Kwasi Kwarteng the last guy in charge of science?” I ask.
“Furthermore, Christopher, do not concern yourself with all this talk of departmental budget cuts to calm the gnomes of Zurich,” he says.
“Is that Harry Potter?” I ask, confused.
“This government is committed to investing in science and technology—we have a plan B,” he tells me.
“Is that like a U-turn?” I ask, more confused than ever.
He stares at me.
“How are things here anyway?” I ask to fill the silence.
“What would you think if I said, ‘fracking well’?” he asks, then looks out the window.
Working from home—don’t tell Jacob—catching up on my red boxes. I get a message in the cabinet WhatsApp group saying the PM will hold a press conference this afternoon to reassure the markets. I’m wondering whether that is really a good idea when Mrs M comes into the study.
“Have you seen this?” she says, holding up a letter.
“I’ll sort the car at the weekend,” I tell her.
“It’s our mortgage statement. And this one is our gas bill,” she says, sounding alarmed. “That’s before you try to buy a tank of petrol. It’s a disaster. Who’s to blame?”
“Err…the Labour Party?” I try.
“If you don’t sort this out, we will have to downsize,” she says.
“That’s not in the plan for growth,” I think out loud.
“I’ve asked all my clients to start paying me in dollars, what are you going to do?” she asks.
“A U-turn?” I offer.
“You can have last night’s leftovers for lunch. Make it yourself,” she says, storming out.
I switch on the laptop. BBC reporting that Liz has sacked Kwasi Kwarteng.
I wonder where I’ve put Sir Graham Brady’s address.