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My week, by Nadhim Zahawi

Picture by Grace Gay for Research Professional News. Images: IAEA Imagebank [CC BY 2.0]; CAPTAIN ROGER FENTON [CC0], via Flickr

Ivory Tower: exclusive access to the diaries of the education secretary


It’s 5.30am when the phone rings. I’m still in bed.

“There’s going to be a vote of confidence,” says the voice from central office.

“Brilliant,” I say.

“Is it?” they ask.

“I mean ‘brilliant’ not ‘brilliant!” I explain.

“Eh?” says central office.

“What time is it?” I ask.

“We need you to defend the PM,” says the voice.

“Brilliant,” I say.

“Do you mean ‘brilliant!’ or ‘brilliant’?” they say.

“Why me?” I say.

My wife turns over and asks, “Who is it?”

“It’s central office,” I say.

"What’s he done now?" she says, sleepily.

"There’s going to be a vote," I tell her

“Tell them it’s a bank holiday,” she says.

“Is it?” I ask.

“Probably,” she says, and goes back to sleep.

“Because it’s better than Raab,” says central office.

“He’s not going to run, is he?” I ask, confused.

“We need you to say this is all a distraction,” says the voice.

“This is all a distraction,” I say, half-asleep.

“No, on the radio,” they say.

“It’s a bank holiday,” I offer.

“Is it?” says central office.

“Probably,” I say.

“Brilliant,” says the voice on the phone.

“Do you mean, ‘brilliant!’ or ‘brilliant’?” I ask, confusing myself further.

“We are going to send a car,” they say.

“Is this the vote of confidence you had me say last week was definitely not going to happen?” I ask.

“It’s a distraction,” they say.

“It’s 5.30,” I say.

“You are the only one who answered the phone,” says central office.

“Brilliant,” I mutter.


The vote against Boris totals 148 MPs. I am in my office at the DfE with my personal private secretary.

“It could have been worse,” they say.

“Could it?” I reply.

“We could now be in a leadership contest,” they say.

“Aren’t we?” I ask.

The phone rings; it’s central office.

“Don’t answer it!” I plead.

“You are going to have to make up your mind,” my PPS says.

“I’d like to but it’s risky,” I reply.

“Making up your mind?” they say.

“Doing the deed,” I say.

“How bad can it be?” they ask.

“It could all end badly,” I say.

“You can’t hide in here forever,” they say.

“But you don’t know what it’s like, the questions, the scrutiny, your soul laid bare under the intense gaze,” I say.

“If central office wants you to do it, you can’t say no,” says my PPS.

“Do they?” I ask, perking up.

“Go on the Kay Burley show to defend the PM, yes,” they say.

“Oh, I thought you meant…” I trail off.

“What?” they ask.

“Run for leader,” I mumble, looking at my shoes.

“No, that would be ridiculous. Ring them back and tell them you’ll go on Kay Burley,” they say.

“But you don’t know what it’s like, the questions, the scrutiny, your soul laid bare under the intense gaze,” I say.

“It can’t be any worse than Raab,” they say, picking up the phone to ring central office.

“When is the next bank holiday?” I ask.



“This is outrageous,” says the woman from the DfE press team.

“You’ll need to be more specific,” I tell her, looking at the front pages of the newspapers on my desk.

“This,” she says, holding up her phone.

“Contract gone up with inflation?” I ask helpfully.

“Someone on Twitter is claiming that YouGov spiked a poll that was too pro-Labour,” they say.

“You’ll need to be more specific,” I tell her.

“After the 2017 TV debate,” she says.

“Again…there were a few,” I say.

“Debates?” she asks.

“Polls,” I say.

“Look, this could be very damaging,” she says.

“I think I said that at the time,” I say.

“It’s outrageous,” she says.

“The story or the poll?” I ask confused.

“We need to issue a statement,” she says.

“Good idea,” I reply.

“What should it say, minister?” she says.

“I don’t know, it was your idea,” I say, becoming more confused.

“You can’t defend the indefensible, minister,” she says.

“Can’t I?” I ask, beginning to doubt what I’ve been doing all these years.

“What would you like to say in your statement?” asks the press officer.

“It’s was clearly a joke,” I offer.

“Hmm, not sure that will shut this down,” she says.

“It’s a distraction?” I offer.

“Good start, anything else?” she asks.

“It’s a bank holiday?” I try.

She sighs and walks away, muttering “brilliant”.

“Is that “brilliant!” or…never mind,” I say, as she closes the door behind her.



I am in the back of a car heading to a TV studio when Michelle calls on the speakerphone.

“What do you think?” she asks.

I look at my spad, who shrugs.

“It’s a distraction,” I offer.

“Oh,” she says, sounding crestfallen.

“We need to move on from this fluff,” I say, looking at my spad, who seems to be doing Wordle.

“But I thought it was what the PM wanted,” says Michelle.

“Is it?” I say, surprised.

“Definitely, he told me so himself,” she says.

“When?” I ask.

“At a party…err a work event,” she says, correcting herself.

“I didn’t know that,” I say.

“Yes, he’s very keen on the idea. I’d go so far as to say it was his preferred option,” she insists.

“That changes everything,” I say, trying to catch my spad’s eye, who is now on the fifth line of the Wordle grid.

“So it’s not a distraction then?” she asks.

“No, I’ve made up my mind,” I say.

“Brilliant,” says Michelle.

My spad has finished Wordle now and asks, “What’s happening?”

“I am going to run for leader,” I say.

“I am giving a speech at Hepi,” says Michelle at the same time.

“What?!” shouts my spad, looking at me, then looking at the phone.

“Is that what you meant by distraction?” says Michelle.

I look out of the window.

“That’s the worst idea I have ever heard,” says the spad.

“Can’t be worse than Raab,” I say, still staring out of the window.

“No, giving a speech at Hepi—have you seen the guest list?” says my spad.

“But…” says Michelle.

“Brilliant,” I say.

“What if someone asks you a question?” says the spad.

“About the leadership?” I ask.

“At Hepi,” the spad shouts down the phone, “you don’t know what it’s like, the questions, the scrutiny, your soul laid bare under the intense gaze.”

“But the PM…” says Michelle.

“It’s a distraction,” says the spad.

“Maybe I won’t do the press conference afterwards,” says Michelle, but then we enter a tunnel and we lose her.

“And when were you going to run this past me?” says the spad.

“The leadership?” I ask.

They turn away and look out of the window.

“Hepi?” I try again.

They are still looking out of the window.

“Brilliant,” I say.

They snort.



I’m in the study at home when the phone rings. I don’t recognise the number, but it’s not central office, so I answer it.

“Old bean, how are you?” asks the voice.

“Not now,” I say, recognising Jeffrey Archer’s voice.

“Got a moment for an old friend?” he says.

“Have you changed your number again, Jeffrey?” I ask.

“Got to, old boy. Got to keep the phone hackers on their toes,” he says.

“Really?” I say.

“I can get texts and minutes with my Tesco Clubcard. Anyway, that’s not why I rang,” he says.

“Jeffrey, I’m very busy,” I try.

“I was listening to your social mobility tsar and had a revelation,” he says.

“Why don’t you write it down and send it to the department,” I say.

“Like a bolt out of the blue,” he interrupts.

“Really?” I say, looking at the clock.

“Yes, I said to myself ‘this is wrong, quite wrong’,” he continues.

“That working-class students shouldn’t aspire to Oxford and Cambridge?” I ask.

“No, that’s right, of course they shouldn’t—can’t have people from Clackhuddersfax taking up a place on the rowing team,” he says.

I put the phone on the desk and let him speak. I back slowly out of the room.

“No, the thing is, you can’t have a social mobility tsar, can you? How can your social mobility person also be part of an immutable and hereditary system of privilege? Now, a social mobility president, that makes sense. If that’s what you want, I suppose. Personally, I would just encourage young thrusters to join the Conservative Party. A bit like yourself. Are you still there? Are these Tesco Clubcard points still working? Old bean?”

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