Ivory Tower: Exclusive access to the diaries of the education secretary
Reading the weekend papers, I’m worried about what Suella Braverman is up to. I phone the prime minister.
“It’s going to be extremely damaging,” I say. “Tell me about it,” says Rishi.
“The economic results would be severe,” I tell him. “I know, it will be terrible,” he replies.
“I can’t believe she wants to do this,” I say. “That’s ambition for you,” he sighs.
“Ambition to cut international student numbers?” I ask, confused. “I thought you meant to be leader of the Conservative Party. It would hurt my trust fund terribly if I went now,” he says.
“No, she wants to stop internationals bringing their spouse and children into the country,” I explain. “That’s harsh,” he says. “It’s only a green card, not a US passport.”
“Prime minister, I think you might be at risk of being thought of as out of touch with ordinary people, like one of the elite,” I tell him. “Elite, moi?” he says.
“Don’t you read the newspapers?” I ask. “Newspapers?” he asks. “Is that like Twitter?”
“She even wants to change the rules on how much money they earn,” I tell him. “Oh, that’s not going to go down well at home,” he replies.
“But the thing is,” says the PM, “I’ve promised to stop the boats.” “I think they’re coming by plane, prime minister, are you going to stop them, too?” I ask, exasperated. “Will I still be able to fly to Blackpool?” he asks.
“This is a disaster. What are we going to do?” I ask. “I suppose I could go by superyacht,” he replies. I sigh deeply.
Suella releases her plan via a written statement in the House. She doesn’t even turn up in person. Probably doesn’t want to answer questions about her driving course. I get hold of Robert Halfon for a chat.
“She’s going to ruin the universities,” I say. “The uni-what’s?” he asks, looking confused.
“They’re like big schools for young people,” I tell him. He still looks confused. “You are literally the universities minister,” I tell him.
“Degree apprenticeships!” he says, looking pleased with himself. “Is that what you always say whenever someone says the word ‘universities’?” I ask. “Degree app…” he starts, but stops when I give him a look.
“What if they did a degree apprenticeship?” He asks. “Oh, give it a rest,” I say. “No, maybe they could bring their kids and spouses if they did a degree apprenticeship rather than a degree,” he says brightly.
I think about this for a minute, imagining the applause for my speech at the party conference. “But there aren’t enough apprenticeships for British people as it is without incentivising international students to do them,” I say.
He looks a bit crestfallen. “It’s my two favourite words in the world,” he says. “Degree apprenticeships?” I ask. “Leadership contest,” he smiles.
“Do you have any other ideas?” I ask. “Stop the boats?” he says, shrugging his shoulders. I sigh and walk off.
It’s cabinet and Suella has turned up to defend her policy. But first the PM wants an update on the education brief.
“There are too many low-quality courses,” I start. “Oh, I know,” says Suella, “that’s why I didn’t want to go on one.”
“Maybe you should have used Hotcourses,” says Jeremy Hunt. Everyone looks at their papers. “Hot sauces?” says Thérèse Coffey, waking up. Jeremy is about to explain, when Rishi just shakes his head.
“I don’t think we are moving fast enough,” says the PM. “Speak for yourself,” says Suella, “I must have been doing at least ninety.”
“I had to take three points,” says Tom Tugendhat, glumly. “And me,” says Robert Jenrick, who has turned up for some reason. “Why’s he here?” asks Michael Gove.
“You know a migrant could be deported for a speeding offence,” says the new justice secretary, whose name no one can remember. Suella scowls and everyone looks at their papers.
“Look, let’s address the elephant in the room,” I say. “That’s no way to speak about Oliver Dowden,” says Rishi. “No, international students,” I say. “The truth is that one in six international students are taught outside the UK.”
“Surely most international students are taught outside the UK,” says the justice guy, looking confused. “I mean, there must be billions of them,” he continues.
“I knew it! It’s an invasion!” says Suella. “No, just the ones registered at British universities, they are actually taught in campuses abroad,” I explain.
“Camps?” says Suella. “No, facilities in partner countries,” I reply. “Like Rwanda?” she asks.
“That’s probably enough education,” says Rishi, looking at the clock. “Too many people going to university,” says Oliver Dowden. Rishi just shakes his head and we move on.
After days of terrible headlines, I have a chance to catch up with my team. One of the advisers is briefing me on a new Suella story.
“So, before she became an MP, she founded a charity with Cherie Blair,” he says. “I didn’t know she liked dancing,” I reply.
“No, she used to be married to the PM,” he explains. “Suella?” I ask, not really following this story. “No, Cherie Blair,” he says. “Was married to Rishi?” I ask, pretty lost now.
“It was a legal charity,” he says. “Well, an illegal one really would be a scandal,” I say.
He sighs and carries on. “It trained lawyers in Rwanda.” I didn’t see that coming. “And now some of them are in the Rwandan government, which has a £140m deportation deal with the Home Office,” he explains.
“Ouch,” I say. "If the ministerial code were like a driving licence, she’d have been looking for a chauffeur by now." “The best bit,” says the SpAd, “is that the charity spent a fair bit of its money on scholarships to send Rwandan students to UK universities.”
I’m trying to get my head round this when we receive a breaking news alert. Someone has driven into the gates of Downing Street.
“How fast were they going?” I ask. “Not very,” says my SpAd, reading the news. “Can’t be Suella then,” I say.
It’s been a long week and it is now recess. I’m walking through the underground car park at Westminster when I hear a voice.
“Pssst!” it whispers from behind a pillar. I turn round and it’s Suella.
“Home secretary,” I say, slightly alarmed.
“Any chance of a lift?” she asks. “Don’t you have your own car?” I ask, confused. “Can’t afford the insurance premiums any more,” she says, emerging from the dark carrying her red boxes.
“I don’t think I’m going in your direction,” I tell her. “It’s easy, you turn right, right again and keep turning right,” she says. “But I’m going to Chichester, and you are going to Fareham,” I tell her.
“Chichester is to the right of Fareham?” she says. “I wouldn’t have thought so,” I sigh, and open the car doors.