• C. Peters

Inside the Minister's Office - Part 3

The Speechwriter, the policy adviser, the SPAD, the Private Secretary, the Director of the Strategy Team, Director of Comms, and the rare good Minister: A Short Story showing how Ministerial office works (and doesn't) in the Rotten Borough

Part 3

Sarah was woken up by Rebecca only a few hours later, who phoned to say she needed to get to Earls Court station by 8am. Barely knowing where she was in her sleepless delirium, she didn’t really wake up until she was picked up on Earls Court Road by a black limousine – a ministerial car.

“Downing Street in their infinite wisdom have accidentally briefed out to the press that we are announcing the technical education innovation fund and catapult today,” said Jay, as Sarah jumped inside the car.

“You mean – ”

“Yes, the exact policies that they had demanded we pull from the speech the day before,” said David. Inside the car was set out like a London taxi with room for four in the back. In front of Sarah were David and another woman with short crew-cut bleach blonde hair and a mean looking face. Sarah sat next to Jay, and together they read the speech off an iPad together and discussed how to fit back the revived announcements and testing different words and phrases. They might have only changed a couple of dozen words through the course of the drive but did so with huge gratification.

The woman with short hair was Frank, as understood from a question Jay asked her. She sat in silence for most of the journey just typing on her phone paying no regard to Sarah at all and only coming alive when Jay asked her something. David took Sarah by surprise by actually being nice to people on the phone, talking through the speech and the big new approach – I assume buttering up journalists. In-between he kept pestering Jay to practice the Q&A set for after the speech, but she batted him off – there was always another word to fix.

Fuelled by nothing more than inspiration and delirium, Sarah was thinking she just made the final touches to something brilliant. Jay was clearly buzzing, bumbling with excitement as she practised delivering a couple of the trickier worded lines. They reached the college Jay was due to give the speech at, when Frank pulled Sarah aside after leaving. She looked menacing, with an ugly ‘don’t piss me off’ grimace.

“This target a hundred thing, whose idea was it – hers or Alex’s?” Frank asked.

“Err, Alex’s mostly,” Sarah said, unsure whether giving Alex credit was the right thing or not, such was her inscrutability.

“I’ve been with Jay for nine years, since she campaigned for her seat before she got elected. Brainiac policy advisers like Alex come and go wherever in Cabinet she is but I’ve been with her since the beginning. I want to make her the next Chancellor. If this mad-cap plan causes our budget to get out of control, Alex is going to be the first against the wall.” It appeared Sarah shouldn’t have given him credit for it. Frank then went over to whisper in Jay’s ear.

Sarah thought the speech was a roaring success, met with huge applause. Jay delivered it well enough and the applause was quite long and almost loud. Alex, who had made his own way to this college in Reading with a few of the officials, looked elated as he gave Sarah a warm single tap pat on the back – as about as affectionate as he got. The room, full of the great and the good of the education sector was abuzz with talk about how the hundred places could be turned around. Jay, with a bit of last minute flair, went off-piste and added in a line where she declared that senior civil servants would sponsor a handful of areas but that we would also recruit so-called ‘champions’ from the wider education sector to do the same – one of the ideas David had flatly dismissed the day before. Jay called on everyone in the room to put their hands up if they were willing to be a champion, suggesting that anyone who wouldn’t should take a long hard think about why they were in the room at all. The improvisation turned out to be inspired. The only slight sour note was a question to her in the Q&A follow-up, which had clearly been encouraged by David;

“The plan seems very light on detail, are you simply throwing money at the problem in a select few places?” asked a feisty journalist. “And what does this mean for the schools all over the country that are facing budget cuts and crying out for more money?”

“We have protected the school budget, and the funding we announced in the last Budget will see no school in the country lose out,” Jay said, ringing off the standard government line. “This is not simply about money, this is not simply about new programmes, or targeting old ones, this is a new way of working to turn around some of the areas with the most entrenched problems … and it starts today,” she declared to a big clap.

“She didn’t throw the grenade,” Sarah whispered to Alex. Then we saw Frank and David exchanging glares, one special adviser wanting the fight, the other not.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t go off in her hand,” remarked Alex.

… Two weeks later the Prime Minister announced a reshuffle. Jay was demoted to Culture Secretary. Frankie went with her as Special Adviser but Number Ten’s Chief of Staff blocked David from joining her and he was sacked. The new Secretary of State for Education announced that the target one hundred programme would be put on hold until he decided his new priorities. Alex was told that his policy adviser role in Ministerial private office was over and was moved back to the disadvantaged funding unit in the basement of the Department for Education. He quietly resigned a few months later and joined a think tank. David joined a lobbying agency. Arnab was promoted to Director General. Rebecca quit government and joined a professional services firm. Frankie stood for Parliament at the next election. Jay lost her seat. The adult retraining scheme was still in development but a “new narrative” had been launched.

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