Inside the Minister's Office - Part 1
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
There was an armpit in her face; covered, by stinking damp patch of a thin white shirt, but it did little to avert the disgust. Her arm was outstretched, she was squeezed between sweaty bodies. She was hot, flustered, dehydrated, as well as tired and agitated. There was music coming out of headphones in her ears. “There must be some kind of way outta here, said the joker to the thief, there’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.”
The train stopped. It was rush hour on the London Underground. She arrived at Westminster station. She pushed her way between a gap to escape, demanding somebody who had nowhere to go move out the way, stepped on his toes, and gave a commuter who tried to get on the train before she got off a villainous look of hate – for that moment there was nobody more evil in the world than them. The tension eased with each escalator rise in the massive, hollowed out concrete supervillain’s lair of a station. She entered the overcast but warm surrounds of Parliament square on a summer morning, traffic fumes smothering, but the splendour of the Palace of Westminster, the Abbey, the Treasury, the Supreme Court shimmered, as did a giant overcoated Winston Churchill and Gandhi, Lincoln and the other statesmen that looked up to him. Sarah took no notice of any of it, rather tried to judge crossing the road just before the signal from the green man to get ahead of the crowd and pace towards work.
Sarah walked into an unremarkable looking office called Sanctuary Buildings, home to the Department for Education, the hanging gardens in the central atrium making the inside a little more impressive. She took a lift to the top floor, walked through some double doors saying ‘Office of the Secretary of State for Education’, into a room of twenty or so desks, said “morning” to the handful of people already in, all young, almost all women, and sat next to one with the label stuck on the top of the monitor saying ‘Sarah Hagare – Speechwriter’.
“Ah, Sarah,” said a tiny woman with curly hair, I’d guess in her late thirties, with the softest voice but Sarah turned to attention as if she had huge authority. “Meeting on the speech, half nine, SoS’s office.”
“OK Rebecca, sure,” Sarah said.
SoS’ stood for Secretary of State, and ‘SoS’s office’ meant another office room within this room called ‘Office of the Secretary of State for Education’.
As people started coming into the office and settling at their desks, Sarah made brief morning small talk whilst glancing through her emails, it was very clear that almost everything in government was referred to by acronyms and most of the people were some form of secretary – which themselves were turned into acronyms. Sitting on the bank of desks with her were Private Secretaries, PSs, Senior Private Secretaries, SPSs, and Rebecca was the PPS, the Principal Private Secretary and the top dog in the office. Then all the Ministers were some form of Secretary, but somebody mentioned ‘Perm Sec’ which stood for the Permanent Secretary. They all seemed to talk a lot given secretary is meant to literally mean somebody entrusted to keep a secret.
“Saw Richard in parliament yesterday, literally wanted to hug him, he looked so sad,” said one of the PSs.
“Richard?” asked a very young, well dressed, very well-spoken woman.
“Old SoS.” They were all quite well spoken and well dressed. There was one young man among them now.
“Ah, poor bloke, fired for that knob Director’s screw-up,” said the young man – but again with a posh English accent and a wearing a fairly smart suit.
“Where he’s now?” asked a third PS, another woman.
“The knob Director?”
“Cushy post in D-C-M-S,” said another. “Some cultural brief.”
“What I don’t miss though is the crap you’d find in Richard’s office. The chocolate wrappers, crisp packets, crumbs bloody everywhere,”
“The used tissues – ”
“Ewww, gross,” said more than one of them.
“Whatever we say about Jay, she’s like O-C-D she’s so neat and tidy.”
“Oh I met the husband yesterday,” said another of the PS’s. “Fit – as – fuck.”
There was a collective giggle amongst them, Sarah chuckling to herself too. Another young, well dressed, well-spoken woman came over, black, with a booming voice.
“Minister Pritchard wants to put a giant Saint George’s flag up in the hallway. That was the only read-out on the Shakespeare festival sub. Are we actually fascists now?”
Before there was any reaction to that, Rebecca the PPS stepped out of nearby door and called in Sarah. She hurried over and inside, ignoring the splendid view of Westminster Abbey from the spacious office inside and taking a seat on the side of long boardroom-style table. There were two other people in the room with Rebecca, a middle-aged chubby woman with dyed blonde hair, and a man with a thirty-something old looking body - but the old bags under his eyes and creases across his receding hairline added ten years. From their hellos and chit chat it seemed the man was Alex.
“I just got a call from Lisa over in Number Ten,” Rebecca said, starting the meeting. One clumsy balding man stumbled in late interrupting her, knocking a few chairs and making a clatter as he did so, plonking himself next to Sarah. “As I was saying, I got a call from Lisa at Number Ten, their advisers have looked at the speech and they’ve decided we can’t announce the technical skills academies, the skills of tomorrow innovation fund, or the tech teacher catapult pilot.”
“Those announcements are the speech, they’re why we’re doing the speech,” huffed Alex with a rough Yorkshire accent. “They even marched us up the hill by saying we need to get the bloody policies ready this week because they wanted us to do the damn speech.”
“David is on the phone to their advisers now. I can only guess whatever the PM is doing some media and – ” David burst into the room. Built like a Rugby second row forward such was his height and width, he was hard to miss.
“The P-M’s on fucking Marr on Sunday,” he growled, a light Scottish accent cutting through. “The cancer stuff they were going to do has gone to shit because the Mail did one story that they pulled out of their arse – priority places have been taken up by foreigners, so they’re filling their own fuck-up with our stuff and screwing us up the – ” he looked around the room and spotted the sour faces. “Sorry, excuse me French.”
“Which means the Prime Minister is on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning, and wants to announce the technical education reform package to align with the Sunday papers? So in fact, we are not losing the announcements at all, in fact I believe we have a few more days to polish them. That is good, is it not?” so said the clumsy bald man. Sarah remembered a remark by Alex about him and sniggered to herself; Arnab, the so-called ‘Director of Strategy’ whose only strategy was to desperately come across as wise and erudite when every intervention from him in a meeting shows he’s not.
“But what the hell is she going to say in her speech tomorrow?” David asked.
“She’s going to be in front of the entire schools and colleges head-teachers union, they’ll rip her apart if she has nothing to say and come Sunday they’ll just think she’s a stooge for a P-M they hate,” Alex came in.
“You are being unfair on their disparagement of the Prime Minister,” said Arnab.
“The P-M called their strike over school funding cuts ‘selfish cowardice’… you know, it’s cowardice for not being brave enough to sack fifty-year-old penniless teaching assistants, close the homework club where the kids who don’t have computers or even desks at home go after school, and get rid of the support services for the special education needs kids because they just have it so good,” Alex disparaged. “They’re not going to forgive that easily.
“Took the heat off us though, we looked like heroes in comparison,” David remarked.
“I think we need to get back to the issue of the speech,” said Rebecca. “David, did their advisers say we can have anything from the technical education stuff? Are we even trailing it?”
“They want the skills academies, the fund and the catapult, all we can say is that we’re soon going to unveil a major skills reform package and hint at some of the things – without naming them, or the money,” David said. “They’re particularly hot on us not mentioning the money.”
“The one thing the heads really care about,” Alex complained.
“So what have we got if not that lot?” asked Rebecca.
“There’s the adult retraining commitment,” proposed Arnab, the bald South Asian.
“So we actually have a policy?” asked Alex, testing.
“No, but we are doing internal evidence gathering,” Arnab responded.
“Sexy,” David dismissed.
“The further education innovation programme?” Arnab came back.
“Have Treasury confirmed they’re giving us the funding?” asked Alex, pointedly.
“They haven’t quite committed – ”
“Next,” said David.
“We were considering at one stage that we could suggest announcing a taskforce into exploring the evidence base for how to improve technical skills provision to meet economic needs,” Arnab offered again.
“A taskforce that basically says we don’t know what to do, could you tell us please,” Alex appraised.
“Then we review the review, consult on the review, review the consultation, and delay for an election,” David whined. “Next…”
“A few years ago we had ‘Skills Champions’, we could –”
“Next,” said David.
“We could launch a new narrative,” proposed the dyed-blonde woman, the communications director.
“Launch a new narrative?” Alex asked, wide eyed.
“Yes, announce a new way of working with the further education sector…” she elaborated. David got up, took a deep breath, turned rigidly, and walked out.
“Have we really not got anything we can say on the adult training scheme?” Rebecca asked Arnab, ignoring David’s drama.
“I think the team are thinking of procuring some training providers to target at risk sectors, think they’re recruiting a few hundred advisers to encourage at risk workers to retrain,” he explained.
“That sounds like the Training for Future programme from ten years or so ago back,” remarked Alex. “I remember it was in one of those books about government cock ups?”
“We believe we will learn from those risks – ”
“Risks, what risks?” asked Rebecca.
“It had been better had we given away the billion quid for all the good it did,” said Alex.
“It drew non-positive headlines,” commented Arnab. “Unfair I believe, it was a billion pound investment but the programme was not designed in a way in which outputs could be measured, only inputs were. Therefore it could not be proved either way whether the programme was a beneficial investment of public money. We only designed the programme to distribute funding.”
“Oh, so we did actually just give it away?” Alex said, “didn’t realise.”
“So how are we learning from it?” asked Rebecca.
“We are proceeding in more measured way, commissioning an evaluation programme,” said the official.
“Forget this,” said Alex, impatience frothing. “We might as well announce we’re burning money in a measured way. We have a day to come up with announceable policy in order to fill a major damn speech, and we’re bloody nowhere.”
“I suggest,” said Rebecca, more coolly, “that Arnab – you should perhaps lead a session with your strategy team and lead officials from these areas, to draw out what more we can say tomorrow. And Alex, you polish the content we have with Sarah…”
“Fine,” mumbled Alex.
“The Secretary of State has constituency duties all morning, then a meeting we can’t move, but we will reconvene at two to speak with her then,” proposed Rebecca.
“I’m interviewing,” said the comms person.
“I suggest you get somebody to cover you,” stated Rebecca.
“I – ” said Arnab, until he saw Rebecca’s face, “never mind… But what will we say to the Secretary of State?”
“You have three hours to work that out,” Rebecca said.
Sarah gulped. Without having said a word throughout, or asked to do anything in particular, she had this pressure condense at the front of her mind.
“It’s like Government is frigging designed for such last-minute dysfunction,” Alex moaned as they walked back to their desks. Sarah sat next to him. Above his computer monitor it read ‘Alex Edwards – Policy Adviser to the Secretary of State’. “Officials are purposefully unchanging and unresponsive, so proactivity is a sin. The game seems to be to do as little as needed to not change. If a team did too much it might fail and be repurposed, but too little and it might also meet the same fate, so the Goldilocks position is to do just enough and damn slowly at that. Meanwhile Ministers live for the next headline, their fate riding on doing just enough to seem valuable, but not too much they are deemed a threat or too little they are considered worthless; the Prime Minister’s team in Downing Street judge every policy by the noise it generates, positive when in your favour and sometimes negative does the job too if you upset the right people, no media attention and you’re a nobody. The result is – this shit.”
“What we going to do about it?” Sarah asked.
“The entire design of government?”
“No, the speech,”
“That’s probably not going to fix the entire design of government…” he mused.
“Probably not, no,” Sarah said.
“Maybe it could…” His eyes lit up.
“Alex, we have like four hours,” Sarah said.
“If I re-write a new section, you’ll tidy it up for me?” he said.
“A new section. On what?”
“Fixing government, well, this Department at least.”
“Maybe we should wait and see what the others come up with for the new bits?”
“You kidding – Arnab’s strategy team? All they ever propose is a bloody innovation fund, which actually blocks innovation by funding the same old programmes in the most bureaucratic way possible. No way am I waiting for them. I’ll come up with a new way of targeting our resources on where it’s actually needed – changing the whole way we operate.”
“In four hours?”
“They’ve had the best part of a year to come up with a strategy and nothing’s happened, now it’s my turn,” he said.