Inside the Minister's Office - Part 2
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
“If she gets booed tomorrow, I’ll personally hunt you down, gut you, and display your innards from the Tower of London,” David was ranting down the phone with his unique Scottish charm, and walked up her desk as he hung up. She felt anxious.
“Hiding somewhere as he rewrites a new section or something.”
“A new section!? On What?”
“David, I dunno, it’s Alex, he’s got impassioned about something.”
“Suppose it's good someone is, but sometimes he gets carried away…”
Sarah did not say what she was thinking, which was wondering how carried away he could get. Instead she said; “Anything I can help with?”
“Yes, actually. Now we’re saying fuck all in this speech, the few things we do say need to be sodding punchy. So where’s that good stat we had towards the beginning on how shite things are in Scotland and how it’s not only better down here for skills but we’re making it better still. It’s always nice to wipe you’re arse with S-N-P failures.”
“Oh,” Sarah said, uneasy. “I was asked to take it out, the –”
“Well put it back in…”
“Analysts said something we couldn’t use it because it wasn’t accurate –”
“Get whoever the fuck it is who on the phone to explain.”
“OK sure,” she said timidly, and she nervously searched through her emails for the message from the right person, and when she found a message from him, scrolled down in a panic for his email signature, all the while David was impatiently fidgeting.
“Hi, Geoff? It’s Sarah, Secretary of State’s speechwriter.”
“Oh yes, hello there. Secretary of State’s speechwriter. Oh yes, we exchanged email about that stat in the speech.”
“Well yes, well the Secretary of State and Special Advisers are very keen that we use it.”
“This is the stat – err that stat about skills outcomes in England and Scotland, err that post-sixteen technical skills outcomes are better for young people from err disadvantaged backgrounds in England than err – than in Scotland, correct?”
“Yes, that one.”
“Oh I’m afraid you cannot use that one. Err I’m afraid once pupils get to sixteen they are no longer eligible for free school meals, and in Scotland they err – they err will measure disadvantage by still allocating the E-M-A, that is the – is the err Education Maintenance Allowance, which has been abolished in England, few years ago I think, so in England we measure disadvantaged by err spatial criteria, for instance the social – socio-economic profile of the area, so one – one err identifies individuals and the other the place, which is of course very different and an unfair – unfair comparison. Also post sixteen education in Scotland, not that I am err very familiar with it, but as I understand they have very – err arguably more challenging technical qualifications that in England therefore –”
David broke and snatched the phone off Sarah.
“Stop trying to fuck around with our speeches, if she wants to say something you either let her fucking say it or you damn well find something even better for her to say, you understand me? Good,” David said, and gave the phone back to Sarah. “One thing sorted.” And he too shot off.
“I’ll use the statistic unless you provide something similar we can use, OK?” she told the man on the phone timidly.
“Yes, yes, err OK, yes,” he replied, squeaking, and it was sorted.
The next few hours passed quietly, yet the shooting pains at the front of Sarah's brain did not stop. She was dealing with comments on the speech from officials to who she had sent a previous version around for comment on, and it was driving her mad.
Can’t say that it sounds crap. Must check that fact. Need to check if we’re still doing that. Build capacity doesn’t mean anything. Holistic invention scheme are not real words. Of that’s just guff. Oh that will do. Got to tweak that. That works. This bit doesn’t sound like her voice. Oh why did they change that, I liked that bit. Why did they sent up a thousand words of shit, these people are paid more than me and they can’t write coherent sentences. Who put that back in there!? No, just, no, no, no.
Sarah had salvaged what she could from the speech before the meeting with the Education Secretary in the afternoon. Sarah was starving, stomach rumbling, still not having had lunch. David and Alex were already in the room when Sarah, Arnab, the comms person and a couple of others were let into the office.
Jay Kumar, the Secretary of State for Education, sat at the head of the table, looking every bit the headmistress of the apparent playground that was the Department for Education; stern, upright, and in charge. A rare woman of colour in a bland, pale, stale and mostly male government.
“So I understand our enlightened friends in Number Ten have clipped my speech,” Jay said with a voice that you would only otherwise hear on BBC News. “I’m sorry Sarah, I thought the draft I read over the weekend was excellent,” she added sweetly. Sarah glowed inside.
“Thank you,” she acknowledged quickly, “I’ve been able to salvage quite a lot of it.”
“Good, that’s great. Now, what am I going to say?”
“We have been working on alternative announcements, Secretary of State,” volunteered Arnab, squeezed one place away from her next to Alex.
“Does it sell my social justice narrative convincingly, make the school and college leaders think I’m on their side, and also really piss Downing Street off by doing exactly what they say in my way?” There was a murmur of laughter.
“We were thinking about an evidence generation programme,” Arnab said, not getting her humour. “We add up all the programmes we’re doing around the Department to generate evidence, which we have worked out comes to eighty nine million pounds over the next three years, and that is not including the innovation fund and catapult for technical education the Prime Minister is going to announce on Sunday. Including that, we could describe our evidence generating activities as well over a hundred million plus of funding to improve our knowledge about what works.” Arnab looked proud, and the officials next to him nodded along approvingly.
“We’re spending a hundred million pounds on evidence generation?” Jay asked, more surprised than pleased.
“The backbenches are going to go nuts,” David added, “they already think you’re a closet lefty, and when they hear that we’re going around throwing cash at academics… all the while the schools in the leafy Surrey suburbs are screaming at us for more money to fund their archery classes or whatever.”
Arnab looked perturbed, “we could always target the leafy suburbs through the pilots,” he proposed. “Part of the everyday families agenda.”
“What!?” Jay and Alex said simultaneously. Alex let Jay go on. “My priority is closing the gap between rich and poor, not widening it for crying out loud,” she looked at Arnab as if he didn’t have a backbone. “I even think the fund might be a good idea. I don’t care about the backbenchers’ prejudices or everyday frigging families. Evidence is the foundation of reason. What I am worried about is that we already know what our problems are – we don’t have enough good teachers where they can make the biggest difference. I want to invest money in that. I don’t want to be accused of moving old money around to create a headline.”
Sarah was moved by her, captivated.
“But it does fit with the strategy you want to set out in the speech…” Alex said, looking pointedly at the Secretary of State.
“Yes,” she said, having been reminded of something, looking down at some scribbles on a piece of paper on her desk. “This fits with what I want the centrepiece of my speech to be – ” Arnab and the others’ faces widened with worry. “I want to announce an entire new approach by the Department, putting our discretional resource where it is most needed, prioritising all our funds, improvement programmes, teaching places in the bottom performing areas and bottom performing people in those areas – so that hundred million pounds of evidence gathering funding, along with the rest of our billions of discretionary spending, will be targeted at those people and places. I am going to announce that by the end of the year I will publish a ‘target one hundred approach’, to turn around the hundred places with the worst hundred outcomes.”
“This is how we really galvanise our resources to close the gap and achieve social justice,” Alex embellished.
“People could get really excited about this,” David said. “I’ll land it with Downing Street and somehow try to smooth Treasury. Alex, you’re happy to go with me this afternoon?” Alex nodded. The reaction felt rehearsed but it was powerful.
“The Department has been discussing this targeting approach for some time. I just don’t think we’re ready to go public with it as we don’t yet have sufficient evidence,” Arnab interjected, flustered. “And I did not realise we were planning to be as specific as a hundred areas. We will not be able to develop the criteria to define them so quickly. And what measures would we use to calculate progress?”
“All things for you as Director of Strategy to work out,” Alex remarked, trying to keep his tongue in his cheek. “As you said, we have been discussing it for a long time but we haven’t moved on.”
“It’s time to stop whistling in the wind and instead make our intentions clear. This is an entire new way of working,” Jay said. “We will give every Director a set of areas they are responsible for sponsoring. And every Director in the Department will have a series of improvement targets for both their target areas and overall in their policy areas. Every team can work out its own way on how to meet them. Once they have found a good approach, they can share it and others can follow them. That’s evidence generation. I’ll have every Director reporting to me with updates… monthly.”
Arnab, making wary eyes to Rebecca, the PPS, in some form of senior civil servant code, said;
“This is a resourcing issue, an operational decision, not policy, we will need to run by the Permanent Secretary.”
“I am not sure we can sanction targets for senior civil servants without consulting the Permanent Secretary,” Rebecca added, seemingly knowing which side of her bread was buttered.
“Then consult him,” Jay said.
“We will speak to the Permanent Secretary as soon as possible,” said Rebecca.
“Sarah, you can get the Secretary of State a draft by six?”
“Yes, yes sure,” Sarah said, a bit startled, having settled into being a voyeur to a somewhat civil civil service battle. “I will just need the language on the target one hundred and the one hundred million fund as soon as possible so I can write it in.”
“One hundred, one hundred, can you do something with that?” Jay surmised, looking at the communications direction.
“Maybe yeah, we just haven’t tested it,” she said airily.
“I’ll make it work,” David said, dismissively.
“When will we run the new draft by Number Ten?” Arnab jumped in, with a hint of desperation.
“James and I will go over with Frank at five thirty,” David said. Frank wasn’t in the room.
“Why would we run it by them again?” Jay asked, “they’ve had their say.”
“It is a new policy, Secretary of State,” Rebecca added. “This could cause problems in the long run.”
“Stuff them,” she said, to Alex’s clear delight.
“They’re going to flip,” David said, offering a dutiful warning.
“Then let them. They put us in this situation,” she said determinedly.
“It does go against their ‘everyday family’ agenda, by targeting the poorest as opposed to middle income families,” Arnab added.
“God forbid…” quipped Jay.
“If you’re intent on pissing them off, you’ll need to get some attention for taking them on or this won’t be worth it,” David said. “And whilst it’s interesting, the hundred – hundred stuff is a page five or six worthy, not page one, and it’s not bulletin news.”
“I’m not doing it for the press, I’m doing it for the policy,” said Jay.
“There will be no policy if you’re not there to deliver it in a few months’ time,” said David. “Let me throw a grenade.”
“In what direction?” she asked.
“I could get a journalist to ask you about ‘everyday families’ in the Q and A after the speech, what it means for the target hundred, and you could say it’s patronising and that it is the responsibility of government to help all families but especially those struggling most…”
“If they ask, I’ll say everyday families live in these hundred places,” Jay said crossly.
“But you’ve said it yourself, it is patronising, middle class kids are not what we’re about,” Alex pushed.
“I’m not attacking the P-M,” Jay asserted. “Those Number Ten advisers can go to hell, but Everyday Families is the P-M’s thing and I’m not attacking the P-M.”
“The Chancellor then?” David asked. Jay signalled a yes with the smallest of nods.
“School funding?” he said, and she nodded again.
“OK, so to round up – ” Rebecca wrapped up the meeting.
“A grenade?” Sarah thankfully asked Alex when he returned to his desk.
“We’re going to attack the chancellor by throwing a negative press line at our own ranks to cause a stir,” he explained.
“But the Chancellor didn’t steal our announcements, the P-M did,” Sarah said.
“When you’re in government, everyone openly hates the Treasury, and everyone secretly hates Downing Street,” he elaborated. “It’s fair game to throw shit at the Chancellor but you only aim at the P-M when you’re up for a serious fight that you think you can win, even if the odds are you’ll still lose.”
“Won’t we lose against the Chancellor too?”
“Yes, but the P-M hates the Chancellor so Jay won’t get fired for it and it will make us feel better – besides, we may even get a few people cheering us for it. Nobody is against calling for more money for schools.”
“While some people are against saying we don’t care about ‘everyday families’?”
“Yeah…” Alex sighed. “Which is why Jay is right. Fucking ‘everyday families’.”
“Before I started working for government, I thought the opposition was the Opposition, not ourselves,” Sarah commented.
“The Opposition… it’s been a long time since I’ve given them any thought and I won’t today,” Alex said, texting as he spoke. “They’re noise, mosquitos. The civil service is the real opposition, and we’ve just declared war on them without cover from the P-M or the Chancellor. It’s like a couple of detectives taking on the Mafia without any back-up”
“So why suggest it?”
“Arnab, the Perm Sec, those other stooges around the table, they’re hardly Don Corleone. And damn if our time here passes and we haven’t committed them to actually doing something to fucking help people.” She really did admire him; I hope it was just that.
Sarah rushed out to grab a sandwich from Pret A Manger, and when she returned Arnab had messaged her to ask me for a copy of the speech. He wants to leak it to Downing Street. Sarah thought. But she couldn’t deny him given his seniority.
“The evidence generation funding lines look good,” Arnab said, coming to her desk with a copy in his hand. “But where’s the new targeting section?”
“Alex’s still working on it,” Sarah said truthfully.
“Could you send me that as soon as you have it?”
“I’ll be working on the language to the wire,” she replied, hoping it gave her an out.
“I’ll need to ensure it fits the style.”
“I want it as soon as you have it,” he demanded before shuffling off.
Saran went to grab a cup of tea, trying to compose herself amid the feeling of the walls closing in on my brain such was the strain. The kitchen was by the Special Advisers’ office.
“What the fuck is this!” she heard David shout at his assistant, standing in the door. “Get comms up here to explain… I don’t care fucking who, get me all of them! … There’s how many of them? … A hundred and sixty three! You must be fucking kidding me. That’s it, I want them all lined up outside. General Crassus killed one in ten of his troops to make a point after he lost a battle to Spartacus. Decimation it was called. That’s what I’m going to do, decimate them. One in ten isn’t even enough. One in three, one in three, that’s what’s needed! Hundred and sixty fucking three people…”
The assistant closed the door behind her and tiptoed to her desk, taking a deep breath before making a call.
“Hi Debbie, David is a little unhappy with the press notice you sent up…”
Sarah thought about how she was in the crossfire for Alex’s battle with Arnab and the strategy team, David’s war against comms, and Rebecca’s battle with time to get the speech off her and give it to the Education Secretary to read that night. She worked on it until six, keeping it contained. And tidied up Alex’s section alongside him without ever really processing what it meant but focused on the voice and the language. With Rebecca asking for it repeatedly, insisting the ‘box’ was about to leave – at 6.07pm Alex finally relented and stopped fussing with a twelve word sentence. Sarah pressed print, rushed over to the printers, paperclipped it together with a pre-prepared cover note and sped back to put the speech at the top of one of the famous red ministerial red boxes, like a small, scarlet Victorian suitcase that held a big pile of papers. Rebecca closed it with a key and passed it to another one of the private secretaries to take it downstairs, which appeared a struggle such was the weight of the box.
Sarah took a crowded and sweaty commute back home, listening to a comedy podcast which seemed to make her hate everyone around her a touch less. Home was two different tube rides away, and abuzz with people, trendy restaurants, grotty takeaways, old fashioned boozers, glamourous pubs, middle eastern and south Asian shops, mainstream shops, and too many homeless beggars that she guiltily ignored. She turned off the busy high street and it suddenly became residential, with these classic semi-detached red-brick houses with bay windows and mock-Tudor cladding and timbers at the top of the house. She stepped into the porch of one, divided in four flats, entered the wide hall with a parquet floor and climbed to the third floor. A small one-bedroom flat in the house’s slanted roof, with little in it but a TV that was missing a stand, a four seater dining table against the wall, covered with books, newspaper and magazines, a sofa covered with clothes, and a small cluttered kitchen; it was not the flat of somebody who was on top of her life.
She read and re-read the speech with two glasses of wine and some trashy TV on in the background, when she got a call;
“Sarah, hello Sarah? It’s Jay…” Shit, what’s wrong? I’ve never got a call from her directly before. “I wanted to talk about the speech, I think it’s terrific, I really do. I’ve made a few changes to the beginning, building on my personal journey. I don’t want to finish on the targeting, I want it to thread through the entire speech. I thought that worked best because the place where I grew up could be one of those hundred areas. My family gave me the support I needed but not everyone gets that. We need to create the conditions for that support. So I thought we should start with that by saying we are targeting our resource, then go into the specific details…” She went on for a while, speaking as if it was the middle of the day.
After Jay hung up, Sarah was up until three in the morning making changes. But as she put head to pillow, she clearly felt it had been worth it, having contributed something that might make a difference to somebody’s life if those words translated into action.