Ivory Tower: Our Whitehall based sitcom is back on the Zoom for global Britain
Somewhere in cyberspace…
Helen: Thank goodness that’s over.
John: I love Purdah, it’s a chance to get some work done.
Helen: It’s an excuse not to engage with the public.
John: That too.
Helen: It shouldn’t be used by Whitehall departments as an excuse not to answer the phone.
John: The press office loves it. “Sorry, we can’t provide those figures right now, due to Purdah…sorry, we have no comment to make on that, due to Purdah…”
Helen: “Sorry we can’t fix the blocked sink in the Ladies loo, due to Purdah”.
John: Bet you got loads done.
Helen: I’ve colour co-ordinated all the dividers in my ring binders.
John: Told you.
Helen: I suppose I better let them in.
John: Are they all in your waiting room?
Helen: Remember, you are just here as an observer.
Permanent secretary: I’ve been sitting here for five minutes.
Helen: Apologies, permanent secretary, I’ve been having WiFi problems here.
Permanent secretary: Never mind, everyone is here now. Welcome minister.
Williamson: Who is chairing this meeting?
Helen: You are, secretary of state.
Williamson: Am I? I thought the Truss was in charge.
Truss: I am, just that you are chairing.
Permanent secretary: Do you have an agenda minister?
Truss: Of course he does, always has ever since he was in the Whip’s office.
Helen: It’s in your ring binder secretary of state, under the orange divider.
Williamson: Ok, let’s get started. Welcome everyone to this meeting of…er one minute…that’s red…orange? No that’s pink…
Helen: The interdepartmental committee on the international education strategy, secretary of state.
Williamson: I knew that…ICIES
Smith: Stop me and buy one.
Smith: ICIES, stop me and buy one, it’s a good motto for an international education strategy.
Williamson: Is it?
Helen: I believe it was a joke, secretary of state.
Williamson: Who is that?
Helen: It’s the international education champion.
Truss: That. Is. A. Disgrace.
Smith: It was only a joke.
Truss: No orange and pink dividers in a government ring binder. Didn’t you get the memo? They should be red, white and blue.
Helen: Apologies minister, we’ve had requisition problems. Apparently, the Department for International Trade has ordered all those ones.
Williamson: Found it, I’d say that was more ochre than orange, a bit like the flame you get off the Balmoral 3000 or the Waterloo 960, not like those wood burning stoves…er…Shall we get started?
Permanent secretary: Please.
Williamson: OK, quick re-cap on terms of reference.
Helen: It’s under the green divider, secretary of state.
Truss: I think what Gavin means is, what exactly does this committee do?
Williamson: Do I?
Williamson: So, what exactly does this committee do?
Smith: It sets strategy, minister.
Williamson: For what?
Smith: International education exports.
Williamson: I thought this country has had enough of exports.
Williamson: Yes, I’ve spoke to the experts, they say you can’t even get a bag of salad in Northern Ireland.
Truss: This. Is. A. Disgrace.
Williamson: I think it’s something to do with your department, Liz.
Truss: No, these terms of reference are in Helvetica, not Times Roman.
Helen: I think the content might be the more important thing right now.
Williamson: I’m still not sure what this committee does.
Smith: It sets strategy within a broad frame of government policies and priorities, setting the parameters of a mandate for the international education champion to operationalise that strategy as circumstances allow, while monitoring progress against that spectrum of policies and priorities.
John: I think he means, you receive his report.
Williamson: Who are you?
Helen: This is John, from BEIS, he’s here to observe.
Williamson: Why are BEIS here? What do they want? They are after something aren’t they?
Permanent secretary: You are doing it again minister.
Williamson: Did Kwasi send him?
Permanent secretary: We’ve talked about this before, minister.
Williamson: You tell Kwasi, I’ve still got the tape.
Permanent secretary: John is merely here to observe.
Williamson: I’ve got my eye on you, John, if that’s your real name.
Truss: Does this committee really just meet to receive his news?
Helen: No, it does other things as well.
Truss: Such as?
Helen: There’s the annual re-fresh of the strategy. We publish a report each year.
Williamson: And this committee writes that report?
Helen: To be honest, we usually just change the name of the minister in the preface and change the dates on the targets. It’s pretty much the same from one year to the next.
Williamson: See, that’s the sort of efficiency they could learn from over in BEIS.
Permanent secretary: Can we continue, minister?
Truss: Next year I’ll be in Beijing, opening up pork markets.
Truss: So, we could do higher education at the same time.
Williamson: With pigs?
Truss: With the Chinese.
Williamson: I don’t think you are allowed to say that any more Liz.
Permanent secretary: I think the minister means a joint trade mission.
Williamson: You can’t say anything anymore. The other day I said to my kids…
Permanent secretary: Can you focus, minister.
Williamson: Yes, that’s right, my kids are always saying that.
Helen: Perhaps, we could move to the first item on the agenda, alignment of the international education strategy with other government priorities.
Williamson: Quite right, how do educational exports help with the government’s main ambition?
Permanent secretary: Levelling-up?
Williamson: No, war with France.
Permanent secretary: Sorry?
Smith: I think the secretary of state is referring to the metaphorical war with France, in which the British Council competes with the Alliance Française for student enrolments.
Truss: Haven’t you seen the Royal Navy take on those fishing boats?
Smith: Yes, but I thought that was just to fire up the Conservative base on election day.
Williamson: Fire up Calais more like.
Truss: It was agreed in cabinet this morning.
Permanent secretary: War with France?
Truss: The pandemic has been such a hit with voters, we’ve decided to bring back more things we haven’t had for a while. It’s been over two hundred years, we are due one.
Smith: An Anglo-French war?
Williamson: Declaring war on the French isn’t something we could have done while still in the EU. Brexit gives us this unique opportunity…
Helen: I’m not sure that is going to help with international education exports.
Truss: We’ll be bringing cheese to Normandy and master’s programmes to the Sorbonne. A frigate will be moored off the coast of St Malo delivering university prospectuses to the occupied zone.
Permanent secretary: Occupied zone?
Williamson: We need a high profit joint-stock trading company for exports, backed up by good old British sea power.
John: You mean like the East India Company?
Truss: We were thinking more of the Russell Group.
Helen: I think we might have to do a big re-write on the annual report this time.
John: Can I ask what this might mean for research and science?
Williamson: BEIS can get its own war, this one is mine.
Truss: Ours, Gavin.
Williamson: That’s what I said, Liz. They wouldn’t let me have one when I was at the MoD, now’s my chance.
Permanent secretary: Minister, I think I will need to consult with the head of the civil service on this one.
Truss: Simon? Oh, he’s busy conducting three investigations into wallpaper. I suggest this committee meets in the command centre that Dominic Cummings left behind.
John: The staff in BEIS are using that.
Williamson: For the industrial strategy?
John: No, for e-sports, the screens are ideal for Xbox.
Smith: I don’t know if this what I signed up for.
Truss: You’re a champion, you should be good at e-sports.
Smith: I wasn’t thinking of that.
Permanent secretary: I know you were looking forward to the airmiles but it’s the pandemic, we’ve all had to do meetings on Zoom.
Smith: I meant declaring war on others for private gain.
Truss: I thought you used to be a vice-chancellor.
Williamson: Just as the count is being announced for Andy Burnham in Manchester, Allegra Stratton will be briefing the lobby of government plans for a naval blockade on Dieppe.
Smith: That’s mad.
Truss: Good way to stop Burnham’s speech being covered on TV.
John: Can I remind the ministers that it will not be possible to declare war on France at this moment, metaphorical, proxy, or otherwise.
Williamson: Why not?
John: Purdah rules for the civil service extend until all vote counts are completed, that won’t be until Sunday or even Monday in some cases.
Williamson: Is that right?
Helen: Absolutely minister, you can’t get a sink in the Ladies unblocked round here, never mind a naval blockade.
Permanent secretary: Helen, is completely correct, maybe we should seek advice from the Cabinet Office before proceeding any further.
Williamson: Ok, fair enough. Liz, will you try to get hold of Boris?
Truss: He’ll be watching Grand Designs with Carrie Antoinette at this time. I’ll call after 5.00.
Williamson: All right, meeting adjourned. Bye everyone.
[People leave the Zoom meeting]
Smith: Wait, hold on…does anyone want to hear my report?